Roots of Empathy
Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Indigenous communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, the Republic of Ireland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, Germany, Switzerland and Costa Rica.
At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This “emotional literacy” taught in the program lays the foundation for safer and more caring classrooms, where children are the “Changers”. They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties. In the Roots of Empathy program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. The Instructor also visits before and after each family visit to prepare and reinforce teachings using a specialized lesson plan for each visit. Research results from national and international evaluations of Roots of Empathy indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behaviour.
The cognitive aspect of empathy is perspective taking and the affective aspect is emotion. Roots of Empathy educates both the mind and the heart.
Empathy is a key ingredient to responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. Information on infant safety and development helps children to be more aware of issues of infant vulnerability such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Shaken Baby Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and second hand smoke. Observations of a loving parent-child relationship give children a model of responsible parenting.
The Roots of Empathy Curriculum
The curriculum is comprehensive and attuned to the development and interests of the children. The 639-page curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three classroom visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit and post-family visit) for a total of 27 visits. Each of the nine themes is further broken down into four age ranges:
Primary (Grades 1-3)
Junior (Grades 4-6)
Senior (Grades 7-8)
The Roots of Empathy curriculum addresses the affective side of education, but the activities have many links to the classroom curriculum. For example, students use math skills when they calculate and chart the baby’s weight and measurements. Literature is used as a way to open the door to feelings and perspective taking. The discussion and reflection that follows builds solidarity and empathy. Art plays a large role as children paint their inner feelings which they cannot say with words. Music stirs powerful feelings. It speaks to everyone regardless of language or culture and builds solidarity.
Roots of Empathy Instructor
A Roots of Empathy Instructor delivers all aspects of the Roots of Empathy curriculum in the classroom and builds respectful relationships with the participating family, classroom teacher and students. Often, Instructors come from teaching, early childhood education, social work, guidance counselling, health or recreation backgrounds.
We look for people who are professional in the classroom, respectful, non-judgmental, and who honour the family. You must be able to commit to 27 classroom visits over the school year, including preparing for each class and communicating with the Roots of Empathy family. We provide intensive initial training, on-going professional development and mentor support.
Roots of Empathy Family
A Roots of Empathy Family must have a baby who will be two to four months old at the beginning of the program. Families commit to visiting the classroom once every three weeks during the program year. They should be reliable, so they don’t let the children down.
We seek families who live in the community, so that they reflect the cultural, racial and linguistic tone of the neighbourhood. This helps create a bond between the children in the classroom and the Roots of Empathy Family, which is reinforced when the children see the parent(s) and baby in the street and rush over to ask how ‘their baby’ is doing.
It’s important that the adult in the Roots of Empathy Family be a parent. Mothers and/or fathers are equally welcome to participate, since we focus on the secure attachment relationship of the baby to the parent. Around the green blanket the children are able to watch a loving relationship between the parent and the baby, where the parent is attuned to the baby’s feelings, needs and intentions. Other adults (caregivers, grandparents, elders etc.) may not substitute for the parent but are welcome to observe a Family Visit.