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Watering the roots of empathy

Violence and anti-social behaviour in schools gets frequent attention in the news. Every week, it seems another child's tragic story of abuse at the hands of other children is highlighted in the media. In response, many schools have implemented codes of conduct in an effort to protect victims of bullying in all its forms by creating consequences for the perpetrators of these behaviours.

While there is evidence these types of rules and policies often result in a decrease of incidents, they do not actually address the root of the problem. Though responding to violence is necessary, for a growing number of schools preventing anti-social behaviour by promoting understanding in the first place is also a productive option.

One such program is the Roots of Empathy. Directed at elementary school children, Roots of Empathy (ROE) fosters 'emotional literacy' in students with the aim of reducing conflict and increasing understanding in general.  Interestingly, the main facilitator of the program is an infant.

Indigo, now nine months old, is well known to this class of grade three students at Carleton Village Jr. & Sr. Public School in Toronto. Her parents, Melanie Gordon and Damon Erickson, have been bringing her in once a month since the beginning of the school year. "She has more hair," says one child when Indigo is brought in. "She's bigger," says another. Stephan notices her neck is stronger. "Wow," say the kids.

The class has already been primed for today's lesson "Who Am I?" by ten-year ROE adult facilitator Marion Kitamura. "We do a pre-baby visit, then the family visit with the baby, and a post baby visit all on one theme," she explains. "Today's theme explores how our emotions and responses are the same and that our differences should be celebrated with an empathetic eye."

The kids sit in a circle surrounding a mat with mom, dad, and baby at one end. A blue and a yellow toy are put in front of Indigo. "Which toy will she like?" The kids know yellow is her favorite colour and soon, as predicted, Indigo picks up the yellow fish.

The yellow fish is then placed behind a cloth. Indigo has recently acquired 'peek-a-boo' skills. The kids watch her make the mental calculations, and when she eventually finds the favorite toy, Indigo is quite obviously happy about it. And so are the kids. "Is Indigo proud?" asks Kitamura. The kids think about it. Then the kicker: "When have you felt proud?" This really gets the kids thinking.

This scene is the essence of the program: the physical actions of the baby are used as the jumping off point for a discussion on what the baby is feeling and thinking. And once there, the kids are asked to personally relate to those feelings.

Recognition of emotion, sympathetic emotion, empathic emotion

"Empathy has a cognitive and an emotional component," says Dr. Lisa Bayrami, Roots of Empathy's research consultant, explaining the three-step process to true empathy. "The cognitive is the recognition that another individual is, for example, sad. That doesn't necessarily mean you will feel sad along with them. This is where the emotional component comes in and where sympathy and empathy differ. You might say "I feel bad for them," that's sympathy, but if you feel the sadness along with them that's empathy."

As research consultant, Bayrami helps coordinate the various studies underway validating the ROE program. It's a big job: in 1996, ROE began as small pilot project reaching just 150 children in Canada. More than a decade and half later, ROE is an international program servicing 373,000 children worldwide and creating a flood of consistent and positive data. "For children who participate in the programs, their social and emotional skills, including empathy, improve, their positive behaviours, such as sharing and helping and so on, improve," says Bayrami, adding, "incidents of aggression and other antisocial behaviours decrease."

These effects are seen in boys and girls of all grade levels and also tend to last over time. "There is no ten-year data yet but we've done one longitudinal study in Manitoba. The impact of the program was still evident there three years later."

Research results on the effectiveness of the program have shown consistently positive outcomes over various evaluation years, geographical areas, samples, methodologies including randomized control trials, and data sources. The program has also caught the attention of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama, who believes encouraging the development of empathy is one step towards bringing about world peace.

Practical lessons about the baby

Back in the classroom, it's evident the children are learning more than just how to recognize emotions and relate them back to their own experience. When Indigo's favorite toy is put in sight but out of reach, she begins to contemplate crawling to go get it. "What is she doing?" asks Kitamura. "She's thinking about it," say the kids, some of whom start snapping their fingers. "We teach the kids about how the brain works," says Kitamura. It's a basic lesson, the kids are in grade three after all, but they've been taught about neurons firing and connecting with other neurons. "They are encouraged to snap their fingers when they think Indigo is making or reinforcing synaptic connections."

And, in addition to observing infant development over the course of the year, the children learn the practical nuts and bolts of safely caring for a baby. "One of the themes is around planning by the parents," says Kitamura. "They are asked to bring in everything they need to travel around with the baby. In North America at least, this can be a lot of things. They are then asked to do the math about how much the parents will spend in diapers before the baby grows out of them." In case you are wondering, it's about $3,000.

There is also a safety theme. The children are asked why the baby puts itself in danger and what things need to be done differently when a baby begins to move about on its own and can grab things.

Over the course of a year, every opportunity to get the kids to make the leap from Indigo's physical actions, to her emotional state and temperament, to their own feelings, is seized. Kitamura asks open-ended questions, and because the classroom is nonjudgmental and therefore safe, the kids feel free to express themselves. Children self-identifying as bullies, an extremely powerful emotional experience for everyone in the room, has occurred in previous years. 

As they watch her develop physical and cognitive skills, and get to know her emotionally, the kids come to think of Indigo as 'their baby' and form genuine attachments to her, and by proxy to each other. When it's time for Indigo to go, the kids sing a song of thanks. The class has been fun and they are sorry to see her go.  Some of the kids immediately begin asking when Indigo's next visit will be. 

Roots of Empathy

Jonathan Link

Schonert-Reichl, KA. The school-based promotion of children's social and emotional competence: Delimiting processes and mechanisms. Invited lecture, Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University, New Haven, CT. 2008

Santos RG, Chartier MJ, Whalen, JC, Chateau D, Boyd L. Effectiveness of the Roots of Empathy (ROE) Program in Preventing Aggression and Promoting Prosocial Behavior: Results from a Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial in Manitoba. Poster presented at the Banff Conference on Behavioral Sciences, Banff. March 2008.
Schonert-Reichl, KA,  Vergel de Dios, C. A multi-year evaluation of the "Roots of Empathy" program: Effects on the social-emotional competence of pre- and early adolescents. Report prepared for the Roots of Empathy, Toronto, Canada. 2009