Emotional development in schools is integral to the way that students develop academically, and it also sets them up to be responsible, caring citizens once they reach adulthood. Not only that, but having the ability to empathize with others has been shown to reduce aggression in problem children and reduce incidences of bullying in school.
It’s a notion that educator and author Mary Gordon is intimately familiar with. As the founder and executive director of Roots of Empathy, she’s devoted the past two decades to teaching children empathy — specifically by exposing them to babies.
And she’s been wildly successful.
Since its founding in Canada in 1996, the nonprofit has expanded to serve K-8 students in 11 countries, including the U.S., where it’s been established in five states and the District of Columbia. On its surface, the program is simple: It comprises 27 lessons, based around the monthly visits of a volunteer parent, his or her infant, and a Roots of Empathy-trained instructor. With the babies as their “teachers,” the children observe how the parent and the baby interact, and how Mom or Dad responds to the baby’s emotions and needs.
Students learn to identify with the baby’s perspective and how to recognize and label the tiny tot’s feelings. They then become increasingly able to apply that learning to themselves, leading to a better understanding of their own feelings as well as the feelings of their peers.
“What we do know and what the teachers know is that the children really do learn to understand the alphabet of their emotions. And even better, they are able to talk about how they feel,” Gordon tells NationSwell.
And that can translate into a 50 percent reduction in the number of children who pick fights in the classroom.
Other research has confirmed those findings. A study in Northern Ireland showed that kids in a Roots of Empathy program saw improved social behaviors, such as positive communication with other students, and a reduction in “difficult” behavior. Likewise, in a 2005 study by the University of Missouri, researchers found a link between Roots of Empathy’s program and “particularly strong evidence for its potential to reduce aggression and violence.”
The point of the program isn’t to single out specific problem kids prone to bullying, but instead approach the classroom as a whole.
“It’s not medicine; it’s vitamins, and we all need vitamins,” Gordon says. “If you offer a universal program, you head off a lot of trouble, and it’s a benefit that we head off aggression and bullying.”
In their work, the Harvard researchers Jennifer Kahn and Richard Weissbourd have similarly found that the best way to reduce bullying is not by attempting to correct the behavior of one individual, but rather to foster an inclusive, caring school environment. Blogging for HuffPost, Kahn and Weissbourd wrote of their research that “in schools where students reported having more empathy, students also reported fewer experiences of bullying and were more likely to try to stop bullying. Students who reported more empathy also reported fewer experiences of discrimination, threats to physical safety, teasing, and bullying at school.”
Despite the promising research, the U.S. has been slow to implement empathy-based programming and instead leans on punishing alleged bullies — as was the case in Florida earlier this year when two 12-year-old middle school students were charged with cyberstalking after the suicide of one of their classmates.
Gordon says that’s the wrong approach, and the solution lies in building strong connections between students and their peers.
While Roots of Empathy continues to rapidly expand — its program has been implemented in countries as diverse as New Zealand, Germany and Costa Rica — growing it in the U.S. has been more difficult, where a premium is put on standardized tests and grades.
“Here’s the biggest issue in the U.S., is people say to me, ‘I don’t want the program unless it can raise academic scores this year.’ And they say, ‘I’m sorry, it sounds wonderful, but I’ve got to deliver,’” Gordon says. “Obviously we want all children to get an education and a job, but at what cost?”
Seattle was the first U.S. city to adopt the Roots of Empathy model during the 2007-08 school year; today, more than 15,000 children there have gone through the program. Though specific research has yet to measure the efficacy of Seattle’s program, educators have said it’s made a dramatic difference.
“Roots of Empathy provides a unique way to bring out compassion and tenderness in students,” one teacher wrote to Seattle’s Child in 2015. “For kids, Roots of Empathy is a respite from the day-to-day realities of school, and helps them deal with the difficulties and challenges in their home lives, as well. The visits are a breath of fresh air, giving kids a break from the work of academic learning and interactions with peers.”
Melissa Soltani, program manager for Roots of Empathy in Seattle, says that she knew the program was effective after a student confided in her that he had been harboring suicidal thoughts.
“He said he was trying to strangle himself with his belt in the bathroom,” Soltani says. “It was at that moment when I realized that we were creating space to be comfortable and share that with someone.”
And that’s exactly what Gordon is working to implement in more cities and states, if not the entire world.
“This is our solution to building a caring, peaceful and civil society: through children,” she says.