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Emotional Literacy, the 'Roots of Empathy' Program Teaches Children How to Care

Summary:
A visit of baby Ophelia to the Roots of Empathy classroom demonstrated how a baby teaches children to recognize and name emotions and to respond in positive ways. Children learned about temperamental differences. Students witness the baby’s development and the building of a loving relationship between mother and baby. Mary Gordon founded the program in 1996 to teach emotional literacy and raise the awareness of caring which is essential for people to solve conflicts in family, school, business and international relationships. The Curricula is detailed in a copyright book and is specialized for four levels of student maturity. It involves a Certified Instructor, a parent and baby during one school term. Studies show that Roots of Empathy is effective at teaching emotional literacy and social inclusion and for preventing abuse and bullying among other things.
Japanese

Miss Stacey's third grade class sat in a circle at the Waterfront School in Toronto, Canada awaiting their guest teacher. Ophelia arrived. She was sound asleep, nested in a sling suspended from her mother's shoulder. The wee teacher was nine months old and this was one of her regular visits to the class. She came to teach children how to recognize and express feelings, to recognize different temperaments, to demonstrate stages in her development and to show how she is building a loving relationship with Karin, her mom. Katrina Hughes, Instructor in the Roots of Empathy Program, was on hand to guide discussion.

Ophelia awoke slowly when the children greeted her in song, "Hello baby Ophelia, and how are you?" Her mouth turned down, but after a cuddle from mom she looked around at the children.

"How do you think she feels?" Ms. Hughes asked. One eager student waved his hand to answer, "She's afraid."


Ms. Hughes nodded. "How would you feel if you went to sleep in your crib and woke up in a different place? How many of you would be startled and afraid?"

Each child raised a hand.

"How did Ophelia tell us that she was startled and afraid?"

The eager boy waved his hand again. "Her face tells us. She doesn't look happy."

Other children said, "The way she puts her hands." "Her head is down." "She doesn't move. If she cries she isn't a bad girl."

Ms. Hughes picked up on that comment. "Yes, thank you for reminding us that crying doesn't make her a bad girl. It is one way the baby tells us how she feels. She can't use words like we can, can she? We have to figure out what she wants. If you went to a strange place how many of you would feel shy and afraid?"

Several hands waved.

"How many of you would be curious and eager to try something new?"

Other hands went up.

Ms. Hughes explained that we all have different temperaments. Some of us are shy in new situations and some of us are outgoing. If Ophelia wants time to wake up and recognize some familiar faces, we understand her temperament.

When Karin thought Ophelia was ready, she put Ophelia down on the familiar green blanket. The baby sat quietly while Ms. Hughes arranged colourful balls on the blanket. Would the balls interest her? The children waited for a reaction. Soon she reached for the red ball and put it to her mouth.

 

"Maybe she has a new tooth," one boy said. "My brother is getting a new tooth and he puts things in his mouth."

"Thank you for that observation," Ms. Hughes commented. She explained that Ophelia is old enough to begin getting teeth and it hurts when the tooth comes through the gums.

"Can I play with her?" one child asked. He flicked another ball toward Ophelia. She reached out to get it then dropped it. The game continued. Ophelia smiled reassuring the child that she welcomed his friendly overture.

 

Ms. Hughes asked the children what changes they expected in Ophelia's development since her visit three weeks earlier. The students wanted to know if Ophelia still nursed from her mom's breast, what sounds she made, if she walked. Holding onto Ophelia, Ms. Hughes stood the baby on her feet. Ophelia jiggled herself up and down which made the children laugh. Ms. Hughes pointed out that we were laughing because we were happy for Ophelia, but sometimes laughing at another person makes them feel bad.

The children looked forward to Ms. Hughes' weekly visits to discuss how we express and name our own emotions and recognize them in others, how our temperaments differ from person to person. They refer to Ophelia as "our baby" and cheer her development. Some may come from homes where parental love is missing, but they witness how Ophelia and Karin bond and have a model they can emulate as a parent one day. The usual school curriculum emphasizes scholastic achievement. Little time is left to teach emotional understanding and social relationships. Our emotions are universal. Empathy is essential to solve conflicts in families, schoolyards, the work-place and between countries. As citizens we need to look beyond our differences and recognize our shared humanity. The Roots of Empathy program addresses this need. Like other skills empathy is strengthened through practice. Other teachers at the Waterfront School incorporate the messages of Roots of Empathy in their art, literature, writing, math and music instruction.

 

History of Roots of Empathy*


Mary Gordon, Member of the Order of Canada, Author and Social Entrepreneur founded Roots of Empathy, a program which has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression (including bullying) and violence among children while increasing empathy and building social competence. She describes her motivation for creating this program in the book Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child. Ms. Gordon grew up in a happy family in Newfoundland, Canada. She became a kindergarten teacher and discovered that from the first day she could tell which child would have an easy time, which child would struggle, which child came in weighted with anger. Parents are the most important teachers. She looked at the relationship each child had with his/her parents. In 1981 she founded the first and largest school-based parenting and family literacy program which has attracted worldwide attention.

Ms. Gordon's direction changed when she discovered that one of her students, a teen-age mother with a baby daughter, was repeating the life-cycle of her birth mother. This girl lived with a boy-friend who abused her. Ms. Gordon felt that the baby would grow up, repeat the family pattern and drift into abusive relationships. A program was needed to strengthen every young child's sense of self-worth and help every child form caring relationships. "We are born with the capacity of empathy," Ms. Gordon wrote. Babies haven't learned to cover up their feelings but show them openly for all to see. The baby comes predisposed to love and responds to overtures from those around him. Roots of Empathy begins by observing the uninhibited baby. The more aware the child becomes of his own emotions and their effects on him the more he is capable of recognizing emotional states in people around him and aware of the effects created by different emotions. In 1996, Maytree Foundation funded a pilot Roots of Empathy Program in two kindergarten classrooms.

"Roots of Empathy is a not-for-profit organization, dedicated to building caring peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults."

Roots of Empathy is a registered trademark. (www.rootsofempathy.org; mail@rootsofempathy.org )

Last year there were 173 Roots of Empathy Programs in 128 Toronto schools and 2000 programs across Canada. Roots of Empathy Programs are taught in Australia and New Zealand and are now taught in the United States having started in the fall of 2007.

Definition: Ms. Gordon wrote "Empathy is frequently defined as the ability to identify with the feelings and perspectives of others. I would add and to respond appropriately to the feelings and perspectives of others."

 

The structure of the program


--The Key Point Person in an area is usually provided by the local School Board, Health Unit or a community agency. The Instructor may be a volunteer or receive an honorarium for the year. The Mother and Baby are volunteers.

--The nine Curricula themes are specialized for four levels to suit student maturity: Kindergarten, Primary (grades 1-3), Junior (grades 4-6) and Senior (grades 7-8). The 27 lessons are specified in a 639 page curriculum which is protected by copyright. The Curricula and Instructor Resource Manual is available in English and French. Each session is about 30 minutes long. In Toronto the year's study starts in October and ends in June.

--Certified Instructors follow guidelines for each theme as outlined in the Curriculum. They meet with the class to explore a specific subject three times: before, during and after the baby visit. Theme 8, for example, discusses the question, "Who Am I?"

Students explore their cultural and linguistic heritage and traditions. They learn that people are the same in many ways but in many ways people are different because of different temperaments and family customs and traditions. When the students see the baby introduced to solid food, they realize that the baby has to learn to coordinate breathing and swallowing. Manipulating and exploring their food is how babies learn to feed themselves. The baby isn't untidy on purpose to badger Mom. Eating is going to be messy. If mealtime is happy the baby thrives. Children learn what foods the baby needs in order to grow and get energy, and they discuss what foods their bodies require to mature, be active and stay healthy. Eating disorders start as early as grade four. Too many children think of food as "making you fat." Lifetime attitudes toward food start in infancy. Students discuss their own food preferences and family customs, and they reflect on their wishes for the baby and for themselves. They learn that they can be change-makers.

--Babies are between 2 and 4 months old at the beginning of the term and are about one year old at the close.

--Students learn emotional literacy. They learn to name feelings as the baby's emotional cues are observed and interpreted. They solve problems. For example they find effective ways to comfort a crying baby. Students reflect on their own experiences through art, music, literature and writing as self-expression. All students have their own feelings validated. Students learn to take responsibility for their own actions and inactions and learn social responsibility. They learn important safety issues such as Shaken Baby Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and about the harmful effects of second hand smoke.

Anecdotal Evidence of Success: Anecdotes from Ms. Gordon's book illustrate how children learned empathy and social responsibility. Two stories follow. Darren was still in grade eight but he was two years older than other students. His mother had been murdered in front of him when he was four years old and afterwards he lived in a succession of foster homes. Wanting to look tough, he had a shaved head and tattoo and wore a menacing look. At a particular Roots of Empathy session the mother brought six-months-old Evan in a Snugli (carrier). She explained that Evan liked to face out although she wished that he would like to face her and snuggle close. After class she asked if anyone wanted to put on the Snugli and Darren said he would like to try it on. She strapped the carrier in place. Darren then asked if he could carry the baby. The mother must have felt apprehensive but she put Evan in the Snugli facing Darren. Sensitive Evan snuggled close to Darren who took the baby into the corner and rocked him back and forth. When Darren brought the baby back he asked, "If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?" Through the uncritical affection of the baby, a seed had been planted in this boy who had little memory of being loved. (Gordon, pg. 5, 6)

Sylvie was nine years old and wore running shoes with Velcro straps. The children taunted her for having "baby shoes" that were cheap and out of fashion. This humiliation would break the sprit of most children. June, her friend, understood. She swapped one of her shoes for Sylvie's. "I'm your friend and I'm proud to wear your shoe," she said. The class understood what had happened. (Gordon, pg. 29, 30)

 

Data from research


--"A deliberate and comprehensive approach to teaching children social and emotional skills can: Raise their grades and test scores, Bolster their enthusiasm for learning, Reduce behaviour problems and Enhance the brain's cognitive functions." (Liff, 2003).

--Bullying and aggression experienced by school children are problematic and they are significant predictors of adult criminal and anti-social behaviours. (Huesmann et al., 1984)

--Schools are responsible for protecting students from bullying and aggression. (Durlak & Wells, 1997).

--The University of British Columbia, Canada has conducted five studies about the Roots of Empathy program, the first in 2000. Results from all studies show a significant decrease in aggression and bullying and an increase in pro-social behaviours among children who participated in the Roots of Empathy program compared to children who did not. (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2001)

--Studies at the Telethon Institute, West Perth, Western Australia, found that in Australia and New Zealand there was an increase in pro-social behaviour and decreases in aggressive behaviour in Roots of Empathy children. (Kendall et al., 2005)

--The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Canada undertook to evaluate the Roots of Empathy program. Based on child development research and the personal and professional experience of leading educators and health practitioners the study concluded that it is an effective program for developing social and emotional learning. (Rolheiser and Wallace, 2005)

 

* "Roots of Empathy" has just won an award from Changemakers, an agency hosted by Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

 

 

References


Durlak, J.A., & Wells, A.M. (1997). Primary prevention mental healthy programs for children and adolescents: A meta-analytic review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 25, 115-152.
Gordon, Mary. (2005). Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers.
Huesmann, L.R., Eron, L.D., Lefkowitrz, M.M., & Walder, L.O. (1984). Stability of aggression over time and generations. Developmental Psychology, 20, 1120-1134.
Kendall, G., Schonert-Reichl, K., Smith, V., Jacoby, P., Austin, R., Stanley, F., and Hertzman, C. (2005). The Evaluation of 'Roots of Empathy' in Western Australian Schools. Not available online. Contact Telethon Institute for Child Health at publications@ichr.uwa.edu.au .
Liff, S.B. (2003). Social and emotional applications for developmental education.
Journal of Developmental Education. 26, 28-34.
Rolheiser, C., and Wallace, D. (2005). The Roots of Empathy Program as a Strategy for Increasing Social and Emotional Learning. Program Evaluation ? Final Report. Not available online. Contact The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, 252 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Ontario M5S 1V6 Canada.
Schonert-Reichl, K., Smith, V., Gordon, M., Jenson, A., Novak, H. (October 2001) (U.B.C.) Untitled Roots of Empathy valuation. http://educ.ubc.ca/research/ksr/ret.htm

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