A group of people and a baby image

Roots of empathy

When children become the teachers

By Heidi Tattrie Rushton

The kids in Jennifer Brace’s Grade Six class are gathered in a circle, quietly watching the day’s guest teacher, Tessa Woodbury, who is lying on the floor mats in the middle of the group. They wait with bated breath as she attempts once, then twice, and finally the third time she successfully rolls from her back onto her stomach. The children let out their collective breath with a soft cheer of excitement and Tessa beams proudly back at them.

Tessa is seven months old and the daughter of Allison Woodbury in Bedford, N.S. They’re part of the Roots of Empathy program, visiting Waverley Memorial Elementary School every few weeks to help teach the children about emotional literacy, human development, caring, and inclusion. In this program, the baby is the teacher.

Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy in Ontario in 1996. It is now offered in every province of Canada as well as 13 other countries, including South Korea, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. It’s a leading empathy-based program for children and has expanded to include a program for early childhood settings, called Seeds of Empathy.

The Roots of Empathy program relies on a team of three core people or groups: a certified instructor who delivers the program curriculum and builds relationships between all of the team members, a Roots of Empathy family that has a baby who is two to four months old at the start of the program, and the schools and teachers that agree to offer the program and support peace-building efforts during classroom time.

There is a series of 27 lessons that a certified instructor guides the children through before and after each visit. Janice Howlett-Mackay has been an instructor with the Roots of Empathy program for 13 years and is vice-principal at Waverley Memorial Elementary School.

The program gives the students a platform to talk about emotions and different temperaments, helping them to be more compassionate with each other.

“Originally it was designed to reduce aggression in children and to teach them empathy, because not everyone is born with empathy,” Howlett-Mackay explains. “We want to help the class try to understand each other’s feelings and learn how to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. It forces the students to look at themselves, as well as what their needs are, versus what their wants are.”

Throughout the years Howlett-Mackay has been privy to some special moments in the program and has worked with classes ranging from Grade 2 up to the current Grade 6 group.

“With one Grade 4 class, we were there when the baby took her first steps and everybody cried,” she recalls. “I also remember one year having a little girl who was autistic. At first, she didn’t want to have anything to do with the baby but, by the end of it, you couldn’t keep her away from the baby. Students who are shy or not comfortable around babies will be asking to hold her by the end. They get quite attached to the baby.”

Sarah Leger is one of the Grade 6 students in the program. She says that watching and interacting with Tessa has taught her about managing big emotions.

“I’ve learned that when Tessa gets sad or angry when she’s in the class she has to leave for a few minutes, and that can go for anyone,” she says. “If you get upset, it’s okay to take a break.”

Classmate Darcy Montgomery agrees. “Baby Tessa has taught me a bunch of different things about life, like how to soften my approach with people,” she says.

Geneva Hudgins, another classmate, says it’s been interesting to watch her develop and grow each visit. “I like to see how she reacts to everything, because every time it’s different,” says Geneva. “Sometimes she could really like a toy, and the next time not like it as much. She’s always changing.”

This is Brace’s first year running the program with her class. As soon as she heard about it, she was sold on the concept for the very experiences her students cite as learning moments.

“It’s a great way to bring the outside world into the classroom, to bring in life skills for the kids,” she says. “As they start to get older it’s important to help them continue to develop their empathetic and sympathetic skills. The goal here is to encourage the kids to be respectful, to take care of the little ones with the hope that they can carry on with those skills as they get older.”

With an undergrad degree in child and youth studies, Brace has a particular interest in teaching her class about the human development angle through the program. When Tessa rolled over for the group it was exciting for the children to see her hit that milestone moment; also opened up a natural opportunity to discuss how people grow and develop.

“They seem to be surprised with how fast she’s developmentally growing,” she says. “I like seeing those moments in the kids, those a-ha moments.”

Woodbury, Tessa’s mother, says she first found out about the program from her brother who was doing his Bachelor of Education program last year and heard they were looking for volunteers. She was pregnant with her third child, who was due in July, and thought it might be a good opportunity to connect with her community and play a role in helping children develop empathy.

“I like the whole philosophy of the program, teaching kids in the classroom about empathy through a baby,” she says.

Tessa enjoys the visits too. “She really does light up when she looks at their faces, she loves smiling at them,” Woodbury says. “And the kids are so adorable, and they’ve all been very respectful. They just seem to soften when Tessa comes in. It’s really sweet.”

During her most recent visit with the class, she was touched when the children shared special books that they had written for Tessa’s first Christmas. Woodbury says it was one of the highlights of the program so far. Knowing that the children took the time to think about what would make Tessa happy and how she may be feeling during her first big holiday celebration showed her that they are thinking about what is important to others, which is the foundation of empathy.

Woodbury says enrolling in the program was easy. She filled out a form online while she was expecting, and the organization matched her with a qualified school near her home. “If somebody’s thinking about doing it, they should,” she says. “It’s great. It’s not a huge commitment, it’s an hour once a month,” she says. “It is a way to give back, but it’s also fun for us.”

To learn more about the program or how to become a Roots of Empathy Family please go online to rootsofempathy.org.

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