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Ordinary people taking action for extraordinary change.

Want to get rid of classroom bullies? Just add babies.

Why We Wrote This

Mary Gordon believes that kids can learn to appreciate both vulnerability and strength – and embody those qualities in the classroom – as they watch a baby learn and develop over the course of a year.

Courtesy of Will Austin
Mary Gordon founded Roots of Empathy, a program that takes babies into classrooms and encourages the students to better relate to other people’s experiences.

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Social and emotional learning has been gaining ground around the world since the late 1980s, when problems of bullying and teen suicide became more prominent and forced schools to take on a role involving more than traditional academics. One solution is Roots of Empathy, a learning program about empathy that was started in Toronto by social entrepreneur Mary Gordon in 1996; it has since spread around the globe. In a typical Roots of Empathy class, which lasts a year, a baby and parent visit students nine times, and an instructor for the program visits 27 times. By watching the infant’s development over time, children learn to empathize with his or her vulnerability and recognize their own. The goal is to make children and classrooms kinder and gentler, and ultimately society more civil – an especially important aim at a time when divisions between “us” and “them” seem to be hardening. “It looks a bit silly, it looks insignificant, it looks frivolous, it looks cute,” Ms. Gordon says. “There’s no question it’s definitely cute. But it’s absolutely profound, because the children come to understand themselves and, I hope, love themselves.”

Baby Max, who is just 5 months old, is perched awkwardly on his belly. He is trying to prop himself up as he gazes at the group of first- and second-graders in a Toronto classroom. But the lesson is not for him today; it’s for the youngsters gazing intently back at him.

He starts to cry. “How is he feeling right now?” instructor Kathy Kathy, who accompanies Max to this classroom at Market Lane Public School, gently asks the children. “Is he sad?” They nod. “Why do you think he’s sad right now?”

“He wants to go home,” says one girl.

“Because he’s stuck on his belly,” another classmate answers.

The discussion turns to the subject of frustration. “Put your hand up if you sometimes feel frustrated,” Ms. Kathy says, and hands shoot up in acknowledgment.

This is a typical exchange in a Roots of Empathy class, started in Toronto by social entrepreneur Mary Gordon in 1996 and that has since spread around the globe. In each session, taught from kindergarten through middle school, a baby plays the role of “teacher,” showing children firsthand about triumph, failure, persistence, and character.

By watching the infant’s development over the course of a year, children learn to empathize with his or her vulnerability and recognize their own. The goal is to make children and classrooms kinder and gentler, and ultimately society more civil – an especially important aim at a time when divisions between “us” and “them” seem to be hardening.

“Kathy going into the school with a baby – it looks a bit silly, it looks insignificant, it looks frivolous, it looks cute,” Ms. Gordon says. “There’s no question it’s definitely cute. But it’s absolutely profound, because the children come to understand themselves and, I hope, love themselves.”

And she zeros in on why empathy is so crucial: Its absence “is the common thread in aggression, bullying, and violence. It’s lacking completely,” she says.

Cyberbullying and disconnect

Social and emotional learning has been gaining ground around the world since the late 1980s, when problems of bullying and teen suicide became more prominent and forced schools to take on a role involving more than traditional academics. That work has gotten renewed attention as technology has ushered in new forms of bullying and heightened a sense of disconnect from communities.

In Denmark, for example, some schools have mandatory classes in empathy. And in Kentucky, the city of Louisville launched a multimillion-dollar project called the Compassionate Schools Project. 

Here in Canada, Roots of Empathy is now in classrooms across all the provinces. In a typical year, a baby and parent visit children nine times, and an instructor for the program visits 27 times.

Today the theme is “crying,” which is appropriate because Max has been fussier than normal. He just learned how to roll onto his belly and wants to practice it constantly, but he gets stuck – even in the middle of the night. He hasn’t gotten enough sleep lately, his mother explains.

As they observe his crying and think of ways to console him, Kathy explains the lessons gleaned for these mostly 6-year-old students: “They start to feel this power to do something to make someone else feel better. When someone is crying at this age, normally they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re a crybaby.’ Now they want to say, ‘What can I do to help you feel better?’ ”

The lesson applies to middle-schoolers, too, says Market Lane junior high teacher Tom Veenstra. Although Roots of Empathy is not a magic wand for cyberbullying, it gives children tools to reflect. “When there’s a video being passed around and it comes to you, you have the choice: Am I going to keep passing it around or am I not? Am I going to ... do something to try to support the person?” he says.

“I think that the message that we really hammer home, again and again and again, is that every baby has their own unique set of characteristics and temperaments. And it’s not right or wrong; it’s who they are,” he says.

Roots of Empathy has reached nearly 1 million students, the program estimates, from the United States to Switzerland to New Zealand. In 2002 Gordon was named Canada’s first Ashoka fellow, part of a network of social entrepreneurs seeking solutions to the globe’s persistent problems. This year she received Canada’s Governor General’s Innovation Award.

Programs that try to cultivate empathy or mindfulness are not always embraced by schools or parents. Some see them as interfering with traditional academics. But teacher Marisa Diaz, whose class is working with Max this year, says she believes the time is an investment in the rest of the curriculum. “When the emotional intelligence increases, the relationships become more productive or positive. And then it translates into the work,” she says.

Studies back up the importance of social and emotional learning on academics. For example, one 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health, which followed kindergartners for almost two decades, concluded that those with greater social-emotional skills were more likely to experience “future wellness” in schools and jobs.

Less fighting

Roots of Empathy has been evaluated independently around the world. One Canadian study published in 2011 showed it could reduce fighting in school-age children by about 50 percent.

That’s what inspired the program in the first place. Gordon, who in 1981 started Canada’s first school-based Parenting and Family Literacy Centres, was making a home visit to a teenage mother who hadn’t shown up for one of their sessions. The young woman opened her door, a baby girl in her arms and a toddler hanging on to her leg. Gordon recalls that the mother had a gash above her eye, where her husband had beaten her – again. 

“It was sort of a blinding moment,” Gordon says. “In the car on the way home – I had about a 35-minute ride home – I made up Roots of Empathy. It wasn’t out of love. It was out of sheer rage.”

In creating the program, Gordon could draw on her psychology degree, courses that she took in social work, and the four years she worked as a kindergarten teacher. She also notes that her experience growing up in a big family in Newfoundland, with parents who gave of themselves – whether that was spending time with a neighbor over a cup of tea or donating used clothes – taught her and her siblings about the power to make a difference. Three of the five siblings (including Gordon) have been awarded the Order of Canada. 

Gordon says she always knew she wanted to work with children. Her nickname in the family growing up was Little Mother Mary. “I had two little brothers, and it was my joy to play with them and take care of them,” she says. 

Roots of Empathy has been around for more than two decades, but when the BBC did a short segment on the organization early this year, the video went viral. Gordon attributes that to the “crisis of connection” that so many societies around the world face. “We need empathy. Look at the world. We need empathetic leaders,” she says.

But at this moment in the Toronto classroom, her gaze is focused much closer, on Max, who is audibly fussy. “How does it make you feel when you hear that sound?” Kathy asks the children, her voice soothing. She suggests that a song might make him feel better, so they sing him “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”

“I’m tired,” says one boy. “I think Max is tired, too,” Kathy replies.

She asks the children if they have any questions before he goes. One child asks how many teeth he has.

“He doesn’t have any teeth yet, but I think he’s going to get one soon,” his mother answers. The key word in this exchange is “yet.” It teaches children that everyone is on his or her own timetable. They might not know how to read yet, but they will learn. 

“We’re all a work in progress,” Gordon says. “What Kathy is really helping them to develop is the language for their feelings,” she says. “It does change children. It sensitizes everybody, and the ecology of the classroom becomes kinder.”

• For more, visit rootsofempathy.org.

Other groups providing activities to children

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects below are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. 

• Niños de Guatemala gives an education to underprivileged children as well as their families and communities. Take action: Lead an arts or sports workshop for the youths. 

• Avanse aims to advance the lives of street children. Take action: Contribute money to a program in Colombia that provides a refuge for children of sex workers where they can participate in art and educational activities.

• Nepal Orphans Home attends to the welfare of youths in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Take action: Buy novels in English that these children can use in book clubs. 

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