Springtime means revisiting the Roots of Empathy

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Jerry Large wrote a wonderful column in this morning’s Seattle Times about the Roots of Empathy program here in Seattle. I wrote a blog post last May about the program, the wonderful Wendie Bramwell, and the work she does to further the program started by Mary Gordon. I’ve reposted it below as a companion piece to Jerry’s column.

From the mouths of babes

Can you imagine a classroom full of squirmy second grade boys being fascinated by a baby and actually wanting to spend their time with him?

Wendie Bramwell is a good friend of mine and she’s also the key point-person for Roots of Empathy. Thanks to this organization’s efforts, over one thousand grade school boys (and girls) are being taught in Seattle, Highline, Kent and Bellevue every year by…babies.

This award-winning program was started in Canada by Mary Gordon and focuses on a reduction in the levels of aggression and bullying among school children. The Seattle group will soon be celebrating their third year in operation, and it’s a program worth talking about.

Wendie described a Roots of Empathy lesson for me.  She said that a mom or dad and baby (we’ll call him Max) team up with a trained Roots of Empathy instructor.  Roots of Empathy has developed a sophisticated curriculum that engages the class in Max’s development.  The baby is introduced to the class early in the school year, wears a tiny t-shirt that says “Teacher” on it, and once every three weeks the baby comes to class with mom or dad for a Family Visit.  The students see how Max changes from visit to visit.

Between visits, a Roots of Empathy instructor comes to the class room.  The class discusses what they think the baby will be able to do physically, whether it’s roll over, sit up, or even walk.  The students make predictions, and then they get to see what the baby actually CAN do when the baby comes. The class gets invested in Max.

Last year’s “teachers” and their parents at the Roots of Empathy baby celebration. Photo courtesy of Ashley Cooper.

The students see development through the year.  The baby makes eye contact with each student as the parent carries the baby from student to student while they sing the welcome song and again when they sing the goodbye song.  The students are allowed to touch the baby to the extent the parent allows – maybe a foot, hand, or cheek to begin with. 

As the class progresses, Wendie told me the students and Max become more comfortable with each other.  The students see the relationship with the baby and parent, and Wendie says the babies frequently know which student needs to be cuddled that day and reach out to that student.

The students are asked how they would feel if someone teased Max, or threatened him.  The students began to talk about times they’ve seen bullies or been bullies themselves and how they would feel now.  They connect their feelings about their classmates to how they feel about Max.

Wendie reports that the students broke out in cheers when Max rolled over for the first time in the classroom last spring.   Max wasn’t walking before summer break, but he sure was by September.  And Max’s mom asked whether she could bring Max back to see his students, even though his students had gone onto third grade.

The decision was made to bring Max to the playground and his students were notified that he would be there in the afternoon.  When Max came onto the playground, Wendie described that the students dropped what they were doing all over the school yard.  They ran to Max, stopping just a few feet away to appreciate him.  They applauded him, Max grinned back and clapped for them.

Roots of Empathy works to break the intergenerational cycle of violence and poor parenting.  Babies like Max are teaching us how.