The Tiniest Teacher

February 18th, 2011 by Ethan Watters

Roots of Empathy is a program that hosts infants in grade school classrooms to help children identify and reflect on their own lives and feelings.

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Can infants teach older children empathy? Canadian educator Mary Gordon is certain they can. In 1996 she founded a program called Roots of Empathy that brings an infant into an elementary classroom numerous times over the course of a year to help children identify and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. Since then, Roots of Empathy has been featured in more 12,000 classrooms across Canada, is now catching on in the United States.

Early studies on the program’s technique show compelling results. In a study by Kimberly Schonert-Reichl at the University of British Columbia, nearly 90 percent of children who exhibited “proactive aggression” – bullying behavior – displayed a significant decrease in such behavior after a school year in the Roots of Empathy program. (By comparison, only 9 percent of similar kids in the control group showed such improvement.) The program also helps reduce what is called “relational aggression,” that subtler but more pervasive type of mean behavior that includes gossiping and excluding fellow students from activities or friendship groups. Even the worst bullies in classrooms respond positively, studies find. With more and more schools worried about the consequences of bullying and the decline of empathy, Gordon says, we could all afford to learn something from the youngest members of our society.

What happens in the Roots of Empathy?

The program brings a neighborhood infant into the classroom along with the parent and an instructor who has been trained in the program. For nine visits, we unroll a green blanket and the children sit around this blanket and more or less adopt this little baby. We consider the baby our tiny teacher. The idea is that the children come together to try and understand one vulnerable human being. Everything that happens around that green blanket is leveraged so that children can examine their own lives and understand the experiences of the other.

How can an infant teach this sort of lesson?

Around the green blanket the children are invited, or rather coached, to observe the baby’s cues. One of the things we know is that the capacity to read emotional cues is central to our mental health. The children come to understand that the baby has unique temperamental traits as well as physical traits, and a developmental time all its own. But the baby also acts as a lens through which the children can identify our shared humanity.

So hopefully the children apply that lesson to each other?

Right. Roots of Empathy increases social and emotional competence, which contributes to mental wellbeing in children. And that’s where you help reduce the stigmatization of fat kids, of smart kids, of kids who aren’t smart, of kids who aren’t athletic, all the kids who were bullied for whatever differences they have. The experience helps kids accept and include one another.

What happens if the baby throws a tantrum?

It’s an opportunity. The children talk about, “Well, I think the baby’s frustrated,” or, “I think the baby’s sad,” and then they tell you why they think that might be based on the baby’s expression, body language and vocalization. From this sort of observation we develop an emotional literacy – a vocabulary for their feelings, which the children identify and name. Then we coach reflection: “When was a time that you felt like that?” They share examples of times when they too have felt disappointed or frustrated or lonely. Generally, it gives them a chance to talk about the negative emotion – or the awkward ones like pride.

How did you come to be doing this sort of work?

When I was a kindergarten teacher, I was horrified with the injustice of children arriving in school completely unprepared to trust or build social relationships. I realized that many children were suffering from an absence of empathy. Children had often come from households where the parent-child relationship had been shattered because of poor mental health, poverty, or domestic violence, or because the parents weren’t emotionally present because they were running to three jobs. We all come predisposed to empathy; when things go wrong is when that innate ability is not reinforced. When children don’t experience empathic relationships, they don’t develop the circuitry to become empathic.

You felt that the problems you saw as a kindergarten teacher were occurring across society?

The circumstances – the landscapes – of childhood have changed. We’ve moved into cities, we’ve lost extended families; both parents work. That’s not to say that childcare is a bad thing, absolutely not; many of us have had our kids in childcare. But it’s different now. The experience of being connected to reliable, predictable emotional and social structures is not as available. We have become a more competitive society, a more acquisitive society, a society in which we’re more connected to the screens in our lives than the faces in our lives. So I thought: “Okay, How can I change this trend? How do we develop empathy?” Well, by bringing that attachment relationship into the classroom and allowing children to develop anything they might have missed at home.

Can’t bullying be stopped by teachers monitoring behavior and enforcing rules?

Children don’t learn by being told or scolded. They learn from authentic experiences, not from contrived experiences or lectures or flashcards from adults shouting things at you. I have faith that if we create opportunities for kids to think and feel in a broader, deeper way, they’ll jump at it. And quite honestly, they always do.

So you’ve been encouraged by the results?

The consistent finding is that aggression is reduced. That’s pretty exciting, especially given what is happening in the United States with bullying and suicides and the stigmatizing of gay kids or anyone who’s different. Both indirect and physical aggression has been shown to decrease, especially in children who had a tendency toward that behavior. Studies have also demonstrated an increase in pro-social behavior, like sharing and helping others. Follow-up studies have shown that these improvements appear to stick even three years later.

All this, just from interacting with a baby.

It’s pretty simple: Your empathy increases the more you have the opportunity to understand another human being. And it’s so easy to make an emotional connection with a baby and to really care about it as a group. The trick then is to leverage that connection – to invite children to comment on their own experiences and have a discussion about it. I think of it as taking children on an emotional field trip when we roll out that green blanket.

Ethan Watters is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Magazine, Wired, Discover, and other magazines, and is the author most recently of Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, which was recently published by Free Press.