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Kids learn to be empathetic from a baby

By Ken Johnston

What can people learn from babies? How about a way to better understand others in a way that helps prevent bullying!
Nikki Blakeney of the Best Start Hub in Rainy River has been coordinating the Roots of Empathy program at Riverview School over the past few months. This is the third time it has been run at the school, and Blakeney’s second time as coordinator.
She is not the teacher as she puts it, “Baby Paisley is the teacher!” She is Alana and Scott Asselin’s daughter. She began teaching the Senior Kindergarten/Gr. 1 class at Riverview School in November 2010.
The program teaches the students about feelings, their own feelings and the feelings of others. “We teach the kids there is no exclusion. The baby loves you for who you are no matter where you come from, what you look like or what you wear.”
The coordinator visits the classroom every week for 27 weeks. Once every three weeks the baby and mom visit the classroom for a family visit. Blakeney then leads the class in noticing how the baby is growing and changing over the course of his first year of life. On Paisley’s latest visit last Thursday, she had grown from 53 cm to 68 cm in length!
There are nine themes taught over the course of the program. They include Meeting the Baby, Crying, Caring and Planning for the Baby, Emotions, Sleep, Safety, Communicating, Who Am I and Goodbye Good Wishes.
When the baby visits, the class gathers in a circle and then Paisley begins teaching. Blakeney said they talk about how Paisley would feel in different situations such as when his mom leaves him in a room alone.
Blakeney said that they talk a lot about how Paisley would feel in different situations, even when she is not there. “She is still teaching them even when not visiting.”
By superimposing Paisley’s feelings onto their own, the kids learn to understand emotions of their own and of others. Research on Roots of Empathy has shown kids taking the program are “kinder to their friends, are less aggressive and bully other children less than those who do not participate in the program.” In a 2004-2007 follow-up study, the Government of Manitoba not only found a reduction in aggression and other improvements to behaviours in Roots of Empathy children immediately after the program, but also that improvements were maintained three years later.
Since the Roots of Empathy program started in 1996 about 363,000 kids have taken it. Founder Mary Gordon wrote a book called, “Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child.”
The mission statement of the Roots of Empathy program is, “To build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.”