Teaching Kids Empathy

baby with boyHave you noticed that there’s no shortage of information out there on bullying and its terrible effects on both the one who is doing the bullying and the victim on the receiving end? It seems that there is no end to stories on this topic, some with harsh headlines telling us of another young person or adult who ended their life rather than continue to suffer the abuse of a bully.

A classroom or a playground can often be a hot spot for bullying. Most schools these days have adopted a zero tolerance policy on bullying but it’s amazing how some kids can operate under the radar of even diligent school staff.

There are many high quality programs that schools can adopt to help combat this awful social and interpersonal problem. Here’s a sample list.

Each of the programs on this list works on teaching children there’s a better way than being a bully, a victim or an onlooker. Kids learn how to make friends, how to be a friend, how to deal with feelings and how to step up and report bullying.

According to the founder of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, Dan Olweus, bullies have  the following common characteristics:

  • They have a strong need to dominate and subdue other students
  • They have a strong need to get their own way
  • They are impulsive and easily angered
  • They are often defiant and aggressive toward adults
  • They show little empathy towards victims
  • They are often physically stronger than their victims

Today I’d like to zero in on “They show little empathy towards victims” and an article I read on a unique way to teach students empathy. The article highlighted a program called Roots of Empathy. This program was established in 1996 by an educator named Mary Gordon. Mary’s premise was that empathy could be taught and strengthened in her students by bringing a baby into the classroom on a regular basis.

Since that first humble beginning, Mary’s premise has been proven correct over and over again. Originally founded in Canada, the Roots of Empathy program has spread across the world and has recently been brought into schools in the United States. Here’s the program in a nutshell.

Parents of babies who are between 2-4 months old at the beginning of the school year agree to bring their baby into a classroom for a monthly visit. Parents can come from all walks of life but they must show an ability for responsible parenting so they can provide a positive model for the students.

Naturally, the parents are an important component of Roots of Empathy, but the babies are the stars. The babies, along with their parents, are set to visit nine times throughout the school year. On visiting day the baby is held up in front of each child to make eye contact, get a squeeze on the toe and say hello and then the students are arranged around a large green blanket. Once they are settled the baby becomes the focus of attention on the blanket.

Baby sessions last from 30-50 minutes with students observing the baby’s reaction to songs, games and activities. This interaction between the baby and the students allows for questions and insightful observations. The students start to learn and care about the baby’s emotions and they in turn transfer that concern into empathy and patience for each other.

Multiple studies have shown that kids who participate in Roots of Empathy often show declines in aggressive, bullying behaviors. At the same time they grow in sharing, cooperation and helpfulness.

One fourth grade participant has summed it up in this quote. “People can learn a lot from Roots of Empathy. You learn how to make people feel good and treat people right.” Any way you look at it, that’s a powerful endorsement for this unusual approach to taming bullying.

You can find out more about the Roots of Empathy organization on their website. I think it’s an amazing concept to have babies as teachers and it’s a concept that appears to be working.

In closing today, I hope you have a great week filled with compassion and empathy for- and from- those around you. Let’s all work to tamp down bullying!


P.S. Here’s the link to the article where I learned about Roots of Empathy.

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