Austin Discovery SchoolCedars International AcademyKhabele SchoolRidgetop ElementaryRoots of Empathy

Planting Roots of Empathy in Austin schools

Laura Smith, a postpartum doula with Austin Babymoon, is one of those rare individuals who seem to transform the world in positive ways with their every move. I am thrilled to bring Laura and her latest transformative project to you by way of today’s special guest post.

Roots of Empathy is a social-emotional learning program for elementary-aged schoolchildren that brings together everything most dear to me in the world: babies, children, and compassion and empathy. From the moment I first encountered the program, through an article in the New York Times in late 2010, I knew I wanted to bring it to Austin to share with our community.

At the heart of the program are babies, coming into K–5 classrooms every three weeks all year long as tiny teachers. As a postpartum doula and nanny (and mother) with over a decade of work with dozens of babies, I have long felt reverence for the simple wisdom and presence of babies. Babies’ lack of self-assertion and their guilelessness makes them universally appealing. Almost anyone can smile with a baby.

What Roots of Empathy has discovered since the program’s inception in Toronto in 1996 is that deliberate exposure to these infantile qualities can be profoundly transformative, bringing out the best in us all. The children connect to the baby’s humanity on a deep emotional level. This connection becomes the lever for discovering their own feelings and the feelings of others.

Roots of Empathy takes place in classrooms with students and teachers, a parent & baby duo, and a trained, volunteer Roots of Empathy instructor. Through guided observations of the baby’s development and feelings and of the loving parental relationship, children learn to identify and reflect on their own thoughts and feelings and those of others. The trained Roots of Empathy instructor prepares and reinforces teaching done during family visits using a specialized lesson plan each week.

Much research and independent evaluation back up what I could immediately intuitively understand: that the program significantly reduces bullying and aggression and increases social-emotional competence and prosocial behaviors such as sharing and cooperation. It also reduces bystanderism. When students who have been through the program later witness cruelty and injustice, even if they are not directly involved, they are moved to stand up for their beleaguered peers.

And of course, better academic performance is a natural outcome of children’s lowered stress levels and sense of being more supported and safe in their classrooms.

The program has deeply affected many participants, like a troubled young man who had been in and out of foster care most of his life. He held “his” baby (a beautiful sense of ownership comes for the students as they connect to “their” baby throughout the year) in a Snuggli and took her to a corner of the classroom to spend a few quiet moments with her, while the mom, instructor, and teacher pretended not to look on. Afterwards, he said to the instructor, “Do you think that even if no one has ever loved you in your whole life, it is possible to love?”

The program is widespread in Canada, England, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand and is newly established in Germany, Seattle, San Francisco, and New York. It is so effective that the Scottish government has decided to implement it countrywide.

Roots of Empathy has been recognized by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama; Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, Dr. Dan Siegel, the award-winning psychiatrist, author, and educator; and the World Health Organization, among others. The organization works in partnership with indigenous people and minorities globally. Mary Gordon, the founder, has won numerous awards, and the program has also won an International Changemakers award from the Ashoka organization.

And now, this fall, as a result of more than two years of community development work, Roots of Empathy is coming to Austin!

There is nothing quite like seeing the program in action, so I suggest at this point watching this two-minute introductory video:

Here is a longer, ten-minute video with a lot more classroom footage. (I will admit it now: I can never keep from tearing up when I watch these videos!)

You might also want to listen to this Jian Ghomeshi interview with Mary Gordon that aired on NPR in May.

Interested in being involved? I would love that, and I need your input! Here are a few ways to participate.

  • I am looking for people who are interested in becoming volunteer Roots of Empathy instructors. Instructors deliver all aspects of the Roots of Empathy lessons in the classroom and work closely with the participating volunteer family. The instructors witness and guide the transformative effect of the baby’s presence in the group of children. It is an amazing experience!
  • We will also need volunteer families, once funding is secured. Babies should be between two and four months old at the beginning of the program, so born between early July and late August of this year. It is a transformative experience for participating families. Often, the parents are so moved by the experience that they become volunteer instructors the following year!
  • Perhaps you know of a school that would benefit from this program. This fall, it will be in 15 classrooms across the following four schools: The Khabele School, Austin Discovery School, Cedars International Academy, and Ridgetop Elementary. I have interest from schools in Pflugerville ISD and Eanes ISD as well and am already starting to prepare for the next school year (2014–2015), when it will be in 15 more classrooms.
  • Lastly, and at the moment most importantly, funds. Financial support. We are applying for several grants, but in order to conduct the training in October for this fall, we need immediate funds. Roots of Empathy is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We are looking for private individual donors as well as corporate sponsors.

Thank you for your interest! For more information, check out the Roots of Empathy website. And please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments section below.

Laura Smith

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button