Why Roots of Empathy in our schools might just save the day

I first came across Roots of Empathy when I was living in Canada. It was minus 20 degrees and I was rushing back home to the warm having just walked my youngest child to school. Outside the gate was a woman, wrapped up to keep warm, handing out flyers. I reached out my gloved hand to be polite and hurried on by.

We had just moved to Toronto from the UK for three years, and weren’t sure what on earth we had let ourselves in for. Our children were 9 and 12, and had been devastated by the news, and the prospect of leaving friends and family. The city had just experienced the worst ice storm in it’s history and the streets were empty. We didn’t have a car and so had to get everywhere by foot or public transport. Shopping for groceries was a daily task – sometimes two or three times a day. Running out of loo roll during a blizzard meant the novelty was beginning to wear thin.

When I got home I glanced at the flyer – it was a candidate’s campaign page asking for votes in the Parent Governor elections. “Wow” I thought, “that’s dedication”. It was very different to the three lines of reasons to vote for a parent circulated on an A4 sheet I had become used to in the UK; which everyone ignored and just voted for the person they knew anyway. I also noted that the Governors represented a cluster of schools – which helped make sense of the very evident culture that all the state run schools were equally good in quality, or certainly assumed to be. The Realtor assigned to helping us find a home had looked at me as though I was talking a foreign language when I asked how we chose a house in the best area for schools. “All the schools are the same, you just look up which one is yours when you find a house to rent”. It really was that straightforward.

Top of the list of credentials listed on the flyer were “Roots of Empathy Instructor”. I had no idea what it meant but it piqued my interest and I popped it on my desk, mentally adding finding out to my to do list. I made a coffee, sat back down at my desk and realised it was the only thing on my list for that day having walked the dog already. A month in and all the admin jobs were sorted, the kids were in school and time was at my disposal. We had come for my husband’s work, and my visa meant I couldn’t get a job in health or education so, as a psychologist, that ruled out most things. In reality I was desperately lonely, and worried that we might have made a terrible mistake.

I googled “Roots of Empathy” and bang, it was like meeting up with an old friend. The website is self explanatory and jam packed with information and links. The programme is a school based intervention for children aimed at improving pro-social skills and reducing bullying. It’s mission is to change the world child by child. It achieves this by bringing a parent and baby into the classroom over the course of a school year, and helping the children understand their own emotions by learning about the emotional world of the baby. The classroom sessions are facilitated by Roots of Empathy voluntary instructors trained in the approach. The teacher supports the session, and there are many aspects of the programme that connect with the curriculum (numeracy, literacy, social and emotional learning etc.),  but the instructor takes the lead. On the website there are links to film clips that explain the ethos, and how the sessions work in practice, alongside the research and evidence base. It has been adopted world wide, and when I clicked on the UK I even recognised some colleagues in Action for Children who were endeavouring to bring it into Wales. I was hooked.

I made contact immediately and enquired about becoming a volunteer. I sent off my application along with two referees which was followed up with a telephone interview. My Doctorate and years of experience in Clinical Psychology were irrelevant. The interviewer was much more interested in how I viewed children and what they needed to feel nurtured and supported. I passed this process and once my police checks had been completed I was accepted onto the programme. The first step was a three day training course at the Roots of Empathy Headquarters.

On the first day I met up with my fellow volunteers. There were about 15 of us and we came from a variety of backgrounds. Some were retired teachers, others were parents whose babies had been the Roots of Empathy baby for the programme previously, and others, like me, had just heard about the programme and liked what it was trying to achieve. Some were teaching assistants, sent by their schools to ensure that the programme could be delivered on a regular basis rather than relying on volunteers. The expectation was that they would not be delivering it in their own classroom.

The training days were fantastic – packed full of information about the curriculum (adapted according to age); the research and the theoretical underpinnings of the programme. The connection with neuro-science was made, and how babies brains develop and the importance of social interaction in this process. The topics were pitched perfectly – everyone remained fully engaged regardless of their background or prior experience. As a psychologist I never once felt patronised and nodded along with delight as it all fitted perfectly with my training and years of clinical practice. There were role plays and sample sessions where parents and babies visited to demonstrate how it works in practice. Potentially tricky scenarios, including safeguarding issues, were given time and space and discussed in full.

We were also provided with our materials – a gleaming white bag filled with toys, and the all important green blanket, around which all sessions take place. We were given our set of story books, as literature features heavily in the programme, and two t-shirts for our baby – one for 0-6 months and one for 6-12 months as they grew throughout the year. It had the Roots of Empathy logo on it, along with ‘Tiny Teacher’ to demonstrate very clearly who was really leading the learning.

We were treated extremely well over the course of the three days – fed delicious meals and given ample times for breaks and getting to know each other. Mary Gordon, the founder of Roots of Empathy, made time in her busy schedule to drop by and thank us from the bottom of her heart. She had just returned from Peru and was about to be broadcast live on the radio in America talking about the programme. She told us that we were at the centre of the programme’s success and without us it would be nothing. We felt valued and respected and a bit in awe.

And that was that – I was ready to deliver Roots of Empathy. I would be provided with a mentor to talk through any concerns and to meet with on a regular basis. They would also observe a session at some point, but other than that it was over to me. I was allocated a local school within walking distance, and set up a meeting with the Head Teacher, the first step in the process. Fortunately I was knocking at an open door as the school had delivered the programme for the last ten years and were well versed in the benefits. In fact they had had to draw a lottery as all the teachers wanted it in their classroom. They had also found a mum with a baby at the right age to start the programme (2 to 4 months). She was the parent of other children at the school and so the links with the community were perfect. It could not have been easier.

I arranged to meet my baby and parent (a mum, although she hoped dad could be included at some point). With two other children she was very experienced and also really liked what she had heard about Roots of Empathy. I had some questions about the family and the baby, in particular his temperament and routines, and how she felt about certain aspects of the curriculum. She was incredibly laid back and typical worries like germs and the children touching the baby were not an issue for her. She was also very comfortable breastfeeding and changing the baby in the classroom if need be, and happy for the children to ask her any questions they wanted. I needed to know about the baby’s favourite songs and comforter as this would be part of the early sessions.

Next I arranged a meeting with my teacher. She was new to the profession (just a year qualified) and also new to Roots of Empathy but very keen on what she had heard. The children were aged between 9 and 10. We made some provisional plans about lesson times and days of the week and how we would communicate with one another and made a date to get started. The curriculum is all laid out with clear lesson plans that take you through each session. There are 27 in total over the course of a year, and nine themes are covered with a pre-family visit, family visit and post family visit for each theme. That means that the baby visits the classroom on 9 occasions, with three to four weeks in between. This provides a real opportunity for the children to see changes in the baby, and to understand their development over time.

In addition to clear points for each lesson, there are key activities and themes to include in each session. These include the hello and goodbye song, additional songs for the baby visits, observations about temperament, and observations about emotions, and connections between sensory stimulation and brain development. Questions like ‘how do you think the baby is feeling now?’ and ‘how can you tell?’ and ‘how does it make you feel when the baby, for example, cries or smiles?’ are integral to every session. The intention is to help the children guess how the baby might be feeling based on how they look and behave. There are also alot of predictions about how the baby might find something based on what we know about their temperament and our observations so far. That everyone is different, has different needs and responds in different ways is central to the programme. Equally that we are all fundamentally the same and share basic emotions and needs is also important. Culture, identity and belonging is a key theme. The combination of these two potentially conflicting messages is beautifully achieved.

The programme does not shy away from complex and difficult issues; and the importance of caring for a baby is covered in depth. The dangers of alcohol, smoking, and risks in the home are addressed, as is shaken baby syndrome. The need to always being kind and gentle; and managing your own stress when faced with a baby who is crying and you don’t know why is given a lot of time and attention. Problem solving is central and, for example, the children come up with all sorts of reasons why their baby might cry and lots of ideas the parent can try to sort it out. They share this at the next session, and because they really care about their baby and what happens to him or her, the learning is embedded. Crying as a way of communicating a need is central.

The children also make gifts for the baby– including a recording of his or her favourite songs sung by them, a book of nursery rhymes they have created and a photo album of the family visits. The love and care they put into this as a result of the relationship they have developed with the baby and parent is delightful to observe.

Interestingly, one aspect of the programme I initially felt a little uncomfortable with on the training days is that the instructors are not supposed to praise the children individually in any way; but rather reflect their contributions back to them or simply thank them. I tend to be very animated and dramatic around children with lots of ‘wows’ and ‘amazings’ and so I found this very difficult. I talked to my own children about it (they were my Roots of Empathy guinea pigs and so knew everything about the programme) and at first they found it a little strange. I explained that it is because the programme doesn’t want to create a sense of right or wrong answers; and wants everyone to feel included. If I say ‘wow well done’ to one child, and another child was thinking something different then they might feel discouraged from answering next time. They actually really liked this rationale and agreed that in a classroom there are often quieter children who may have been put off speaking up. I was allowed to be very animated in respect of the whole class, and how proud I was about the respect they showed to the baby and mum, for example.

In reality my lack of animation and delight did not impact on my popularity in the class room at all. The children loved the sessions and were very excited to see me arrive and set up. Some clocked on to the order of sessions immediately and knew if it was a pre, post or family session. Others did not and were always disappointed when the baby didn’t arrive. As predicted in the training the children who were least interested in the programme when it first started were most engaged as the sessions progressed. “The baby always seems to connect with the most vulnerable child in the classroom” our trainer had observed. True enough that unconditional smile that babies radiate worked wonders with the children who had at first appeared distracted or disengaged. The baby made them feel welcome, equal and worthy.

The final family session is a celebration party for the baby. The children take time to plan it, organising food and gifts and a special card from them all. They were so excited to work as a team to prepare a nice event and ‘thank you’ for the parent and baby. All the photographs of the visits so far, which, up until this point had been displayed prominently on a notice board in the classroom, were put in an album for the family to keep. It was a lovely way to end the programme which had followed the life of the baby over the school year. The children had genuinely fallen in love with ‘their baby’ and were very sad that the sessions had come to an end. Fortunately they would continue to see him in the school yard as he had siblings in the school – which makes a local connection so much richer (although not essential) for the programme.

At the end of the school year Roots of Empathy hold a Baby Celebration for all the parents, babies and volunteers who have taken part in the programme that year. It was held in the Royal Ontario Museum, a stunning building in the centre of Toronto, and very valuing for the volunteers and families. Over a hundred green blankets were laid out and to see so many babies, now around one year old, crawling and laughing and playing and crying was quite something. I will never forget the moment Mary Gordon took to the microphone and started to sing the ‘hello’ song. The room fell silent and every baby turned to look and listen intently. It had been their anchor point for every Roots of Empathy Session they had attended, and the impact of them hearing it again was truly magical. The laying down of neural pathways demonstrated en masse!

I was lucky enough to have time to run the programme for another year before I returned to the UK. It was a younger year group, so an amended curriculum, and with a very different teacher, parent and baby. Even so it was equally inspiring and fascinating to see what the children gained from the experience. Indeed I was also struck by what the teachers gained – a whole different insight into the emotional worlds of the children in their charge. The children too saw a different side to their teachers as they heard them share stories of their childhood; their favourite teddies (stuffies in Canada) and times when they had felt sad, or lonely or worried. The parents too gained so much – learning about the temperament of their baby and what a difference this made to parenting style, along with information about brain development and stimulation through all the senses. And the baby, of course, having a classroom full of children who were in love with them, and couldn’t wait for them to visit again. It didn’t matter if the babies were tired, sad, angry or asleep – it was all fascinating and they learnt something new every time.

I was also incredibly fortunate, as are all volunteers, to be invited to attend the Roots of Empathy lecture series that happened regularly in Toronto. I was there for a range of key note speeches from visiting presenters from all over the world, and the multi-cultural value of Roots of Empathy was a common theme. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist renowned for his work in early childhood trauma, was a particular highlight as I have followed his work professionally. He is an enormous supporter of the programme, and indeed hailed it as the antidote we need in an age of desperate decline in the social and emotional skills of our children. He powerfully described how a world deplete of empathy is a very frightening prospect, and he sees this programme as an important part of the solution.

I will be eternally grateful for the experience Roots of Empathy gave to me at the time when I needed it most. I learnt so much both professionally and personally; and it helped to embed me in my local community. As our family settled into life in Toronto, our sense of belonging warmed with the weather, and it turned into an incredibly positive experience for us all.

Just an hour a week of volunteering for a programme that I believe makes such a difference to children’s lives was my way of giving back to a community that had given us so much. It was lovely to walk my dog along the railings of the school at lunch times and be greeted by thirty children shouting ‘Ms Liz Ms Liz when is the baby coming?’. I would never have imagined that possible in those early days of freezing cold walks along empty and unfamiliar streets.

Now that  I am home I am determined to do whatever I can to bring Roots of Empathy into every classroom in Wales.

Dr Elizabeth Gregory

Consultant Clinical Psychologist

4 thoughts on “Why Roots of Empathy in our schools might just save the day

Add yours

  1. Hello, Dr. Elizabeth Gregory,

    Your article is amazing! I was a Provincial Manager in Canada for Roots of Empathy and instructed the program for several years. You have captured so much of that program experience in your article that I just had to thank you for sharing this! All the best as you work to develop programs in Wales!

    Hazel Clarke


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