Educator, author and social entrepreneur Mary Gordon started Roots of Empathy in Ontario in 1996. The program that brings babies into classrooms to build compassion and understanding among young students is now practised around the world.
In Powell River, Roots of Empathy has run since 2005. A recent celebration was held to acknowledge its successes and the people who make it happen, most notably the young families who bring their tiny babies to the schools.
“They’ve taken the time out of their busy lives to share the magic of their baby’s first year,” said School District 47 special education coordinator Theresa Verdiel about the families.
This year, Vanessa Comtois and her baby, Owen, 13 months, visited students from kindergarten to grade three at Texada Elementary School with classroom facilitator Karen May. Brittany Carr and her baby, Cade, 10 months, visited teacher Lucien Ervington’s kindergarten/grade one class at Kelly Creek Community School with facilitator Cheryl Langdale.
“It’s definitely breaking barriers and opens up the communication in many different ways,” said Comtois of the school visits. “The kids now know Owen very well. They’ve seen him grow up in that little year.”
Carr agreed that the program helps the children to communicate more freely.
“It gets the kids to open up with all their questions and stories and how they relate to Cade,” she said.
Research conducted by the University of BC since 2000 indicates significant decreases in aggression among participants, according to Roots of Empathy regional coordinator Adrianna Austin.
“These babies are really powerful,” said Austin. “A lot of teachers will do a more academic subject after Roots of Empathy because the children’s brains are primed for it. They’ve had that hit of oxytocin and they’re calm; the executive functioning skills are there.”
Children also learn a lot about themselves through their interactions with the infants, said Verdiel.
“Finding the humanity in the baby helps the students find the humanity in themselves,” she said.
This year the program reached more than 155,000 students in BC, almost one million across Canada and in 11 countries worldwide. The impact of the program on future generations cannot be underestimated, said Austin.
“Building an inclusive and compassionate society,” she added, “will definitely be the keys to Canada’s success.”