Is that a baby laughing you hear at North Canoe? Why yes it is. Baby Margo is visiting “her” class as part of the Roots of Empathy Program operating at North Canoe Elementary with another program, with a different baby (Wesley) and facilitator (Patti Bliss), in Stacy Morrison’s class at South Broadview Elementary.
Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based social-emotional program for children ages 5 to 13. In the program, a baby and primary caregiver, along with a trained Roots of Empathy instructor, visit a classroom throughout the year. The baby taking part in the program needs to be two to four months old at the start of the school year. This was good timing for mom, Rikki Fraser, who is a teacher at North Canoe (currently on maternity leave) and last year taught nine of the students taking part in the Roots of Empathy program.
“The students were very interested when I was pregnant. They were asking lots of questions, like about the size of the baby every week, and they were very excited about the ultrasound photos. It seemed like a natural progression, especially given their interest last year. They’ve really seen baby Margo grow from the beginning.”
She said the program was also a great opportunity for her to be back in the classroom and continue to connect with the students.
North Canoe’s Kindergarten/Grade 1 class is taught by Alexa Klassen, who commented the students cherish the visits. “They ask me weekly if baby Margo and Trish (Olin) are coming.” Olin is the Roots of Empathy instructor from Shuswap Children’s Association.
Klassen remarks that when baby Margo comes for the visit the atmosphere in the whole classroom changes, it just calms. “The children are always making connections and they are so successful with this program. They’ve just taken away so much.”
The Roots of Empathy program is delivered to elementary school children who are coached to recognize and connect with the vulnerability and humanity of a baby who visits their classroom throughout the school year with their parent(s), and a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor using a specialized curriculum. The experiential learning with the neighbourhood parent and infant is biologically embedded in the student’s brains as they observe this secure attachment relationship.
Through these family visits and the Roots of Empathy curriculum, the children learn about the affective aspect of empathy (emotion) and the cognitive aspect of empathy (perspective-taking). Children develop emotional literacy as they learn to identify and label the baby’s feelings, reflect on and understand their own feelings, then bridge to understand the feelings of others.
The theme this month is communication. The class is learning about the different ways baby Margo communicates including signing, pointing, gestures, noises and beginning to say some words.
“She’s (baby Margo) is just the best teacher ever,” comments Olin. “She’s teaching empathy.”
Olin explains the Roots of Empathy curriculum is comprehensive and attuned to the development and interests of the children. The curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three classroom visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit and post-family visit) for a total of 27 classes. The curriculum and the activities have many links to the classroom curriculum. For example, students use math skills when they calculate and chart the baby’s weight and measurements. Literature is used as a way to open the door to feelings and perspective taking. The discussion and reflection that follows builds solidarity and empathy. Art plays a large role as children paint their inner feelings which they cannot say with words. Music stirs powerful feelings. It speaks to everyone regardless of language or culture and builds solidarity. Through our activities in this Family Visit the students are given opportunities to discuss their feelings and listen to the feelings of others. The Instructor also visits the classroom the week before and the week after the Family Visit to deliver activities in preparation for and in reflection of the activities of the Family Visit. These Pre and Post Family Visits deepen the development of emotional literacy (affective empathy) and perspective taking skills (cognitive empathy) in children, helping them to understand how their behaviour or words can hurt others. This enables children to build connections and healthy relationships which leads to inclusion and integration.
And what do the students think?
They love the sessions, especially baby Margo visits, and watching Margo crawl and learn to stand have been highlights. But, Ella sums it up when she says “I just really like it because I really like babies. They’re really cute.”