Baby’s visit teaches Grade 2 children about emotions and empathy in successful Roots of Empathy program
The children in Julie Dias’s Grade 2 class at Osoyoos Elementary School are visibly excited as baby Asher Browning, six months old, is brought into their classroom.
Asher’s mother, Sarah Browning, places him on a green blanket and the children gather around.
She then carries him around to greet each of the children, who sing a welcome song to Asher as they marvel at how he’s changed.
It’s been more than a month since they’ve seen Asher – he didn’t come during the busy time before the Christmas break – and he’s changed.
Teaching this class of the Roots of Empathy program is Marieze Tarr, a volunteer who is convinced this program builds emotional literacy in children.
“It lays the foundation of safe and caring classrooms where students understand their own feelings as well as the feelings of others,” Tarr, a Rotarian, told other members of the Rotary Club of Osoyoos in a presentation late last year.
“As children learn to identify the feelings in others by watching the baby and the baby’s body language, when they understand the feelings of others and their own feelings, they are less likely to physically, emotionally and psychologically hurt other children through bullying,” Tarr said.
Tarr asks the children what they notice that’s different about Asher since his last visit in November.
The children, transfixed, pipe up with observations.
He’s bigger. His hair is lighter. He’s able to sit up on the blanket. He’s able to grab a toy.
The children clap their hands as they sing “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man.”
Asher brings his hands together in what appears to be a beginner’s attempt to clap with the older children.
His mother holds him up in a standing position and Asher jumps with his legs as though he’s at home in his jolly jumper.
“Do you think that he can stand all by himself?” Tarr asks the students.
They discuss it and conclude that he can’t. His muscles aren’t strong enough and he doesn’t have enough balance.
The children wonder if he can crawl. He’s able to prop himself up on a cushion, but when he’s placed face down on the blanket without the cushion, he splays his arms and legs out like a flying Superman.
“What is he saying now guys?” Tarr asks the children.
This leads into a conversation about what makes Asher upset, what makes him happy, what makes him angry. It’s a way for the children to discuss emotions and feelings.
The children fire questions at mother Sarah Browning in rapid succession, sometimes relating stories about their own siblings or infant cousins.
He weighs 18 pounds now, but was just shy of seven pounds when he was born. He breast feeds, but has started eating food in recent weeks. He cried when he got his shots, but only for a few seconds.
“What do you think he’s feeling right now?” Tarr asks the children.
They conclude that he’s getting tired.
Soon it’s time for Browning to take Asher around to all the children as they sing the goodbye song to him. They’ll have to wait another month to see what further progress he makes.
For Browning, Asher is her second child to participate in Roots of Empathy. Her eldest son participated five years ago when the family was living in Osoyoos.
They’re now living in Penticton, but Browning contacted Tarr to ask if Asher could become a Roots of Empathy baby.
“He loves it,” she said. “He loves seeing the kids, the songs and the questions.”
Dias, the teacher, calls the program “wonderful.” Teachers have to want to participate and the program is currently taught only to Grade 2 and 5 students.
“The kids just really enjoy when the baby comes, but they also learn so much about empathy,” said Dias. “They learn about what it takes to soothe babies and start to look at themselves as peers and how they treat each other. I really enjoy the program and it’s really beneficial for them.”
Normally the children see Asher every month, despite the gap over Christmas.
“Every month we see some significant changes and they remember,” she said. “They remembered that he wasn’t able to sit up, that he had more hair. So it’s really neat to see.”
Tarr said Roots of Empathy is an award-winning program that was developed in 1996 by an Ontario kindergarten teacher named Mary Gordon.
She was subsequently made a Member of the Order of Canada in recognition of her work.
The program has since spread internationally, thanks in part to funding by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to establish it in the United States. It’s now reached Europe and Latin America.
Tarr said researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and University of Manitoba have found that children participating in the program have increased emotional knowledge.
“By that I mean that children can identify their own feelings, so when they start feeling anxious, they are able to verbalize their anxious feeling,” she said. “They know what it feels like to feel safe. They also have an increased social understanding, so they understand that if they were to be mean to somebody else what it would feel like.”
Students in School District 53 are tested and graded on Middle Years Development Index (MDI) develop by UBC that asks children questions about self-esteem and happiness.
Tarr suggests that there is an improvement in MDI scores on levels of empathy that can be linked to the Roots of Empathy program.
The baby visits are only part of the program, and at weekly classes without the baby, children are gently introduced to other topics ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome, the importance of not smoking or drinking during pregnancy, the responsibility of raising a baby, preventing teen pregnancy and others.
But for the children, the visits of the baby are the highlight. Tarr said sometimes children in the class look unhappy before the baby arrives.
“When I come in and once they are standing next to the green blanket and we are singing the hello song and they get their turn to touch the baby, their faces just light up,” said Tarr. “So I always tell kids happiness is a catchy feeling. Baby comes in happy and it transfers onto them.”