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Roots of Empathy: A Research-Based Program that Counters Bullying

Roots of Empathy: A Research-Based Program that Counters Bullying

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What is Roots of Empathy?
Roots of Empathy is a research-based program with a long-term goal to create a society of adults who are responsible/well-mannered citizens that use positive parenting methods. The overall short-term goal of the program focuses on raising levels of empathy, resulting in more respectful and caring relationships and reduced levels of bullying and aggression. Empathy is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings” The ability to perceive things and feel things, as others do, is central to competent parenting and successful social relationships. Part of the success of Roots of Empathy is the universal nature of the program; all students are positively engaged instead of targeting bullies or aggressive children.

Related Article: How to End Bullying Part 1: 19 Tips for Parents and Teachers

More specific short terms goals of Roots of Empathy are to:

  • foster the development of empathy
  • develop emotional literacy
  • reduce levels of bullying, aggression, and violence, and promote children’s pro-social behaviors
  • increase knowledge of human development, learning, and infant safety
  • to prepare students for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting

Related Article: Research Says We Can Help Kids of All Ages Develop Empathy-Find Out How!

In Roots of Empathy, children learn based on observations and interactions with their classmates and an infant (the infant’s age ranges from two to four months when the program starts). The infant visits a classroom of elementary school children accompanied by a Roots of Empathy facilitator and the infant’s parent. Through the course of the school year, the children are able to witness the baby grow and change. The students are also able to observe several different emotions conveyed by the baby that they might not recognize as easily in children their own age. For example, the baby may start crying and the facilitator will ask the children for a reason as to why the baby is crying. From this observation, the students will understand what type of different actions get the baby upset and may relate these actions to future situations when they see that someone else is upset. It develops their skills to recognize and investigate emotions, and makes them more aware of others around them and their emotions. Another tactic that helps the children learn is that they watch the loving relationship between the parent and the baby. The students get to witness how the parent meets the baby’s needs.

effective bullying prevention programs

Roots of Empathy reaches elementary school children from kindergarten to eighth grade. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, the Republic of Ireland, England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, Germany and Switzerland.

The “emotional literacy” taught in the program lays the foundation for safer and more caring classrooms, where children are the “Changers”. They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties. Children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that help to create a “team feel” contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. The Instructor also visits before and after each family visit to prepare and reinforce teachings using a specialized lesson plan for each visit. Research results from national and international evaluations of Roots of Empathy indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behavior.

In addition to building empathy, Roots of Empathy provides information on infant safety and development, which helps children to be more aware of issues of infant vulnerability such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Shaken Baby Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and second-hand smoke. Observations of a loving parent-child relationship give children a model of responsible parenting.

The Roots of Empathy Curriculum
The curriculum is comprehensive and in-line with the development and interests of the children. The 639-page 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 visits. Each of the nine themes is further broken down into four age ranges:

Kindergarten
Grades 1-3
Grades 4-6
Grades 7-8

The Roots of Empathy curriculum also 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.

How is Roots of Empathy Delivered?
A Roots of Empathy Instructor delivers all aspects of the Roots of Empathy curriculum in the classroom and builds respectful relationships with the participating family, classroom teacher and students. Often, Instructors come from teaching, early childhood education, social work, guidance counseling, health or recreation backgrounds.

The program looks for instructors who are professional in the classroom, respectful, non-judgmental, and who value family.  They must be able to commit to 27 classroom visits over the school year, including preparing for each class and communicating with the Roots of Empathy family.  The program provides intensive initial training,  on-going professional development, and mentor support.

A Roots of Empathy Family must have a baby who will be two-to-four months old at the beginning of the program. Families commit to visiting the classroom once every three weeks during the program year. Families who participate live in the community of the school implementing the program, so that they reflect the cultural, racial and linguistic tone of the neighborhood. This helps create a bond between the children in the classroom and the Roots of Empathy Family, which is reinforced when the children see the parent(s) and baby in the street and rush over to ask how ‘their baby’ is doing.

Mothers and/or fathers are equally welcome to participate, since they focus on the secure attachment relationship of the baby to the parent.  During the program the children are able to watch a loving relationship between the parent and the baby, where the parent is attuned to the baby’s feelings, needs and intentions. Other adults (caregivers, grandparents, elders etc.) may not substitute for the parent but are welcome to observe a family Visit.

What Does the Research Say?
Since the year 2000, there have been nine independent evaluations of the effectiveness on Roots of Empathy, as well as two reviews of the program as a whole. These evaluations and reviews reveal that the Roots of Empathy Program consistently yields positive results!

Results showed that compared to comparison groups, Roots of Empathy children demonstrated an:

  • increase in social and emotional knowledge
  • decrease in aggression
  • increase in pro-social behavior (e.g. sharing, helping and including)
  • increase in perceptions among Roots Of Empathy students that the classroom is a caring environment
  • increase in understanding of infants and parenting

Here are more research results from the program:
effective bullying prevention programs

In 2001, the Government of Manitoba, Canada commissioned a three-year follow-up study of Roots of Empathy, measuring prosocial behavior, physical aggression, and indirect aggression. Results show a significant improvement in all three behaviors in Roots of Empathy children immediately after the program, with improvements in behaviors maintained three years later, and some behaviors continuing to show improvement.

Check out this video which captures a snapshot of the Roots of Empathy Program.

Find out more at rootsofempathy.org

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Written by Rachel Wise

Rachel Wise is the founder and CEO of educationandbehavior.com. She is also a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a master’s degree in education. Rachel has 20 years of experience working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs.




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