It might take a baby and a big green blanket to change the world, child by child...
Babies are now the teachers. They’re being brought into classrooms to break the intergenerational cycles of domestic violence and child abuse in a simple but genius way.
By Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Quietly sitting on a large green blanket and the centre of attention, a baby and her mother are surrounded by a class of Year 5 and 6 students at Thorndon Primary School, Wellington.
Attending once a month throughout a school year, this baby is helping to combat child abuse and bullying. Today, as with every session, tiny 6 month old Nisha is the teacher. Nisha’s lesson is about empathy. Next to her sits a facilitator, asking the children questions.
Nisha is a little itty-bitty star because she is also teaching the children about neuroscience, temperament, attachment, emotional literacy, authentic communication, and social inclusion.
Roots of Empathy is a programme that sees parents and their babies coming into classrooms to teach students about attachment and caring, helping the students to reflect on their own emotions and the emotions of others.
Practised in schools around New Zealand for the last 10 years, Roots of Empathy is proving highly successful because arguably the most important educational development children may need in their lives is emotional literacy.
"The common denominator in violence is the absence of empathy" – Mary Gordon, Founder of Roots of Empathy
Answering questions after the session is visiting founder of the Roots of Empathy programme Mary Gordon. There are 27 sessions with 9 themes covered, revolving around 3 classroom visits each month led by a trained and certified instructor. Themes cover aspects of the baby’s growth and milestones and the baby's relationship with its parent.
Away from the classroom I have the unique opportunity to learn more from this educator, international speaker and award-winning social entrepreneur. I want to know what shaped Mary’s drive to work with the most “disenfranchised or reviled” in life and what inspired the Roots of Empathy programme.
Mary Gordon grew up in Newfoundland on the East Coast of Canada within a large and loving Irish family passionate about social justice. Mary and all of her siblings were bought up with a keen sense of compassion. Regularly encouraged to appreciate what they had, their father would tell them to donate pocket money earned to the poor in India or the less fortunate, and not to judge.
Mary almost cringes as she recalls being about nine years of age when her mother took her on one of her regular rounds to donate coal and food to the poverty-stricken families that lived in their community.
In a house with a dirt floor was a widowed woman and her many children. When the woman offered Mary a cup of tea in a chipped and filthy mug Mary almost turned her nose up, much to the stern chagrin of her mother. These early lessons in empathy stuck.
Mary was a teacher based in Toronto in the 1970s. She had previously worked with people imprisoned and she wanted to make education equitable for families living in poverty. She wanted to break the cycle of illiteracy, domestic violence and teen pregnancy so in 1981 she started her first social innovation in education.
Mary began parenting and family literary centres – community by community. These centres served vulnerable families, new migrant or refugee families and solo parents. She brought them together to meet their neighbours and to provide safe places for education to the most disenfranchised.
Mary also wanted to work with parents who were former abusers of their children – through neglect, sexual abuse and physical abuse. She recognised that these people were starving for solicitude.
"It’s such a shame that we vilify the villain. They need acceptance as human beings. They need hugs, not more hurt"
"The absence of empathy underscores violence. Most of all these people need to develop empathy, but they must be treated with empathy in order to develop empathy. Therapy doesn’t always fix everything but the (abusers) need to ‘catch’ empathy. They need to be in circumstances being surrounded by empathy."
Mary also wanted to help the children and the youth from these vulnerable families. The children were acting out what they had learned at home and repeating the violence at school, they were becoming bullies. It was here that Roots of Empathy was first seeded.
Roots of Empathy was officially launched in 1996. Mary started with kindergartens and now Roots of Empathy is taught to 5 to 13 year olds in primary schools in 10 countries and practiced on 3 continents. It’s reached over 500,000 children around the globe.
"'Roots of Empathy' falls in different languages all around the green blanket, but the essence is the same wherever we go. I think the landscape of childhood is different. Everywhere it has changed but the emotional needs of children are ever thus and have not changed. It’s just harder to be a child now."
Principal of Thorndon Primary School Alistair du Chatenier regards the Roots of Empathy programme as a great fit with the school’s philosophy. The programme has seen 7 babies with their parents visit the school over the last 10 years. Alistair tells me that he still has pupils reflecting on positive things they have learned, several years after their Roots of Empathy sessions.
Mary Gordon tells me that you know when you are in the presence of love, and so do the children. "When asked which was their favourite moment during a session, the children who are having a hard time at home say; 'We loved when the mummy kissed the baby or daddy sang to the baby.' They ache for that love."
“Babies in their vulnerability are exquisitely attractive to children. We use the baby to reflect back to the children, their own emotions. And then they can learn to read other emotional cues, and then they will learn emotional literacy. We work with the attachment relationship. The Roots of Empathy family demonstrates the attachment relation in the first year of life. The first year is the most dangerous for a baby and the most majestic.”
"We want to give every child every opportunity to know what love looks like."
Rosalie Hill, the Facilitator for the session has also been a Roots of Empathy parent with her own baby and is a current teacher at the school. She explains that the hands on experience for the children in the Roots of Empathy sessions can’t be learned in a pamphlet or book. The trusting relationship built over time between the children and the visiting baby is crucial to them learning empathy.
And what poignant feedback did the Year 5 and 6 students of Thorndon Primary School have to share?
“I think she was pretty cool with coping with everyone here.”
“When you actually get to watch the baby you can see new milestones and see what they can do that’s new.”
“My name is Sam and I think Roots of Empathy should go to other schools because maybe they will have a baby one day and maybe they will get angry with it and maybe shake it and we say never shake a baby because it could damage the brain a little bit. I think I want Roots of Empathy to go to other schools and so other people can understand how babies react when they cry and things like that - and be nice to it.”
For Nisha, her lessons in empathy are her gifts. For Mary Gordon, Nisha is our ambassador for change.
"The leaders of tomorrow must have empathy. Children aren't just part of tomorrow, they're 100% of tomorrow and they'll be deciding what social justice looks like."