| Feb 05, 2009

Back to HomeFeature Article - February 5, 2009 Roots of EmpathyBy Jeff Green

Jan MacPherson holds Sharbot Lake's Youngest teacher, Brian Black

Brian Black is only 7 months old, and has yet to conjugate a verb, but he's been a teacher for most of his life.

He's a central player in the Roots of Empathy program in Pam Woods class grade 1-2 class at Sharbot Lake Public School.

It's not that tough a job, really. All he has to is show up for half an hour once every three weeks, and he even has his own chauffeur (his father Scott).

His job is to be himself. His greatest assets are the things that come most naturally to him; being a baby and learning how to stand up, grasp at things, communicate, and eventually become mobile.

Jan Macpherson has a harder job. She comes to the school with Scott and Brian each time and she also comes on he weeks when they stay home. Jan, who works at the Child Centre in Sharbot Lake, has taken a training course with the Roots of Empathy program, which is based in Toronto.

It is her job to lead the schoolchildren in noticing how the baby is growing and changing over the course of his first year of life, and to use that information to help them understand their own ideas about life.

In the words of the Roots of Empathy website, “the students become literate in describing their own feelings and understanding those of others – empathy.”

Although the concept of the program might sound a bit esoteric, it has a very down to earth function, the reduction of aggression and bullying in the schools, and by extension, in the community as a whole.

Even cursory observations of the kinds of questions that Jan Macpherson was asking Pam Woods’ students at the session this past week demonstrated how the program works. Whether Brian was happy or crying, the children were able to explain was causing his mood, and the concept behind Roots of Empathy is that this can help them to understand their own moods and those of their classmates.

The program has an impressive track record.

Roots of Empathy was founded in Toronto by Ruth Gordon in 1996, and since then it has been exported to several other Canadian Provinces as well as New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

It makes use of a 653 page curriculum and the instructors undergo an extensive training program before walking into their first classroom.

A study of several Roots of Empathy projects by the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) came to the following conclusion: “By providing many opportunities to see skills modeled, to apply these same skills in real-life situations, and to reflect on their learning, the program increases the chances that students will develop competencies that will guide their future behaviours and shape their dispositions.”

Although Roots of Empathy has migrated to the other side of the globe from its base in Toronto, it has taken until this year to make is way down the 401 to the Limestone School board, and it took Elizabeth Bates to bring this about.

In addition to being a newly retired teacher, Elizabeth Bates said she has been involved in early childhood education as a volunteer, and she has also known Ruth Gordon for many years.

“I ran into Ruth Gordon in Toronto,” she said in an interview with the News this week, “and she described “Roots of Empathy” to me. It fit in with my interests and my schedule this year and I decided to see if I could bring it to the Limestone Board.”

Roots of Empathy is not cheap to set up. It costs $2,300 to train each instructor. Elizabeth Bates was able to convince the Limestone Board and the KFL&A Children and Youth Services Steering Committee to split the training costs for 9 people, and in 9 classrooms in the Limestone Board this year Roots of Empathy programs are up and running.

Most of the programs are in grade 1 classrooms, but a couple are in grade 8 classes. Elizabeth Bates runs one of them herself.

“It really fits in very well for a retired teacher. It’s a one morning a week commitment, it utilizes teaching skills, and is very rewarding,” Bates said.

“In developing empathy for a baby and watching the baby grow, students start to look at each other differently. They start to think about how to solve problems in the school yard differently. It’s so much better to stop behaviour before it stars than always having to deal with impacts”

Now that the program has had a start, Elizabeth Bates envisions bringing to every school in the Limestone Board.

“I’d like to see every student in the board experience Roots of Empathy. But that will take a substantial economic commitment,” she said.

Judging from the impact the program has had on Pam Woods grade 1-2 classroom, the program may have gained an advocate in the ‘north’.

“It’s been helpful even as a basic teaching tool, as the students have been writing about what they learn each time Brian comes. It’s a great program,’ she said, pointing to a bulletin board outside her classroom that is filled with children’s writing, art, and pictures of the class and Brian.

For Scott Black the experience has been rewarding as well.

“I’ve been interested particularly in connecting with the boys in the class. It’s been great to see them get engaged. They’ll be fathers themselves someday, and who knows, they may remember this.”

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