A goo ... goo ... good way to instil empathy in pupils

30th November 2012 at 00:00
Visiting babies help children to understand the feelings of others

Most babies spend their time lying around, waiting until they are old enough to do something more interesting. But in dozens of classrooms across South London they have a more important job: teaching.

It may seem like a big challenge for a two-month-old, but as of this term 25 babies are making regular visits to classes of primary school pupils in Croydon and Lewisham in a bid to promote empathy in children.

The Roots of Empathy programme will run in 14 primary schools across the boroughs over the next four years, after receiving #163;900,000 from the Big Lottery Improving Futures fund. The initiative is built around a local baby and parent, who meet the class nine times during the school year accompanied by a trained instructor. The visits aim to help children understand the baby's perspective and discuss how individuals are unique but share many of the same feelings.

The programme began in Canada in 1996, when Mary Gordon, then a kindergarten teacher, was looking for a way to break intergenerational cycles of abuse and neglect. It has since spread around the world, and was introduced to the Isle of Man in 2008 and Scotland in 2010.

The work in South London, which was officially launched this week, is the first time the programme has been used in England or Wales. Plans are already being developed to introduce it to schools in Newcastle and Cardiff.

"I was working with families whose children were at risk of low readiness for school," Ms Gordon said of the origins of the initiative. "I came across domestic violence, child abuse, child neglect. I realised that the common denominator of all that suffering was an absence of empathy in parents.

"The parents were not monsters, but they didn't have empathy because their parents had not had much empathy for them. We were able to support parents, but I thought: we have to encourage empathy in schools."

Between 2002 and 2006, the Canadian province of Manitoba conducted a randomised trial of the programme. The results showed that, compared with pupils who hadn't taken part, pupils who had been through the programme were less likely to bully, hit or be verbally aggressive and were more likely to comfort and help other children.

The study also found that these beneficial effects were maintained or even improved up to three years after pupils had completed the programme.

Jane Fairbourn, head of the Crescent Primary in Croydon, one of the schools taking part, said she was particularly keen as her school only opened last year. The 150 Year 1 children who are taking part in the initiative are the oldest children in the school and will become role models for the following year groups.

"We had quite limited information when we signed up in July," she said. "I wasn't 100 per cent sure what we were getting ourselves into. But someone from the school went to train as the Roots of Empathy instructor and came back thrilled with the programme.

"Having a baby in school gets everybody's attention. The children are just delighted to have the baby there and respond so well that the baby becomes a bit of a superstar.

"I'm really pleased with the programme. One example of something happening is a little boy who was making a silly, cackling laugh. But when he was told, 'Don't forget loud noises can frighten the baby', he understood immediately and was quiet. It's a tiny snapshot but shows how the children understand the younger children's feelings."


- The Roots of Empathy programme has reached 450,000 children in Canada, the US, New Zealand, Ireland, Germany and now the UK.

- Babies are between two and four months old at the start of the programme.

- The scheme lasts for a year and consists of 27 visits, nine of which are from the baby and parent. The rest are from the instructor alone.

- In 30 per cent of Roots of Empathy programmes, men take part and discuss their feelings about what it means to be a loving father.

- Seeds of Empathy is the programme's younger sibling, which fosters social and emotional skills in children aged 3-5.

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