Caring in the classroom

The Roots of Empathy programme aims to help pupils understand their own feelings and those of others. Rowenna Davis visits a primary school in Blackheath, south-east London, to see it in action.

Ms Gordon's class sits in a circle. The nine- and 10-year-olds stay silent on their lime carpet, but the air is charged with excitement. Straight-backed and wide-eyed, they know exactly who is coming and they can't wait. "Now what kind of atmosphere does she need?" asks Ms Gordon. "Quiet," the children respond. "That's right. We stay calm so Abi feels calm."

??This year 5 class in John Ball School in Blackheath is in the middle of a Roots of Empathy programme. Originally devised in Canada, this is a scheme that brings a baby and parent into the classroom to help young people with emotional literacy, empathy and self-confidence. This particular class has been working with Abi, who is now nine months old, and her mum Rosie Joyce. They need it, because the behavioural difficulties in this class have been standing out for some time.

? ?"It's lovely, that moment when Abi enters the class. They just melt," says Sue Riley, one of the volunteer instructors for the programme who used to work for the school. "Kids go home and talk about it to their parents, who have noticed that there is less aggressive behaviour."

??Roots of Empathy is already running in 10 countries across the globe. It first came to the UK in Scotland, where it is now universally provided. With a strong and growing evidence base built on randomised control trials, it is now spreading in England. The MP Graham Allen cited it as a key programme in his review of early intervention.

??John Ball School is one of the sites for a pilot being conducted by the borough of Lewisham, one of the biggest adopters of the scheme. It is the result of backing from the Big Lottery Fund with support given by the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

??The children certainly seem to love it. "When you finish maths, it's all dull and then you see Abi and she's like the sun and makes it lighter," says nine-year-old Theo, "She's everything in a sister that I'd ever want."

??Changing culture

?This particular project has been running since October. Baby Abi has been coming in every three weeks for one hour, and they work around a particular theme. In the past, they have focused on crying, and on safety. This week's theme is communication. The week before Abi and her mum arrive is taken up by a session preparing for her, and the week after is used to analyse her visit. In this way, the children get a sense of ownership over "their baby" and watch her develop, looking at milestones in her development.

??Before Abi arrived in October, this class was in real difficulty. Teachers talked about a "top dog" culture in the classroom. Although there was no physical aggression and individually all the students were good-natured, they would not work together in groups, there was a lot of bickering and difficulty keeping quiet.

??"They'd been together since nursery and so they knew what buttons to press to wind each other up," says Riley. "They couldn't turn the other cheek."

??Many of the students also have attachment issues, with two children having recently lost their mothers, and several others who grew up without fathers. Gordon says that although it is difficult to measure the long-term impact of the programme once other measures were put in at the same time, the difference it is making is clear to see. In fact, she plans to volunteer for the scheme herself when she gives birth later in the year.

??"Some kids in the beginning were recoiling at the new baby, then after a month or so they were coo-cooing," she says, "It gives them a platform to talk about empathy and you can use that throughout the week. Some kids are more willing to think about other people. They have been more settled this year - I'd definitely give it a go."

??In one particular case after Abi came in, one young boy who had recently lost his mother confessed that he still slept with the toy she gave him before she died. In the past, teachers said he would have been ridiculed by his classmates for such a confession, but after Abi they just drew a sharp intake of breath and felt his pain.

??"The channel is the baby," says Riley. "Every week that Abi comes in, she unlocks everything. She makes it okay to be vulnerable. She needs a mum and caring, and so does everyone else."

??But it is not just the baby that does the work. Riley gives up her time for free to make the programme work. Many of these children already have baby siblings at home, but they do not get the same experience from them. What is special about the sessions with Abi is that they are held alongside an experienced staffer like Riley, who can draw out lessons that might otherwise be missed.

??"How has Abi changed since we saw her last?" Riley asks the circle. Emma in purple pipes up: "She's more inquisitive." Another boy adds: "Her hair looks like she's had an electric shock." The others laugh when Abi seems to wave her arms at this suggestion.

??At present, the head teacher Michael Roach is pleased with the scheme and wants to expand it, but does not necessarily think it should be universally provided.

??"At the moment, it's just a project with this class," he says, "But we have two staff who are pregnant now so we have a plentiful supply of babies. If we could extend it to some classes in years 3 and 4 that would be great. But unless you're doing it in every class, it's hard to see a school-wide effect. It remains an intervention, not provision. We go where we need it."

??Some teachers say that as the scheme is extended to other schools throughout the borough, it might start to have an effect on the culture of local secondary schools. If all the difficult classes in each school get this experience, it may well have a positive cumulative effect.

??According to Joyce, there seems to be benefits for her baby too. "I'm never worried because I trust the staff and we always discuss what's going to be in the session first," she says. "Abi is an adaptable baby and enjoys it.

? ?I feel quite proud and it's lovely because the kids have grown to love her.

??"I've noticed now that Abi is very sociable. She's not fazed going into new situations after being stared at by all the big children. It gives me other ideas of things to do with her too, and makes me watch out for more milestones in her development."

??As this week's theme with the class is about communication, Riley hands baby Abi different toys to see how she reacts to them. She then asks the children to help analyse her response. When the baby reaches back for her mum's hand, Riley says: "You see, she's checking her mum is still there for her. She needs to know her mum is always there. She's checking she's not alone."

??Everything the baby does becomes a way into talking about how we feel and why. When baby Abi is startled by a noise in the room, Riley asks: "Babies get startled by loud noises. Do you ever get the same?"

??One boy in the corner puts up his hand. "I don't like the sound of a baby crying." Riley replies: "Does that make you emotional hearing that at home?" The boy nods his head.

??It is striking that what is helping to fix a difficult, unruly class is not a strong authoritarian teacher or increased discipline, but a tiny, vulnerable little baby. It taps into something in all of us.

??Proponents of Roots of Empathy say that seeing vulnerability helps young people grow. It means they have more patience when dealing with others, and it also gives them confidence to feel that it is okay to have a more vulnerable side. The programme's founder, Mary Gordon, says this kind of emotional literacy is "a bit like riding a bike" - once you've learned it you never forget.

?Changing emotions

?Critics might argue that school time should be spent on rigorous academic learning, not wasting time talking about "feelings". Aren't we supposed to go to school to learn about something bigger than ourselves and broaden our horizons, not look inwards?

??Riley thinks this is a false choice. "First of all, this is a PSHE (personal, social, health and economic) lesson, so it's not taking any time out of the curriculum that isn't already allocated," she says. "But deeper than that, we know that if you don't develop emotional literacy then behaviour drops, and if behaviour drops then academic results drop."

??Whatever the evidence base, the children seem to love it. In the debrief after the class, a few are keen to share their views.

??"It does change my character a bit," says Molly, who sports a blonde ponytail and leggings. "Me and my brother can get into fights, but it changes that a bit. I'm not as angry. Abi is a baby and she kind of makes me laugh and forget that - it's easier to share thoughts than feelings, but we're learning."

??That kind of emotional literacy is echoed throughout the group, and is not just confined to the girls. As the children disappear, they all seem disappointed that the session is over.

??Theo puts his finger on it. "When you see Abi, it's like she's our Abi. When she's happy we're happy and when she's sad, we're sad - we feel what she feels."

???Global History of Roots of Empathy

  • 1996 Roots of Empathy is founded by Mary Gordon in Toronto, Canada, working with 150 children. To date, Roots of Empathy programmes have reached 450,000 children worldwide.
  • 2000 Roots of Empathy becomes a charitable not-for-profit organisation that expands across Canada, and research pilots start.
  • 2005 The programme is introduced in Quebec and Roots of Empathy launches its French language curriculum. Gordon publishes her critically acclaimed bestseller on the theory of Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child.

  • 2007 Roots of Empathy is introduced in New Zealand and the US. In 2008, it reaches the Isle of Man. It also wins United Nations support and begins to work in partnership with indigenous communities.?
  • 2009 Toronto becomes the first place in the world to open a Roots of Empathy centre of excellence.
  • 2012 A year after coming to Scotland, programmes are launched in England, Wales and Germany. It is now bringing evidence-based social and emotional learning to 10 countries across three continents.?

??Evidence base - Global

  • Since 2000, the Roots of Empathy programme has been evaluated in both comparative and randomised control studies designed to measure changes in behaviour.??

  • Independent research has been conducted in Australia, the Isle of Man and New Zealand, as well as five university-based Canadian studies. They all showed an increase in pro-social behaviour, a decrease in aggression, an increase in social and emotional understanding and an increase in parenting knowledge.??

  • In 2001, the government of Manitoba, a Canadian province, commissioned a three-year study measuring pro-social behaviour, and physical and indirect aggression. It found positive results in all categories (Santos, Chartier, Whalen, Chateau and Boyd, 2011).??

  • In 2009/10, another study was conducted in the Isle of Man. Teachers were invited to evaluate pupil behaviour before and after the programme. Classes that underwent the programme showed a marked increase in good behaviour compared with those that simply followed the normal curriculum (Schonert-Reichl, Russell, Gadermann, Klerian and Bayrami).??

  • A University of Missouri report by Dr Marvin Berkowitz titled What Works in Character Education reviewed character education programmes. It concluded that Roots of Empathy was effective, particularly for reducing aggression and violence, concluding: "Roots of Empathy is an effective school-based curriculum for fostering the development of student character."??

  • Researchers Rolheiser and Wallace at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto concluded that Roots of Empathy is an effective programme for developing social and emotional learning in 2005, adding: "The programme increases the chances that students will develop competencies that will guide their future behaviours and shape their dispositions."?

    ??Evidence base - North Lanarkshire??

  • Independent research carried out by North Lanarkshire Council's Psychological Services started in 2011, comprising a total of 785 primary pupils from 19 Roots of Empathy classes and 18 control classes. It revealed that 55 per cent of primary school pupils displayed an increase in pro-social behaviour (such as helping, sharing, co-operating, and volunteering). This is 33 per cent more than in pupils in a control group, who did not receive the programme.??

  • Roots of Empathy pupils showed an improvement of 31.5 per cent more than the control group in relation to total difficulties, such as emotional symptoms, conduct problems, hyperactivity and peer problems.??

  • 59 per cent of pupils showed an increase in cognitive empathy - the distinction between oneself and another - whereas 54 per cent of pupils in the control group showed a decrease in cognitive empathy.??

  • 51 per cent of Roots of Empathy pupils showed an increase in emotional empathy - understanding the feelings of another - whereas 56 per cent of pupils in the control group showed a decrease in emotional empathy.

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