Empathy scheme extends to early years

Gabriella Jozwiak
Tuesday, June 18, 2013

A scheme that brings babies into primary schools to improve pupils' behaviour is to be extended to early years settings.

Childcare providers at six Pre-school Learning Alliance centres in the London Borough of Lewisham will begin using the Seeds of Empathy approach with three- to five-year-olds from September.

Developed in Canada, the programme is the younger sibling of Roots of Empathy – a method that aims to develop schoolchildren’s empathy and reduce bullying, aggression and violence by asking them to observe how a baby reacts with its parent and the class.

Seeds of Empathy uses the same approach, but takes place in early years settings and adds literacy sessions to help early learners develop positive attitudes to reading.

The system works on three-week cycles, during which a childcare provider trained as a “literacy coach” reads a story to groups of children on a lavender-coloured blanket.

Each story focuses on an emotion, such as “feeling grumpy”, which the group explore through activities such as drama or art.

In the third week, a parent brings their two- to four-month-old baby to the setting to encourage the children to discuss the baby’s development, observe its feelings, and discuss their own feelings.

Mary Gordon, founder of Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy, said the method enables children to develop social and emotional skills.

“The early literacy part of the programme is about attitude more than letters – you build successful readers before they are reading,” said Gordon.

“The children are learning the conventions of print but we’re not focusing on things like letter recognition.

“We focus on executive functioning skills – the overarching approaches to dealing with things like impulse control, focused attention and flexible thinking.”

Gordon said these skills were developed through the repeated visits from the baby.

Over the weeks, the group observes changes in the baby’s capabilities, consider why its moods change and how that relates to their own moods.

“These skills will help the children with decision-making later on and problem solving,” said Gordon. “They will also develop the emotional literacy to be able to talk about how they feel.”

Evaluations of the Seeds of Empathy programme are currently under way in Canada, where the programme has existed since 2005. It is also used in the US and Scotland.

Gordon hopes Lewisham, which also uses the Roots of Empathy scheme in some of its schools, will extend the project beyond the six settings in the future.

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