Babies Help Kindergarten Children Develop Empathy

Superbaby was a big hit this week in Sally Hallam’s French immersion kindergarten class. The Willows Elementary School youngsters couldn’t get enough of mom Sara Amyot holding six-month-old Evie in a flying superhero pose.

It was the fourth class visit for the mom-and-daughter duo, part of a program called Roots of Empathy taught across Canada and in several other countries.

In Greater Victoria, it’s taught in nine elementary schools.

The students love Baby Evie, said program instructor Chelsea Peddle, who took part in the program when her own daughter was an infant.

“They’ve really formed a strong bond with her,” she said. “They call her ‘our baby.’ ”

Hallam said the program has had a positive effect. “I really feel a difference in the classroom,” she said. “There’s a beautiful culture of kindness in our classroom.

“The children, when we talk about what they’re learning from Baby Evie and from the program, they share things like: ‘I’m learning about feelings’ and that all feelings are OK.

“This is such an inspiring opportunity for the children to interact with a baby.”

The students are excited and engaged when they see Evie, Hallam said. “There’s nothing quite like it.”

Program founder Mary Gordon, who visited Willows for the Tuesday session, said the program can make students more likely to talk about bullying and other issues they might encounter.

“We’re trying to build the kids’ ability to talk about how they feel,” said Gordon, who is based in Toronto.

Research in B.C. and around the world shows the Roots of Empathy program helps reduce aggression and bullying, she said.

“And kids sharing, helping and including goes up.”

The Roots of Empathy website says there have been nine independent evaluations of the 21-year-old program’s effectiveness, including ones by the University of B.C., as well as studies in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It has also been studied by the government of Manitoba, the University of Toronto and the University of Missouri.

Research has found children in the program show an increase in social and emotional knowledge and “prosocial” behaviours such as sharing, and a decrease in aggression.

The sessions take place with the children sitting around a green blanket, Peddle said.

“The heart of the program is a parent and a baby, usually a mom, and they ‘role model’ loving attachment and responsive parenting.”

The students’ comments range from the insightful to the comical.

In a previous session, one student said that a crying baby isn’t a bad baby, but “a baby with a problem.”

Peddle said the program is proven to have a lasting impact and to help children later in life.

“So we know that [for] students that participate in Roots of Empathy, their social-emotional literacy, their ability to identify and name their emotions, goes up.”

For children with a baby in the family, Peddle said, the program presents an opportunity for them to talk about babies in a way that doesn’t always happen at home.

jwbell@timescolonist.com