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Baby steps toward empathy

Program teaches children to show compassion

While Internet bullies send teens to their deaths and preschoolers such as Phoenix Sinclair are tortured and killed by caregivers, babies have been visiting Manitoba classrooms during the last 10 years teaching kids compassion.

At Voyageur School in Crestview Wednesday morning, Rylen Frend cried, smiled, babbled, ate and spilled some food and gave the Grade 2 class a lesson in empathy that research says works.

Mary Gordon and Rylen

Mary Gordon and Rylen

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press 
Students at Voyageur School interact with baby Rylen as Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief watches.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Students at Voyageur School interact with baby Rylen as Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief watches.

The Roots of Empathy program was implemented provincewide in the 2002/03 school year and 35,000 kindergarten to Grade 8 students have experienced it.

Program founder Mary Gordon visited Winnipeg Wednesday, and said she came up with the idea after seeing one similarity in all the child abuse and neglect cases she encountered.

"The common denominator was an absence of empathy." The parent had never felt it or seen it, said the internationally renowned teacher, children's advocate and parenting expert. The program she founded in 1996 brings babies and parents into the classroom so kids can see a healthy bond and identify with a vulnerable infant. Roots of Empathy has been adopted around the world and Gordon has been invited to speak at the United Nations about how showing compassion to kids can change behaviour, if not the world.

"It's experiential learning -- the heart and mind together," the Torontonian said.

At Winnipeg's Voyageur School, the elementary students have known Rylen and his mother Cindy since he was nine weeks old and began visiting them. They've watched him grow and seen how his mom interacts with him. They've compared what they can do as Grade 2 students to what Rylen can do now that he's nine months. The children talked about why he cried, how he felt, and if it was OK that he was a messy eater. They observed whether he was able to grasp cut up peaches at his stage of development. When he grabbed a piece of peach and put it in his mouth, the children "gave him snaps" with their fingers rather than applause that might scare him. The seven-year-olds were riveted to the baby's face, watching for emotion as he tasted squash for the first time.

"We pretty much live in an emotionally illiterate world," said Gordon. Children may be sad or have hurt feelings and not understand how to express them other than through anger or bottling them up inside, said Gordon. "I only want you to be Pollyannas," is the message kids often hear. "We don't want to hear about negative feelings in our culture."

In Manitoba this past year, the Roots of Empathy was delivered to 5,500 students in 26 school divisions, 15 First Nations and many M©tis classrooms in northern and rural Manitoba, as well as independent schools, the Manitoba School for the Deaf and special-needs settings.

The program is working in the city, country and First Nation classrooms, said Children and Youth Opportunities Minister Kevin Chief. Getting to know a baby and understanding vulnerability helps children to think about and talk about their own vulnerability -- how they're really feeling, and to find out that it's OK, he said Wednesday.

Certified instructors provide classroom training three times a month during the school year and each class receives a monthly visit from a neighbourhood parent and baby.

The positive behaviour that comes from having compassion is worth the investment, he said.

Every dollar invested in early-childhood programs results in $17 saved later, he said. Next year, the province is investing $356,400 in Roots of Empathy.

"There's an increase in self-esteem," he said. "It absolutely works."

Cindy Frend said her two older children -- Hope in Grade 6 and K.J. in Grade 4 -- experienced the Roots of Empathy program and encouraged her and their baby brother to take part. "It's had a positive impact on how they treat one another."

carol.sanders@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 23, 2013 A2

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