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August 22, 2011

Teach empathy in our schools

The Canadian Charger

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As we witness the rioting in the UK, as part of global phenomena of disaffected peoples expressing their grievances, often in destructive ways; and authorities responding by "cracking the whip," we're witnessing a continuous cycle with no apparent end in sight.

While, of course lawlessness can't be tolerated, many commentators have said the moral decay exists at the top of these societies as well as the bottom.

In this context, one can't help but wonder whatever happened to the human emotion called empathy, which seems to be lacking on both sides of these conflicts.  Roots of Empathy, a charitable organization that has been called “Canada's olive branch to the world” is attempting to break this continuous destructive cycle through the development of empathy in children and adults. The Roots of Empathy program was founded in Canada, in 1996, by Mary Gordon, an internationally recognized educator, social entrepreneur, author and child advocate. To date the program has reached more than 373,000 children worldwide.

Roots of Empathy has been recognized by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Emotional Intelligence author Daniel Goleman, and the World Health Organization, among others. The organization works in partnership with Indigenous people globally, and has been endorsed in Canada by National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo (and former Chief Phil Fontaine) of the Assembly of First Nations. Mary Gordon has won numerous awards, and the program has also won an international Changemakers award from the Ashoka organization.

At the heart of the program are classroom visits by an infant and parent. The children watch the mother and baby interact and try to predict the baby's responses by observing its temperament. This helps them gain an understanding of their own temperament and emotions and that of their classmates. Independent evaluations consistently show children who receive Roots of Empathy experience dramatic and lasting effects in terms of increased positive social behaviour (sharing, helping and including) and decreased aggression.

Roots of Empathy places babies in the role of teachers because babies love without borders or definition. Babies respond intuitively to love. They are blind to differences as defined by the world. It is only when young children learn from the adult world that some are more worthy than others, because of some perceived difference, that we see the unfolding of the intergenerational legacy of racism, classism and a host of other “isms.”

Developing empathy also helps children understand issues such as marginalization and social justice. On the playground, differences in children - whether some are shorter, fatter, and less athletic or of a different ethnic origin - often lead to bullying, and a “them and us” mentality.

Roots of Empathy encourages children to recognize their shared humanity, base on the idea that if they are able to take the perspective of  the Other, they will notice and appreciate their common humanity; and they will be less likely to allow differences to cause them to marginalize, hate or hurt each other.

A major cause of many of the conflicts in the world is our intolerance of difference. On the world stage, differences provide the justification for genocide and war, or failure to respond in times of disaster and disease. Over the ages, differences in religion, nationality, race, culture or language have been the cause for condoned slaughter.

“My friends and colleagues response the first Persian Gulf War in particular is a case in point: I will never forget the glee most of them expressed as they sat glued to their television screens watching the slaughter and demanding more,” said Scott Stockdale of The Canadian Charger, “And these were all university-educated people; but then Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media analyst, said it is precisely these educated people who are the most susceptible to propaganda.”

Roots of Empathy is based on the idea that if we are able to take the perspective of the Other we will notice and appreciate our commonalities and we will be less likely to allow differences to cause us to marginalize, hate or hurt each other.

The program is specialized for four different age groups: kindergarten, grades 1 to 3, grades 4 to grade 6 and grades 7 to grade 8.

While five-year-olds learn the language of their feelings, ten-year-olds learn how their feelings affect others and the confusion involved in having many competing feelings at the same time.

The instructor uses well-known children’s literature to illustrate emotions such as loneliness and sadness and to underscore themes such as inclusion and bullying. And, without fail, the stories stimulate perspective-taking and open a floodgate to rich discussion and enhanced understanding.

Teachers, in schools across Canada have seen how Roots of Empathy can change children's behaviour. They are far more likely to respond to bullying with moral suasion, and the bullies are far more likely to desist as a result. By witnessing the development of a baby over the course of a year in the context of the parenting relationship, the program ensures a solid foundation in social and emotional learning. Communication skills, through discussion, art, writing and music, are an important component of the program.

The way we treat children and the way children treat each other will determine the kind of society we create.

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