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20.3.2023 | Jamie Lee

Growing the garden of childhood: How Roots of Empathy nurtures connection for children and parents

Roots of Empathy (ROE) is an organisation that sees the glaring importance of empathy. Started 27 years ago, the Founder/President, Mary Gordon, recognized that fostering empathy in children is key to building caring, peaceful, and civil societies. Since then, Roots of Empathy has reached over 1 million children around the world through their empathy-based programmes.

When I had the chance to speak with Mary about her current priorities, she started by emphasising that Roots of Empathy is focused on not just education for life, but empathy for life. She finds that many stakeholders in education often talk a lot about academic results and PISA scores to measure how well students are doing in grade 9. However she feels that we need to be focusing on something deeper: "Why aren't we looking at how they're feeling in grade 9? Why aren't we looking at what their world is like and what their experiences are?"  


How have you seen the need for empathy evolve throughout the past 27 years?

Mary has seen tremendous gains around the world in the recognition of the importance of empathy in the past quarter century. In the past, when she had just started talking about empathy, people would giggle, men would think that it was "effeminate and weak", and it was dismissed as unacceptable in academic discourse. Over time, however, there has been an increase in interest in every domain to talk about empathy - in not just education but also business circles, medical care, and more. "I think we have a crisis of connection in society and empathy is the secret sauce for getting it back."  

“I think we have a crisis of connection in society and empathy is the secret sauce for getting it back.”  


What has Roots of Empathy been doing? 

In a typical ROE classroom, you'll find a green blanket, a parent and their baby, and children learning to relate to one another. The flagship Roots of Empathy program is an experiential learning process in which a neighbourhood parent and infant visit a classroom throughout the school year. A trained Roots of Empathy Instructor uses a specialised curriculum to guide childrens' observations of the baby's feelings and intentions in order to learn the affective (emotion) and cognitive (perspective-taking) aspects of empathy. The purpose of the programme is to help children develop emotional literacy to be able to reflect on and understand their own feelings as well as the feelings of others. In addition, ROE has another similar programme, Seeds of Empathy, that is specifically designed for Early Learning and Child Care settings. 

These programmes have been hugely successful- research on the impact of the programme found an increase in prosocial behaviours, decrease in bullying and aggression, increase in students' empathy, and better mental health and well-being among participants. But ROE is not stopping there. Mary shared that they are planning on scaling deeply in the geographic areas where they operate rather than broadly. For example, they are launching Leaves of Literacy, another socio-emotional learning (SEL) and early literacy programme for children in licensed home-care settings. This programme would provide training for parents running small home based child care, making it easy for them to add fun activities around reading a book with the children in their care. 

The Nurturing Empathy programme is another new initiative that is "a parenting programme without telling you how to parent" that aims to support parents of students in the ROE programme aged between 5 and 8. This programme started because Mary recognised that there is a need for parents to better understand their children's behaviour and find different ways to work with each child's unique temperament so that they can enjoy the children more and feel more successful as parents. 

"This is a way for parents to feel that their time with their children is the most important thing. Because it's about nurturing empathy for children at home. And explaining the different ways that children behave." The programme includes videos that explain different temperament traits and the concept that there is a continuum for each trait. 

 “This is a way for parents to feel that what they are doing with their children is the most important thing. Because it’s about nurturing empathy for children at home. And explaining the different ways that children behave.”

The purpose of this is to show parents that "every child is unique ... even if you think you've parented them the same, they make you parent them differently". For example, if you have a child who is high on the continuum for the temperament trait for intensity, Mary explains that: "You don't have a bad child, you have a child who is highly intense and that is something across the lifespan that can become a very positive trait. So don't trample it, understand it."  

“It’s not you. It’s their uniqueness and you need to find a way to work with that. Don’t crush it.”

And it has been beautiful to see the results. One parent from Hawaii that participated in the programme shared: “I’m having fewer battles at home because I’m understanding that they’re not challenging me. And I am understanding them.”


Implementation Integrity 

When it comes to scaling and implementation, one thing that Mary Gordon is proud of is the degree of implementation integrity Roots of Empathy is committed to uphold. From the beginning of ROE, they have worked with researchers to set up a systematic way of evaluating their programmes to ensure that it is research-backed. They constantly evaluate how they're doing and invest deeply in the professional development of their instructors. Each instructor is paired with a mentor with whom they create a growth plan to identify all the areas that the instructor needs to gain expertise on. First year instructors are not certified until they have successfully taught for a year. Mary believes that you need discipline of implementation integrity to maintain a valuable education innovation, which is why ROE spends a significant amount of time ensuring that what they are doing is what they claim to do and investing in the professional development of their instructors, mentors, and trainers. 


Where do you see Roots of Empathy in 2030?

Mary hopes that in 2030, Roots of Empathy will have a broader geographic impact and touch more fields in order to impact the entire lifespan of children. "I'm really looking at the experience of childhood and the indelible imprint childhood has on learning, development, health, longevity and happiness across the decades. And where are all the opportunities to make it a glorious experience. Because [childhood] is the springtime of humanity, and very often children do not experience it as a garden."  

"I'm really looking at the experience of childhood and the indelible imprint childhood has on learning, development, health, longevity and happiness across the decades. And where are all the opportunities to make it a glorious experience. Because [childhood] is the springtime of humanity, and very often children do not experience it as a garden."  


Roots of Empathy is part of the HundrED Hall of Fame. If you are working on an innovation in education, submit an application now to be considered for the Global Collection.