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Ribbon HUNDRED 2020
Looking to teach empathy and reduce aggression in the classroom?

Roots of Empathy

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program for primary school children that decreases aggression, including bullying, and increases prosocial behaviours such as caring, sharing and inclusion. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood parent and baby who visit a classroom over the course of a school year. Using an age-appropriate curriculum, a certified Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches the students to observe the baby’s intentions and to label the baby’s feelings. Children learn that we share the same feelings and our feelings are at the core of our humanity.

What is Roots of Empathy?

Mary Gordon, Founder of Roots of Empathy
“Babies respond intuitively to love. They are blind to the differences as defined by the world.”

Mary Gordon, Founder of Roots of Empathy

We are experiencing a decline of empathy and a crisis of connection.  In a world where our differences increasingly tend to alienate us from one another, there is a need to build empathy so we can find our shared humanity. We all ache to belong and those who feel excluded from society very often retaliate with societal or domestic violence. When children are empathic they include others because they understand what it feels like to be left out. We need to nurture empathy in our children so that they will build a caring, peaceful and civil society that is inclusive of all.

When children learn to be empathic, they are less likely to be aggressive, to bully or to hurt others. They are more likely to treat others with kindness and to be aware of including others. Children learn how to build healthy relationships when they are emotionally literate and have developed a sense of their own self-efficacy which allows them to have the courage to stand up for themselves and others. In a Roots of Empathy classroom, this happens through experiential learning with the infant, parent and a certified Instructor. Roots of Empathy delivers its program universally in the classroom without targeting specific children. Those children, who through no fault of their own or their parents, may not have had a secure attachment relationship, have another opportunity to develop empathy.

Roots of Empathy increases levels of empathy and increases the connection between students and that connection ripples out to all of the relationships in their lives.

At the heart of the program are a neighborhood parent and baby who visit a classroom over the course of a school year. Using an age-appropriate curriculum, a certified Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches the students to observe the baby’s intentions and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “teacher” and a catalyst that the Instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others – empathy. Children learn that we share the same feelings and our feelings are at the core of our humanity.

Empathy is the developmental mechanism that correlates most highly with altruistic behavior. It is the ability to take the perspective of the other and to feel with them. Empathy cannot be successfully taught through traditional instruction, but it can be caught experientially, changing the architecture of the brain. If we develop empathy in children, they will behave inclusively. They will challenge cruelty and injustice, creating more empathic classrooms where all children are included. The best way to change tomorrow is to work with the children of today, creating a change from within that lasts.

Our programs are experiential and work on the principles of intrinsic pride and intrinsic motivation. Children are not manipulated by praise or rewards in the Roots of Empathy classroom, which acts as a participatory democracy. Children are encouraged to find their voice and use it.  

In the Roots of Empathy program, children learn that our shared feelings unite us more than do our differences.  Every classroom is a microcosm of society and children who are different are at risk of exclusion. In the Roots of Empathy classrooms where no judgments are made, a climate of social inclusion and equity develops. Roots of Empathy classrooms contribute to the development of caring schools and change not only the child, but also the teacher, and can tip the culture of a whole school when at scale.

Roots of Empathy’s curriculum activities also have links to classroom curricula. For example, students use math skills when they calculate and chart the baby’s weight and measurements. They also use literature to help support and understand emotional literacy and perspective-taking.

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Innovation Overview
3 - 14
Age Group
1 000 000
7 681
Tips for implementation
The program takes place over a school year, with the Instructor delivering a weekly 30 – 40 minute classroom lesson. Roots of Empathy supplies the curriculum, the kit of toys, green blanket, etc, the stories that are read and discussed with the children, other resources required by the Instructor, and professional development opportunities to deepen understanding and delivery of the curriculum. The people required are to run the programme are: A certified Instructor who delivers a weekly lesson, Roots of Empathy Trainer, Roots of Empathy Mentor, a supportive classroom teacher, a supportive school principal/head of school, a volunteer parent and infant, local community development person/manager.
Contact information
Brenda McCormack
HundrED Review

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 our differences to marginalize, hate or hurt each other. This is how caring, peaceful and civil societies are created. Roots of Empathy recognizes that a baby’s body is a theatre of emotion & that babies can be a unique and powerful way to teach empathy in schools.


Roots of Empathy is committed to research and evaluation of our programs, and the exchange of knowledge. Roots of Empathy has been evaluated in both comparative and randomized controlled studies designed to measure changes in the behavior of participating students. Over 17 years of research has yielded consistent results, showing that Roots of Empathy students perceive a more inclusive and caring classroom environment by the end of the program. Roots of Empathy students exhibit: A decrease in aggression, including bullying, an increase in prosocial behavior, an increase in social and emotional understanding & an increase in knowledge of safe parenting. In addition to scientific university-based research on three continents, every child in all 11 countries who participates in Roots of Empathy is invited to evaluate their experience. A great amount of time and expense is directed towards aggregating the feedback and sending reports to all stakeholders in all 11 countries. They believe the voice of the children and often change curriculum based on their feedback.


Civil society requires empathy and solidarity. Roots of Empathy seeds civility at the classroom level. It has been called ‘Canada’s olive branch to the world’ and a program ‘that will build peace.’ It has proven itself sustainable, scalable to, at last count, 11 countries. All this, from the power of a tiny teacher. That is why the Roots of Empathy motto is: Changing the world, child by child.


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Inspired to implement this? Here's how...

Work with the Roots of Empathy local coordinator to develop a ...
Considerations include the goals of the school as a whole, which may decide to have the program delivered in younger grades or older grades and across a grade level.
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Determine which classrooms will host the program
The support and enthusiasm of the host classroom teacher is important to the success of the program.
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Find a baby!
The school works with the local coordinator to find a volunteer neighbourhood parent and baby who will be the ‘heart’ of the program.
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Co-ordination and planning
The classroom teacher works with the Instructor to coordinate the lesson schedule.
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Annual Program Evaluation
At the end of the program year, the classroom teacher, students, volunteer parent and Instructor complete an Annual Program Evaluation which is used to inform local adaptation and quality assurance.
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Join the symposium
Roots of Empathy hosts an Annual Research Symposium offering engaging and thought-provoking research presentations from world-renowned international scientists.
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