"Catching" Empathy

Mary Gordon, Founder and President of the Roots of Empathy organization, describes empathy as something contagious that spreads from one person to another. She says that empathy is caught, as opposed to a skill or ability that is taught. Empathy development is experiential. It must be observed or witnessed; empathy is not learned from a textbook.

As a Kindergarten teacher, Gordon was very concerned about some of her students and how troubled and sad they were. She realized early in her career that schools must reach out to families before their children enter school and that schools could still be instrumental in developing empathy in children already in classrooms. From this realization, she developed Roots of Empathy (ROE). ROE is a Kindergarten through 8th-grade curriculum that unites a classroom with a family and their baby at the beginning of the school year. The curriculum is divided into  nine themes, and three lessons support each theme.  The family visits the classroom nine times throughout the year.

She explains the process to the authors of Born for Love: "When we use little babies as teachers, it's not just the babies we're watching. We're watching the baby in tandem with the parent. I believe that successful people develop empathy from receiving empathy or witnessing empathy."

While some may be quick to scoff at the Roots of Empathy approach, it is important to note the compelling evidence from nine independent research studies. Schools implementing ROE saw the following:
  • Decrease in bullying and aggression
  • Increase in prosocial behavior (e.g. sharing, helping and inclusion)
  • Increase in social-emotional competence
  • Increase in perceptions of the classroom as a caring environment
  • Increased understanding of infants and parenting in ROE students
  • Lasting results
The Roots of Empathy curriculum is used extensively in Canada, but is also used in England, Ireland, New Zealand, and some US states. For more information about Mary Gordon and the program, the first chapter of her book, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, is available free for download here.

Will increasing empathy solve all the world’s problems? Of course not. 
But few of them can be solved without it.     
 ~Born for Love



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