This article by Katie Macleod was first published in EVENTS newspaper (available at www.hebevents.com) on 05/03/2020   

What can a baby teach us about empathy? For local school pupils taking part in the Roots of Empathy programme, the answer is everything from empathy to emotional resilience and even responsible citizenship.

Roots of Empathy – which originated in Canada in 1996 – works by taking a volunteer or “teacher” baby and their parent into a primary classroom for nine visits throughout the school year. A trained instructor then leads the sessions, which help pupils learn to label the baby’s emotions and bond with the child through playing, singing, and reading – all with the ultimate goal of making the pupils more empathetic, emotionally literate, and less likely to engage in bullying. 

Since it was first introduced in Scotland in North Lanarkshire by Action for Children in 2010, the programme has expanded to every local authority in Scotland, with Uist and Benbecula receiving their first programme in 2011. Michelle Macrury, Social Work Assistant for Comhairle nan Eileen Siar’s Education and Children’s Services and a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor, has so far delivered nine different programmes in different island schools, and is currently delivering Roots of Empathy to the Primary 1-3 class at Iochdar School in South Uist.

“The children see how the baby has developed, they see all the milestones and developmental stages, and they become so attached to him,” says Michelle. She explains that there are nine themes in each programme, beginning with “Meeting the Baby” and going on to cover topics such as “Caring and Planning,” “Emotions,” and “Communication.” Three separate school sessions – a pre-family session, a family session with the parent and baby, and a post-family session – then take place for each theme, with the post-family lesson reinforcing the teachings around feelings and empathy. 

Roots of Empathy also brings in skills from other areas of pupils’ education, including maths skills while working out the weight of the baby; literacy skills while reading stories about communicating; and art skills as pupils draw and paint to express their own feelings. “I’ll read stories as part of the programme, and the children do quite a bit of artwork, drawing pictures of their feelings. It might be “How I felt when my first tooth came out,” because they’ve seen the baby getting their first tooth, and it makes them think about each other’s feelings,” explains Michelle. On top of developing the ability to understand their own feelings and those of others, Roots of Empathy also aims to prepare pupils for responsible citizenship and parenting in the future.

“We were delighted when our P1-4 GLE children were invited to participate in the Roots of Empathy programme last session,” says Sarah Jane Macsween, Head Teacher at Sgoil Uibhist a Tuath. “I think this progamme would provide an ideal context for developing vocabulary in the Gaelic Medium Education early years setting and hope to introduce this next year.”

“Once every three weeks, our neighbour, baby Moses MacIsaac and his mother, Marion MacIsaac, came to visit our school and worked with our children and class teacher, Mrs Ellwood, in their classroom. Michelle Macrury lead the sessions as our children observed the signs of how baby Moses was feeling. There were nine baby visits lasting 40 minutes per session, and our children engaged and interacted very positively during all the sessions.”

 

More than 500,000 children around the world have taken part in the programme since it began, and in 2013 Scotland was the first country to roll Roots of Empathy out to every council area, thanks to £1.2 million in Scottish Government funding. In the next school session, Roots of Empathy will also be delivered locally entirely in Gaelic, when Michelle’s colleague Anne Marie Johnstone completes the Roots of Empathy training in Glasgow. As Michelle says, “the schools have enjoyed it and thought that it has been very beneficial to the pupils,” and the addition of Gaelic sessions will expand its reach.

After nearly a decade of the programme, Roots of Empathy is starting to come full circle in the islands, and the bonds with the baby “teachers” remains long past the sessions have ended. Jenna Macdonald, who was herself a Roots of Empathy baby in Sgoil Bhaile a’ Mhanaich, is now a pupil in Iochdar School, learning to look after the current volunteer baby, Seonaidh MacRury, who is visiting the school with his mother Kareen Currie. 

“We were very excited about welcoming Moses and his mother Marion and the programme was a great success,” says Sarah Jane of Sgoil Uibhist a Tuath’s experience with Roots of Empathy. “Our children and school community now have a very positive relationship with Moses’ family, and we look forward to welcoming Moses as pupil in four years’ time!”