Tiny Teachers

Roots of Empathy brings babies into the classroom for lessons in social-emotional learning.


Pat Mazzera

Seven-month-old Jack Luther Fowler sits on a soft green blanket surrounded by a circle of Oakland fifth-graders. All eyes are on the baby as he snuggles against his mom, looks around with big brown eyes, and offers generous grins that bring oohs and aahs from the kids. The students smile back, make funny faces, and generally can’t get enough of this tiny boy. “Look at him; he can sit up now,” one girl observes. Several other kids snap their fingers to represent f neurons firing, their way of saying that Jack Luther’s brain has been developing since he last came to class, about three weeks ago.

This Sequoia Elementary School class is taking part in Roots of Empathy, or ROE, an international program that helps children understand and respond to emotions, both their own and those of others. Jack Luther, sporting a tiny T-shirt labeled “teacher,” and his mother, Brynna Jourden, a 34-year-old first-time mom, will visit these students nine times during the school year. Volunteer ROE instructor Jennifer Ryan Middleton will lead an additional lesson the week before and the week after each baby visit, for a total of 27 sessions.

As Jack Luther gets comfortable, Ryan
Middleton asks the kids how they think he’s feeling today. “Happy,” “awesome,” and “I think he remembers us,” are some of the responses. The kids watch intently as Jack Luther tries to grasp a small plastic ball just out of his reach on the blanket. When he figures out that by tugging on the blanket, he can bring the ball close enough to pick up, the kids cheer and snap their fingers to represent the baby’s brain neurons at work.

Canadian educator Mary Gordon created ROE in 1996. As a classroom teacher in Toronto, Gordon had observed that many students lacked a basic ability to describe their own feelings. “We had a lot of aggression,” she says, “and the children’s feelings were not on the agenda at all.” When Gordon proposed that the common denominator fueling behavior like child abuse, domestic violence, and bullying is an absence of empathy on the part of the abuser, her ideas were far from accepted. “It was radical in those days that there was any connection between understanding how other people feel and hurting them,”
she says.

Today, her program is offered throughout Canada, as well as in several European countries, New Zealand, and three U.S. states. To date, 450,000 students in kindergarten through eighth grade have taken part. When the school year begins, the babies must be between 2 and 4 months old, so that as the weeks pass, they will reach major developmental milestones that the kids can easily observe. With coaching, students become attuned to the baby’s needs and feelings, and by extension, gain insight into themselves and others.

Now in its second year in Oakland, the program has enthusiastic administrative support and is offered in 20 classrooms within 10 schools. The curriculum includes baby safety as well as a focus on bullying, a topic that sparks strong interest and stirs up powerful emotions among the kids. Ryan Middleton says that her students are opening up with their own stories about times they were excluded and how that felt. In one of her classes, a girl felt confident enough to publicly confront classmates who had been whispering about her. ROE is part of the district’s five-year strategic plan to promote social-emotional learning, a process that includes managing emotions, forming positive relationships, and making responsible decisions.

At Sequoia, the kids easily make connections between Jack Luther and themselves. “We learned that everybody has different temperaments,” says 10-year-old Carlita Landrum. “I thought of my own sensitivity, because if someone yelled at me, I would start crying right off the bat.” Lucy Clifford describes her outgoing personality as “sparky,” and adds, “Jack Luther is sparky, too.” With a gleam in his eye, Salman Assana says Jack Luther is “very, very high in activity, like me.” Instructors talk about traits in a nonjudgmental way, so that “high in activity” doesn’t translate to “disruptive.”

This fifth-grade’s classroom teacher,
Barbara Schmidt, says that many of her students have babies in their family, making the learning very practical. Salmon’s mom is pregnant, and he showed her the ROE website. Schmidt notes an impact on her students. “I see them being a bit more hypervigilant about taking care of one another than they used to be at the beginning of the year,” she says. Her observation fits with the results of a three-year study conducted by the government of Manitoba, showing decreased physical aggression and increased pro-social behavior in students who have taken part in the program.

Jack Luther’s mom, known in class as “Mama Brynna,” says the program has helped her as a new parent, affording her the chance to reflect on her son’s growth through the appreciative audience of his “big-kid friends.” “They’re so patient and caring,” she says of the kids. “They’re attentive to every little thing that’s happened with him.”

About 40 minutes into the visit, Jack Luther starts to yawn and lean back on mom. The baby’s needs always come first, and the kids stand up for their goodbye song. Mama Brynna carries Jack Luther around the circle as the children sing over and over, “Goodbye, Jack Luther; we’ll see you soon, see you very soon!”  Jourden stops in front of each child, so he or she can smile at the baby, wave, touch his feet, or in one case, meow.

Cayan Dibble, a serious boy who describes himself as someone high in sensitivity who gets angry a lot and cries easily, says about Jack Luther: “I remember the first time he came close to me,” says Cayan. “I was excited.”

If you’re interested in becoming a Roots of Empathy volunteer family or volunteer instructor, contact Ilene Fortune at ifortune@rootsofempathy.org. For the upcoming school year, babies must be born between June and August. www.rootsofempathy.org

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