Helping kindergartners to develop empathy

Program seeks to promote empathy in Grand Forks and region kindergartners.

Evan Coupland and mother Krista Soobotin were part of Hutton Elementary’s Roots of Empathy program this past school year.

Empathy is a tool being employed to curb the amount of aggression amongst school children all over the world, including here in the Boundary.

The world-renowned Roots of Empathy (ROE) program aims to raise social and emotional levels in children.

While there is curriculum for Kindergarten through Grade 8, the focus in the Boundary is on the youngest of citizens in the school system – Kindergartners.

On top of developing empathy, the program also seeks to reduce the incidences of bullying and violence, educate students on human development and infant safety and prepare students to be responsible citizens and parents.

At the centre of the program are a neighbourhood infant and their parents) who visit the classroom nine times over the course of the school year.

A trained Roots of Empathy instructor guides the students in discussion while the class observes the infant-parent relationship.

“We rely on the baby to be the teacher in the classroom”, explains Ellen Strelaeff, Early Learning co-ordinator with Boundary Family & Individual Services Society.

It is reinforced for the students that a crying baby is not a bad baby but a baby with a problem.

They are encouraged to be scientists and try to figure out how to help the baby.  It is through the eyes of the infant that the students learn and understand their world around them.

“From safety to bullying, to learning new things, they learn how to treat others just like we would that special baby, because we all have feelings, we all have a different temperament and we can all make a choice how to respond in a given situation”, explains Ardena Elliot, a Roots of Empathy instructor in the West Boundary.

She says that children respond very positively to the program and has students coming up to her and asking if Roots of Empathy is happening today – the students can’t wait for the next visit she says.

Through the context of the baby, children learn about temperament and about feelings and are able to label the feelings that they believe the baby is experiencing.

“Most importantly”, Elliot adds, “they learn how it applies to themselves and those around them – friends, family and in the school.”

Developing children’s capacity to take another’s perspective is key towards preventing bullying and other aggressive behaviour.

Emotional literacy and empathy are the foundations for a caring and safe classroom.

If we can supply children with these tools at a young age, our children can be more emotionally competent and be likely to challenge the injustices in our communities and beyond.

The program also lays the foundation for the future of these students as parents and citizens in our community.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development cut funding to the Roots of Empathy program a couple of years ago.

Thanks to a very generous donation from the Elaine Dulsey Fund, and in partnership with School District 51 (SD51) and Boundary Family and Individual Services Society, the program was offered in the 2010-11 school year.

Recently there has been a funding announcement made by B.C. Premier Christy Clark with the province’s commitment of $800,000 to provide some support the  Roots of Empathy program in Kindergarten classrooms.