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Firm foundations

Firm foundations

Jayden has been educating and entertaining a class of eight and nine year-olds for the past half hour when a yawn escapes him. It is exhausting work and he won’t be the only teacher who feels like a well-earned lie down at the end of a lesson. Not so many, however, will find their pupils as eager to sing rounds of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ in order to lull them to sleep, or willing to tiptoe out of the classroom so as not to disturb him once he has drifted off.

But then at just under five months-old, baby Jayden is not your typical teacher.

For the past year, ‘tiny teachers’ like Jayden have been employed in classrooms across North Lanarkshire as part of a pilot programme that seeks to raise social and emotional competence among children. By increasing empathy it aims to grow understanding of how they, and others, feel, resulting in more respectful relationships and reduced levels of bullying and aggression in schools.

Roots of Empathy was developed in Canada 15 years ago and since then over 450,000 children have taken part in the programme worldwide. The Scottish pilot, which is being run by the children’s charity Action for Children, was the first to be delivered in Britain. It has been so enthusiastically received that it will now be rolled out to 15 local authorities across Scotland following investment from the Early Years Early Action Fund, which is delivered by Inspiring Scotland, in partnership with the Scottish Government.

Louise Warde-Hunter, strategic director of children’s services at Action for Children, says the charity is “proud” to have introduced the programme to Scotland. Action for Children has a track record of developing “innovative” approaches, she says, which this programme is testament to.

“At Action for Children, we are committed to promoting the benefits of early intervention and Roots of Empathy is an excellent example of this,” Warde-Hunter says.  “By increasing levels of ‘emotional literacy’ in children at a young age we can lay the foundation for safe and caring classrooms and, in the long term, safe and caring societies.”

One hundred and fifty baby volunteers have now been recruited to the roll-out of the programme across Scotland. Wherever it travels to, however, the format is the same. A neighbourhood infant and their parent visit a school every few weeks throughout the school year. During their visits, a Roots of Empathy instructor gathers the pupils around a green blanket where they are coached to observe the baby’s development, celebrate its milestones, interact with the infant and learn about its needs.

At the Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School in Motherwell, Jayden and his mum Melissa have the class’s undivided attention. They note that he’s grown since the last visit, delight in his smiles as they serenade him with nursery rhymes, are amused by his startled expression during a game of peek-a-boo, and observe how his mum comforts him when he is unnerved by an encounter with a life-sized doll. The children learn to see the world through his eyes. And through understanding his vulnerabilities, they better understand their own.

As Jayden reacts to his surroundings, the children are tasked by the instructor to become detectives. “How do you think the baby is feeling? What do you notice about the baby’s expression? Is the baby being very active or still? When you sing to the baby, what do you notice about the baby’s face?”

The baby can’t yet verbalise how he is feeling, so the children are instructed to read his facial expressions for clues and to problem solve. The pupils observe Jayden mesmerised by a toy fish. He reaches for it and wails when he can’t grip it. “Would the baby really like to get that toy,” they are asked. “But he is too young. His hands don’t work like that. How frustrating is that? His hands are shaking but he can’t hold the toy.”

This presents the instructor with an opportunity to ask, ‘When was a time that you felt frustrated like that? When was a time that you felt like crying?’ Their responses are searingly honest. “When I don’t know what to do.” “When I feel frightened.” “When I’m lonely.” “When I’m sick.” “When I’m scared.” “When I’m bullied.” “When I’m shouted at,” they reply without hesitation.

Roots of Empathy programme founder, president and parenting expert, Mary Gordon, who attended the ‘celebration’ of the launch of the programme in Scotland, praised the “emotional integrity” and bravery of the children for voicing their feelings.

“It is brave. They have confidence even at this stage that they are not going to be made fun of. We build up that respect and caring and that is what it is about. The idea that ‘These are my classmates and they will support me.’ Rather than, ‘These kids are going to bully me if they find out that I am vulnerable and I am afraid of things.’” It doesn’t matter how old or big you are, she says: “No one is tough inside”.

She continues: “Every child hears this so the child who might feel a little bit shy or feel they are all alone in their worries hears that other children, even boys speaking up, feel like crying inside and cry outside too.” Gordon has been impressed by how quickly things are being progressed in Scotland, and says the Scottish Government’s ongoing support has been “a huge vote of confidence” in the programme.

“I have every faith that the programme will roll out with fidelity. I’m a real freak when it comes to implementation and integrity, I want every child to get the real deal and they are. So I was very happy. I’m very happy with Action for Children and I think with the political will here there is going to be a good roll-out in Scotland.” The programme has already made a strong impression in North Lanarkshire.

“We had very compelling feedback from teachers, parents and children who have participated in the first year of the pilot,” Alison MacDonald, principal educational psychologist, North Lanarkshire Council, said at the launch event.

“Children speak of their enhanced understanding of child development, of children’s needs, of the way babies communicate those needs and ways of meeting those needs,” she said. They are also able to talk “very eloquently” about their understanding of their own feelings and are able to find ways of managing strong and negative emotions.

However, they now want to evidence its impact in a “systematic” way, she said, and so along with Action for Children they will be undertaking research over the coming year to evaluate the outcomes for children, such as incidences of pro-social behaviour, the impact on class climate and levels of general wellbeing, and will report on their findings next summer.

The Roots of Empathy programme, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation and the Dali Lama, has already been evaluated elsewhere, however, and found to have a long-lasting positive impact on behaviour. The programme is said to have increased helping behaviour in 78 per cent of children, peer acceptance in 74 per cent of children, sharing in 69 per cent of students and pro-social behaviour in 65 per cent of students who participate.

In the short term these achievements lay the foundations for safe and caring classrooms. But the programme also has longerterm ambitions, and ultimately it hopes to equip young people with the emotional literacy that will enable them to become responsive parents and caring and compassionate citizens. “You can’t teach empathy, but I promise you, it can be caught. It is caught around the green blanket,” says Gordon. “Families, without question, are the most important institution under the stars,” she states.

“But next to families, we have brilliant opportunities in education. Schools are huge socialising influences on children. When you have a programme like Roots of Empathy that teaches all the children and treats them all equally that is not targeted to the children who have very high needs, and we do need those programmes, but we need programmes that are preventative in nature. You have to take the cap off the suffering downstream.”

It is a universal programme that leaves no one behind, Gordon emphasises. “Roots of Empathy addresses the broken hearts and the emotional shrapnel that exists in our society. On the streets, people who can’t begin to tell you how they feel but they will punch you or they will stab you to deal with the pent up anger of being isolated and marginalised.

“We can’t make life fair for everybody,” she adds. “But we can build resilience in children and make them have a sense that they can regulate their own feelings.”

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