Teaching children empathy

One of the most fundamental ways to create nonviolent communities is to start early– that is, with early childhood education. Based in Toronto, Seeds of Empathy (http://www.seedsofempathy.org/) is an organization that does exactly that. Their mission, in the words of Founder/President Mary Gordon, is as follows:

Empathy is the ultimate human trait. It is the connective tissue that allows us to realize our shared humanity – our emotions. One of the milestones of the last century was Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. He said “that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is our hope that in this century we will learn to walk in one another’s shoes– empathy.

Working with early childhood educators, Seeds of Empathy uses literacy training as a means of teaching children ages 3-5 to identify feelings in others. They describe their program in this way:

We teach a series of themes, each on a three-week cycle. During the first and second weeks of each cycle, Literacy Coaches (specially-trained staff members from the [Early Childhood Education] Centre) read and discuss books with small groups of children. In the third week, a Family Guide (another specially-trained staff member) hosts a Family Visit, where a baby (two to four months old at the beginning of the course) and his/her parent(s) visit the children in the Centre for half an hour. The Family Guide encourages the children to observe the baby’s development, to label the baby’s feelings, and to talk about their own feelings and those of others.

Seeds of Empathy is an off-shoot of a larger international organization (also based in Toronto) called Roots of Empathy (http://www.rootsofempathy.org/), one that attempts to reduce levels of aggression (eg. bullying) among schoolchildren by increasing empathy and “raising social/emotional competence”. Their experiential approach to education is fascinating, and the following discussion of emotional literacy (found on their website) does a good job at explaining how real-life interaction leads to mental and social growth in children:

At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This “emotional literacy” taught in the program lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the “Changers”. They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties. In the Roots of Empathy program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. The Instructor also visits before and after each family visit to prepare and reinforce teachings using a specialized lesson plan for each visit. Research results from national and international evaluations of Roots of Empathy indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behaviour.

A fascinating organization, and a very worthwhile endeavour.

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