Can spending time with a baby prevent bullying? One school program, Roots of Empathy, brings babies and their moms into classrooms. And research suggests that participating classrooms show a reduction in bullying and aggressive behavior.
Is it really just that simple? What is the exact nature of the Roots of Empathy program, and how can we reproduce these results in our own children’s classrooms? Because even one child bullied, is one child too many.
Roots of Empathy has developed a research-based school program for primary school children in which the teaching tools consist, in the main, of a local baby and parent. The program has spread across Canada and to 10 other countries, as well. More than 800,000 children have experienced the program since the nonprofit’s founding, in 1996. Roots of Empathy Founder Mary Gordon, says the long-term goal of the program is to build a “more caring, peaceful, and civil society, where everybody feels a sense of belonging.”
The Roots of Empathy program has local parents volunteering themselves and their babies, coming every few weeks to classrooms, so that children can witness a baby’s vulnerability and development over time. Gordon says she started the program because she wanted to find a way to help children talk about their feelings. “Roots of empathy is a bit of a trick. We use a baby to help children find the vulnerability and humanity in this little baby so that then you can flip it back to their own experiences.
“They realize this sudden universe of ‘everybody in the world feels the same as me. We’re not so disconnected.’
“It’s very hard to hate someone if you realize they feel like you. It’s very hard to be bullying someone if you realize that.”
Lisa Bahar, a licensed psychotherapist in Newport Beach, California, explains that the goal of the Roots of Empathy program goal is to realize that “we” are all the same, “in the sense of wanting to belong, to be loved and cared about. This kind of unique vehicle of bringing a baby into the classroom is what I consider a wonderful way to allow children to relate to someone who is nonthreatening, and who can give a young person the awareness of true connection to other human beings. This creates empathy, sympathy and compassion,” says Bahar.
But is this really something we need to have in our classrooms? Shouldn’t parents be teaching empathy at home? “If we are educating children who can read well and compute well but can’t relate well, we will have a failed society. Learning how to relate to one another requires empathy. You have to understand how the other fella feels,” says Mary Gordon.
Can It Heal A Bully?
Can the Roots of Empathy program help turn around a child who is already a bully? Bahar says yes. “Spending time with a baby activates the senses as we observe the eyes, the responses, the touch, and the expressions of the baby. These sensory impressions can be internalized and experienced through the baby. The pathology that exists within the bully will fight to resist the impact of these sensory lessons, the insight will nonetheless be gained, as the child experiences a sense of connection to another living being,” says Bahar.
Studies from 2000 onward, confirm that the Roots of Empathy program is effective, reducing bullying and aggression over the course of the school year and over time, in general. Children who take part in the program have an increased sense of positivity about the classroom environment. They feel more of a sense of belonging and acceptance. Students are also more likely to engage in “pro-social” behavior, for instance sharing with and helping their peers, and including them in their activities. Perhaps most important of all, the program appears to reduce fighting among classmates by 50 percent, on average. This is notable, since in general, classroom squabbles tend to increase over the course of the school year.
Roots of Empathy and the Root Cause of Bullying
But Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, and regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors and CBS TV, says that as a method of targeting bullies, Roots of Empathy misses the mark. “Roots of Empathy is a truly wonderful and beautiful program that by bringing a baby into the classroom teaches school age children about human relatedness, reading/understanding emotions, and human-to-human engagement. However, they missed the mark for targeting prevention of bullying. Clearly, the creators do not fully understand the root cause of all bullies,” says Walfish, who explains, “All bullies carry a secret that they, personally, have been the target of bullying, mistreatment, and mishandling by someone important within their family. That important someone is usually their father or mother, and in less frequent instances, an older sibling. Often, the mistreatment is abusive—emotionally or physically.
“The child who is the victim in his own family cannot ‘hold’ or contain the hostility and rage, and thus becomes the bully. He goes to school or out into the world and looks for an easy target. Then, he expels his hostilities onto another innocent victim. It is a vicious cycle,” says Walfish, suggesting that playing with a baby is just not going to cut it, not going to stop that cycle, and is certainly not going to prevent that cycle from occurring in the first place.
Erin Clabough, PhD, a neurobiologist and author of Second Nature: How Parents Can Use Neuroscience to Help Kids Develop Empathy, Creativity, and Self-Control (December 2018, Sounds True Publishing) sees Roots of Empathy program as, at the very least, a valuable tool in developing empathy, even among bullies. “Being a bully doesn’t mean you are pathological. Everyone can be a bully if they are placed in the wrong kind of situation. Part of our role as parents is to put our kids in roles where they can experience healthy things and feel how rewarding they are. Roots of Empathy is an incredible program that works to increase social awareness in kids and its effectiveness is supported by lots of peer-reviewed studies.”
But according to Clabough, the Roots of Empathy program isn’t enough. “Bringing a baby into the classroom to decrease the incidence of bullying in a school is a great start. But if that’s all we do, it will make as much meaningful change in a person as playing with a puppy for the afternoon. It’s a cute stress-reliever, a great wake-up call, and you can certainly learn a lot about nonverbal emotional communication from a baby, but these kids also need to practice cross-age relationships in an ongoing way.”
Clabough suggests that the buddy system is a great way to provide this sort of relationship practice and provides a means to build on the Roots of Empathy program. “Having a buddy in lower grades that kids see once a week is a great way to do this through the school setting, as is providing older mentors (for example, an 8th grader mentoring a 6th grader new to middle school). Our elementary school (Free Union Country School, in the Charlottesville, Virginia area) does a great job with this—every child in grades 2-5 has a smaller buddy in grades PreK-1. The buddy partnerships change each year, and as the children advance through school, they look forward to the time when they can finally be the big buddy,” says Clabough.
The practical benefits of the buddy system, suggests Clabough, are broad. “This buddy system normalizes having friends of different ages, it allows kids to grow meaningful connections to individuals outside their normal social groups, it creates a broader sense of belonging, and it strengthens every kid’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, it gives kids a chance to practice empathy through both teaching and looking at things from a different person’s perspective,” says Clabough, a mother of four, who concedes that, “The Roots of Empathy program has other components that are worth exploring.”