Ending bullying with babies
By Darren Lum
Surrounded by the watchful eyes of Grade 5 and 6 students, who kneel and sit, silent, three-and-a-half month old Violet Buchanan lies on a green blanket, facing up with saliva bubbling out of her mouth as she gazes at her mother Caity.
Mother and child are not fully aware of the power they wield in shaping children’s minds, but they will be after their first day of implementing the Roots of Empathy program at Minden’s Archie Stouffer Elementary School, one of three Haliburton County schools offering it. The other schools participating are Stuart Baker Elementary School and Wilberforce Elementary School.
Caity and Violet’s visits with local program facilitator, family health nurse Kelly Taylor, are part of an effort to decrease levels of bullying and aggression while raising social emotional competence and increase empathy through the Roots of Empathy program.
The split class is taught by Violet’s father, Kevin Buchanan, who wanted his baby and his students to have an opportunity to learn from each other. The program is offered by the award-winning charity of the same name, which works to provide empathy-based programming for children.
Taylor said the objective of the program is for young participants to develop empathy by watching the development of the baby over the course of the year.
“When she smiles, if you look around, everyone just tends to smile when they smile because they see someone smile and it makes them feel good. So, they start to connect some of those things that if they have hurt someone’s feelings, it doesn’t feel good inside of them, and they can see the reaction that they caused in someone else,” she said.
The mother of a toddler, Taylor knows firsthand how babies communicate.
“They’re small and they can’t tell us what they need and what they want. And we have to pay attention to all those other signs to how they communicate and tell us,” she said.
A major factor in the program’s effectiveness is how children like babies, she said.
“They really tune into them and start recognizing and so clearly use other means to communicating,” she said.
She said this program is proven to have reduced bullying and aggression within students.
“They start realizing everyone is different. Everyone is unique and that’s OK to be unique,” she said.
The program’s website (rootsofempathy.org/en/research-intro.html) said since 2000 there have been nine independent evaluations and two reviews related to its effectiveness.
According to the Roots of Empathy website, the program participants have an increase in social and emotional knowledge, decrease in aggression, an increase in prosocial behaviour such as sharing and helping, increase in perceptions within the participant group of the classroom as a caring environment increased understanding of infants and parents, and lasting results.
It also said one study commissioned by the Manitoba government in 2001 measured the prosocial behaviour, physical aggression and indirect aggression the following three years after the program was administered. There were significant improvement in all three behaviours immediately after and then maintained or continued to improve three years on.
The organization Roots of Empathy also offers Seeds of Empathy for children aged three to five.
Violet’s first visit on Tuesday, Oct. 27 included class discussion, a series of activities for her to perform and measurements of her height and weight were taken. She will visit the class seven more times, every third week while Taylor will visit the class once a week, for a total of 27 visits.
The charitable organization Roots of Empathy that facilitates the program was started in 1996 by Canadian educator, author, child advocate and social entrepreneur Mary Gordon in Toronto. Gordon, an award-winning author, is a member of the Order of Canada.
The program has been taught in French and English to more than a half a million children from kindergarten to Grade 8 across Canada, the U.S., New Zealand, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Scotland.
Caity, who is on maternity leave, will make the school visits with her daughter and gives an added dimension to the learning experience for the students, who also see the interaction between mother and daughter.
Caity wanted her youngest daughter to have social interaction and new experiences.
“I’m excited to see how the kids are going to react to her throughout the year and at the end what they get out of it. And, what Violet gets out of it,” she said.