Teaching empathy: Seattle launches a compassion movement
Written by Kristen Dobson
Nine-year-old Sylvie is crying. Hot tears of humiliation roll down her cheeks as she turns her face away from her tormentors. Several of her classmates are laughing at her shoes — cheap, unfashionable and done up with Velcro straps. “Baby shoes,” they call them, “geeky shoes.” Embarrassed and defeated, Sylvie lines up with her class to go outside for recess.
Suddenly, thankfully, help comes for Sylvie. Her best friend, June, quietly swaps one shoe with her. As the girls stand side by side in their mismatched shoes, June is silently telling the attackers, “This is my friend. Make fun of her and you make fun of me.” Without saying a word, she has turned a bullying attack into something powerful, something playful and light.
“The empathetic insight and quick thinking of that child gives us hope,” says Mary Gordon, creator of Roots of Empathy, an innovative classroom program that’s just reached our area. “This story is one example of anti-bullying behavior that develops in children who experience the Roots of Empathy program.”
Though it’s just getting under way in 10 local schools, Roots of Empathy has an 11-year track record of reducing aggression and increasing empathy and social/emotional competence in schools all across Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and now here.
The program is elegant in its simplicity. Every three weeks during the school year, a baby and parent, recruited from the community, visit the classroom (kindergarten to eighth grade) with a certified Roots of Empathy instructor. The instructor helps the students learn about the baby’s development, celebrate the baby’s milestones, and learn about what it takes to raise a baby. They come to see the baby as a complete human being with preferences and personality, not just a drooling blob in a diaper. They gather around a blanket on the floor, and pepper the baby’s mom with questions: “Can she sit up yet? Can he hold a toy?”
Other lessons take place without the baby there. It’s a specific and comprehensive curriculum, and over the course of the year, the students get acutely invested in their baby’s life. Mary Gordon, Roots of Empathy’s founder, recently visited a classroom in Kent. “I said to the class, ‘I’ve never met your baby. Tell me about your baby.’ They could have gone on for an hour!” Gordon laughs. The children — boys and girls alike — are eager to share, bursting with news about “their” baby: her name, what she likes and doesn’t like, whether she can hold something in her hand, what makes her frustrated. It’s no surprise to Gordon, who has seen this effect many times before. “When you have a baby in your classroom, you become part of their family and they become part of yours, and you love them.”
That love is key to developing empathy, and to refusing to allow others to be mistreated. “The children think, ‘I wouldn’t want someone to treat me that way,’ says Wendie Bramwell, a Roots of Empathy instructor at Sacajawea Elementary School in Seattle. “When a child becomes protective of a baby, the next level is the child doesn’t want anyone to hurt that baby. So why is it OK with a classmate?”
And those babies really break down barriers. By all accounts, children in this program become totally engaged when the baby visits, becoming intensely and unself-consciously focused on the infant. “It’s OK to be who you are with babies, because they themselves are so vulnerable,” says Miriam Hirschstein, a Roots of Empathy instructor at Seattle’s John Stanford International School and an educational psychologist at the University of Washington’s Center on Infant Mental Health and Development. “Your heart flies right open. Everybody gets the same goofy smile.
“I asked some kids to demonstrate how they might hold the baby, and passed a doll to some fifth-grade boys,” Hirschstein says. “To see these boys carefully handling this doll was so touching — and they weren’t being laughed at!”
“The walls just immediately come down,” agrees Brent Hester, a fifth-grade teacher at John Stanford International School. “A few of my boys who tend to be more the ‘cool’ kids are fixated, absolutely fixated. All of their worries about how they look, about being cool, cracking each other up — all that just melts away. It’s a very high level of engagement.
“The whole point of this experience is to give students a common frame of reference to be able to talk about how they’re feeling,” Hester says. “It creates self-awareness.”
Debra Pralle sees that connection every time she brings her baby, Miles, to visit the first-grade classroom at Sacajawea Elementary. “The children tell wonderful stories about how things relate to them,” Pralle says. “Last week we were talking about how I give Miles a bath, and they all had something to say about baths!” laughs Pralle.
Sure, empathy is great, but why not “Roots of Honesty”? or “Roots of Forgiveness”? Why is the ability to feel for others so critically important?
For one thing, experts say empathy is an antidote for bullying, and bullying is now so widespread in schools (both public and private) that the National Institute of Child Health and Development (NICHD) calls it a “public health problem.” In a recent NICHD study, 29 percent of students — more than one out of four! — had been involved in bullying, either doling it out or sucking it up. And most of the time (as much as 85 percent), when bullying occurs, other students are standing around watching. A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that each day, as many as 160,000 children stay home from school because they’re afraid of being bullied.
Even if your child isn’t a bully or bullied, research says you should care about empathy, because without it, your child is likely to do worse in school. In our state, kindergarten teachers report that as many as 50 percent of children entering school are not ready to learn. A big component of that missing readiness is in social and emotional competence, a set of skills (including empathy) that make it possible for your kid to learn. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago recently completed an analysis of 300 research studies. They found that fully 50 percent of academic success is dependent on social and emotional literacy; the other 50 percent on traditional intelligence. Simply put: Raise your kid’s social and emotional competence, and you raise his test scores.
“We do know that kids with higher levels of empathy have more satisfying relationships in life and tend to be more successful in the workplace,” Hirschstein says. “Everything is intertwined. Kids who do well academically are better socially, more empathetic, happier.
“No one talks about happiness as an important outcome, but it’s what I want for my own kids.”
“This ability to connect to another is a huge part of being a happy human being,” Mary Gordon agrees. “That is core to human happiness.”
Can every child learn empathy? According to researchers at the UW’s Infant Learning and Brain Science (ILABS), the ability to feel for others is hard-wired in all of us. ILABS co-director Andrew Meltzoff was one of the first to discover evidence of empathy in babies. “We believe that when infants imitate, they are becoming ‘like the other person’ in action, with simple body movements,” Meltzoff tells ParentMap. “Later that can flower into empathy, which is the ability to become like the other person in emotion and perspective.”
Several studies have been done on the effectiveness of the Roots of Empathy program; each shows a marked decrease in aggressive behaviors and an increase in emotional and social skills. And there may be several other powerful and far-reaching side benefits to the Roots of Empathy program. “It carries these components about human development that could save lives,” says Hirschstein. Children in the program are taught never to shake a baby and to always put a baby to sleep on his back. And, ironically, bonding with a baby this early could actually work to postpone a child’s own parenthood. “There’s some evidence that when kids get a good picture of what’s involved in parenting, they’re more likely to delay it,” Hirschstein says.
Compassion in action
Computers, cappuccinos, carabiners — now you can add “compassion” to our region’s legacy. The group that paved the way for Roots of Empathy to come to the Northwest has even bigger things in mind.
The group is called Seeds of Compassion. The goal: nothing less than a nationwide paradigm shift.
“Seeds of Compassion is not about an event, it’s about a movement,” says Yaffa Maritz, who’s on the group’s steering committee. “It’s compassion in action. We don’t just want to know about it and spread love around — we want to do something about it.
“We wondered, ‘How can we support families in giving children these social and emotional skills? How can we raise kids differently to have a more compassionate society?’ If you show more empathy towards kids, they become more empathetic people,” says Maritz, who should know. Ten years ago, she founded Listening Mothers, a group that teaches parents to tune into their babies’ emotional needs. She’s spent the past decade focused on creating more empathetic parents and a more compassionate world.
To the same end, Seeds of Compassion plans to serve as a catalyst for groups and programs that nurture compassion in children. This includes Roots of Empathy and a four-day event in April that will bring His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Seattle (see sidebar, below). According to Seeds of Compassion’s Web site: “The event will mark the beginning of a broad-based collaboration to bring concrete public awareness, public will and an empowering call to action to address our local and global need for the social and emotional well-being of children. We see this as part of the emerging global Compassion Movement.”
The goal is to create concrete, measurable change in the way we educate and care for our youngest kids. “The state of Washington could become a global leader in what we call compassion science, which is caring for our kids, which is caring for our world,” says Daniel Kranzler, founder of the Kirlin Charitable Foundation and Seeds of Compassion. “His Holiness leaves after four days. What happens after four years?” The focus is on creating real, sustainable change. The group has agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama again one year after his Seattle visit to report on improvements in education, parenting, child care, and legislation in our state. Nothing less will do, says Kranzler: “We need to turn ‘feel good’ into real good.”
The list of local business and education leaders behind Seeds of Compassion reads like a “who’s who” of early learning. Spearheaded by Kranzler and led by former Seattle schools chief Raj Manhas, the group boasts the support of the Foundation for Early Learning, Thrive by Five Washington, the University of Washington, Talaris Research Institute . . . the list goes on and on. (ParentMap is also a founding sponsor.)
A kinder world
While those dedicated leaders make plans to spread compassion across the state and county, a quiet revolution is taking place right now in classrooms right here in Seattle and Kent. Its effects are often beautiful, and sometimes surprising.
“One thing that floors me: It’s the kids who are having the hardest time in the classroom who key in the most,” says Roots of Empathy instructor Hirschstein. “Kids who are in need really respond.”
Mary Gordon tears up as she recalls one at-risk boy who took part in the program: “When Darren was 4 years old, his mother was murdered in front of his eyes,” she says. In the 10 or so years since then, he had been in so many foster homes he had lost count. He had been held back twice in school and now towered over his classmates. Darren wanted the world to know he was tough; his head was shaved, except for a ponytail at the top; he had a tattoo on the back of his head.
One day the Roots of Empathy mom came to the classroom with her 6-month-old baby girl. The bell went off at the end of class, and as the kids all got ready to leave, the mom said, “Does anyone want to try on the Snugli?” Darren’s hand went up.
“The mom was a little nervous, but she handed over the baby,” says Gordon. Darren very gently put the baby in the pink-and-green gingham Snugli, facing in towards his chest. He rocked her back and forth for a while. As he very tenderly gave the baby back to her mother, he asked the instructor, “If nobody has ever loved you, do you think you could still be a good father?”
“That kid had given up on himself,” says Gordon. But through the Roots of Empathy program, “he found the humanity in the baby, so he found it in himself. He had tender thoughts like he’d never had.
“If you foster empathy in a child, you have created a gateway to finding the humanity in another person,” says Gordon. “That is the core of human relations — the core of parenting. We are all wired to become competent loving human beings through our key relationships.”
Listening Mothers’ Yaffa Maritz suggests one way each parent can do this: “Every day, make a commitment to really be present for your child. Ask yourself, ‘What are the small steps I took today towards creating a more compassionate world?’”
Kristen Dobson is ParentMap’s managing editor.
Image by Jani Bryson
How to teach empathy
• Show empathy to your children. Young children (like all of us) love to receive empathy. Research shows that parenting with empathy and emotional guidance encourages healthy emotional growth.
• Provide simple, clear explanations about how other people feel when they are sad or hurt. This is especially important if your child has caused these feelings in another. (“It makes Carlos feel bad when you call him names.”) When this happens, be firm as you explain how these feelings work.
• Be a good role model for empathy. Children are some of the best copycats around, and they are likely to copy the ways they see you treat people.
• Praise your toddler’s early acts of empathy. Such acts are wonderful signs of learning to care about other people. When your toddler gives up his favorite toy to a younger sibling who's crying, make sure he knows you appreciate his action.
• Don’t expect empathy every time. Young children are still learning how emotions work and how people get along with others. Encourage empathy, but don’t expect perfection.
Source: Talaris Research Institute
Dalai Lama visits Seattle
In April of 2008, His Holiness the Dalai Lama visited Seattle to take part in a four-day community event on teaching compassion and empathy to children. Here is a little more about this charismatic and influential world leader.
“Dalai Lama” is a title; the current Dalai Lama’s name is Tenzin Gyatso. He is the 14th Dalai Lama, and the religious and political leader of Tibet. He is also one of the world’s most famous Buddhist monks, and the first Dalai Lama ever to travel to the west.
The Dalai Lama is known for his work on behalf of Tibet, promoting non-violence in the struggle for liberation in the wake of China’s invasion of Tibet in 1950. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “advocating peaceful solutions based upon tolerance and mutual respect,” according to the Nobel committee.
The 14th Dalai Lama has authored more than a dozen books on spirituality, compassion, kindness, and Buddhism. In October of last year, he was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal — the country’s highest civilian honor — by President Bush, “in recognition of his many enduring and outstanding contributions to peace, non-violence, human rights, and religious understanding.”
The Dalai Lama said that he was “deeply touched” by the honor. “I believe that this . . . sends a powerful message to those many individuals who are dedicated toward promoting peace, understanding and harmony.”
The Dalai Lama took part in a landmark 4-day Seeds of Compassion gathering on April 12-15, 2008 in Seattle. Learn more about the gather - and what's happened since - at the Seeds of Compassion Web site. Read more about the Dalai Lama.
Roots of Empathy
Seeds of Compassion
The Kirlin Charitable Foundation
UW’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science
Talaris Research Institute
U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services’ site on bullying
The Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning
Roots of Empathy by Mary Gordon
The Mindful Brain by Daniel Siegel
Parenting from the Inside Out by Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell
Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Jon Kabat-Zinn and
Building Moral Intelligence by Michele Borba
Teaching Empathy: A Blueprint for Caring, Compassion, and Community by David A. Levine