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Roots of Empathy

Tribune photo by Jessical Lovell

Six-month-old James Stronach commands a class’s attention with ease. Grade 6 Westminster Woods students could hardly keep their eyes off the little guy when he visited their classroom last week to teach them a little something about empathy.

Roots of Empathy program starts students thinking at young age

By Jessica Lovell
Guelph Tribune

It’s not your typical anti-bullying lesson. The Grade 6 class is seated on the floor, forming a circle around a bright green fleece blanket. All eyes are on the baby sitting in the middle of the blanket.
This is baby James Stronach’s fourth visit to the Westminster Woods classroom, and he appears to be at ease surrounded by the many faces of the girls and boys.
Led by instructor Kim Purpura, the kids talk about how James has changed since his last visit. He can sit up on his own, notices one; he doesn’t need his mom as much, says another; he’s drooling less, offers a third.
A round of laughter momentarily startles James, prompting a discussion about his emotions.
“James can’t tell us how he’s feeling,” Purpura tells the class.
“We have to figure out how he’s feeling through his facial expressions.”
The lesson is part of the Roots of Empathy program, which is being run this year for the first time in Guelph.
The program, which first started in 1996 and has spread to classrooms in several countries, brings a baby into the classroom in order to teach children empathy, and social and emotional literacy.
Simply put, by learning to understand and look out for the emotions of a baby, the kids also learn to be mindful of one another’s feelings.
“It really is great to see them thinking about another person and how another person might feel,” says Kelly Stronach, noting the positive change she has seen in some of the kids.
Stronach is James’s mother, but she also taught at Westminster Woods last year.
When she heard about Roots of Empathy from a friend who participated in the program in another school board, she felt it was something the students at Westminster Woods could benefit from.
She contacted the organization and made the arrangements to bring the program, along with James, to the school.
The students are not the only ones that benefit from the program, Stronach says.
“He’s almost as fascinated by them as they are with him,” she says of the interaction between the students and her son.
“It’s great for him to meet new people, see new things and have new experiences,” she says. “This is his chance to get out and see the world.”
The pair visit the school every three weeks for a total of nine visits.
But Purpura is there weekly. She is one of three volunteer facilitators in the city. A part-time teacher at Westminster, Sara Kaufman, runs a second program in the same school, and a third program is running at Waverley Drive school.
Purpura is a social worker by profession and lives in the Westminster Woods neighbourhood. She heard about the program through the local neighbourhood group.
It’s a significant time commitment, but it’s worth it, she says. She hopes to do it next year, too.
On weeks that James is not in the classroom, Purpura comes in either to do a lesson that will prime them for his next visit, or to do a follow-up lesson that explores how what they learned during the baby visit can be applied to their own situations.
“This is really pro-active. It’s trying to get the kids to understand about bullying before they get to the point of bullying each other,” she says.
They also benefit from watching the interaction between James and his mother, who also participates in his visits, says Purpura.
“They’re watching a caring and loving relationship,” she says. “These kids might be parents one day, so if they can get that empathy now, they’re going to be loving and caring parents.
But more importantly, they are learning respect for one another.
“I’ve really noticed a difference in the classroom as far as people thinking before they say things that might hurt one another,” says teacher Brad Kelly.
He says the kids seem to be more inclusive, too.
“The kids are more respectful of each other,” he says. “The kids you really want it to reach, it helps them put things in perspective.”

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