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Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon

Mary Gordon on Lack of Empathy, Child Abuse and Bullying

Mary Gordon believes a lack of empathy underlies many of the problems plaguing modern society, ranging from crime to child abuse to bullying in schools. In response, she created Roots of Empathy, a unique program that uses babies to teach emotional literacy to children. Her creative approach is now taught in more than 400 classrooms in Canada, reaching 10,000 children. Gordon talks to GlobalTribe about the impact it's had on children and the power of empathy itself.

Interview with Mary Gordon

AMY ELDON: When you started the Roots of Empathy program in Toronto, what specific problems were you trying to address either in the schools or in society?
MARY GORDON:  Roots of Empathy has developed from what I have learned over 30 years as an educator and founder of Parenting and Family Literacy programs. Love grows brains. The quality of stimulation and nurturance that a child receives in the early years has everything to do with the child's later competence and coping abilities. If the children of today understand how babies' sensory experiences wire the brain for the rest of their lifespan, they will be more aware, as later baby-sitters and parents, of the importance of providing protective nurturing environments. This is an awareness developed in the Roots of Empathy classroom.
Children are living in a world where they are exposed to escalating incidents of violence. At the family and neighborhood level, children are increasingly experiencing a harsh tone, as evidenced by an increase in domestic violence, child abuse, child and youth violence and bullying. What is common in violence and in abusive/neglectful parenting is low levels of empathy. Fostering empathy -- the ability to identify with another person's feelings -- can serve as an antidote to violence and is crucial to good parenting. Poor parenting and violence cuts across all socio-economic levels of the community and, as such, empathy needs to be fostered in all children. Once children are of school age, the single most important thing that we can do to advance pro social (non-violent) behavior and effective parenting for the next generation is to foster the development of empathy. As empathy rises, aggression falls. This is at the heart of our program -- that developing empathy will change the future for children, will build a caring society, classroom by classroom.
AE:  Why did you think it would be effective to structure the curriculum around a baby?
MG: For so many reasons. The growth and learning of a baby in the first year of life is a unique and exciting journey; the changes in the baby are dramatic and visible: the physical growth, the natural emotional responses, the acquisition of language, the passion to communicate; the primacy of the parental bond. Just by being there, the baby is the bridge that brings all this learning to the children. The response to the baby by the children in the classroom is positive and profound.
By observing the baby and parent-infant relationship, children gain insights into the infant's growth and development. They learn to understand a baby's temperament, and to observe a baby's cues -- what the infant is trying to "tell them"- and respond appropriately; they discuss actions that would benefit or hurt the baby; and they celebrate and share in the baby's milestones, like a first word or tooth. With a living example, children gain an understanding of how attachment between parent and baby is established and grows, and how the quality of this bond relates to the intellectual, emotional and social development of the child. Students learn about the benefits of breastfeeding as well as important safety issues such as the effects of "shaken baby syndrome" and the recommended way to put a baby to sleep to protect against SIDS.
AE:  Is empathy really something that can be taught in school? Don't parents have a stronger influence in that regard?
MG:  The teaching in Roots of Empathy reinforces the role of effective parenting in raising empathetic children. It is a given that the child experiences the world through the lens of parenting and that the quality of the attachment the baby makes to his or her parent(s) is crucial because it forms a template for every subsequent relationship in life. The Roots of Empathy instructor is a partner with the parent and the baby, providing a classroom structure within which emotional literacy is taught. A growing body of research is confirming what parents, educators and health care professionals have long known: emotional literacy is an essential part of a child's education and development. Children who learn to pinpoint their emotions find it easier to manage them, to express themselves and to be understanding of others' feelings.
AE:  What does a typical visit by a baby look like? What do the children learn?
MG:  Each of the family visits focuses on a different theme related to the baby's development. Today's topic might be Crying, Caring and Planning for the Baby, Sleep, Safety, Emotion, Communicating, or Good-bye and Good Wishes.
During a typical Roots of Empathy family visit, the baby, the parent and the instructor gather on a blanket on the classroom floor. Students sit around the blanket. They observe, ask questions and discuss the baby's behaviors, her temperament, the sounds she is making, and her responses. They learn to follow the baby's lead and read the baby's cues. Students use their math skills to measure and weigh their baby, and chart his/her development. They put into words what they are feeling by writing poems, composing rap lyrics or through discussion. They draw pictures, read stories and sing songs. Materials and activities are relevant, fun and suited to the ages of the students.
AE:  Do boys respond to the program differently than girls? If so, does the curriculum reflect their differences?
MG:  Little boys lag behind little girls in our culture in the area of emotional literacy. Our culture dictates that boys show weakness if they show the negative emotions of fear, sadness or loneliness. Our boys tend to skip a step and go straight to anger, which is a secondary feeling. Little girls have more opportunities to discuss feelings as their play patterns tend to be based on relationships rather than activities. In the playgrounds of this country, little boys organize themselves into group action related games at recess time. Girls more typically cluster into small groups where they play more intimate games, where there is talk and often touch. All children, boys and girls, in the Roots of Empathy program become more fluent with their feelings and more respectful of the feelings of others. At least one third of Roots of Empathy classes have the involvement of a father. Whether the father is the main visitor, or visits periodically with the mother, the impact is palpable. When fathers participate very clear messages of male nurturance are delivered. Far too many little children don't have a model of a kind loving male in their lives. Fathers share their perspective on parenting in different ways than mothers. Their playful interactions are generally of a different quality, and their modeling of emotional literacy is a goldmine.
AE:  What changes have teachers observed in the classrooms over the course of a year?
MG:  Invariably teachers will tell you they notice a significant difference in the tone of the classroom from the first visit. They talk about the kids being gentler with each other, having a more specific language around feelings. We have had the artwork of an 8 year-old boy telling us "Try not to get mad at a baby because they might learn to be mean when they grow up." There are changes for the teachers too; one veteran Grade 5 teacher told me: "You know this year I know what every kid is worrying about. I know every one of my kids so well. All those years I thought I knew them, I never knew them. I knew their math level. I knew who the fastest runner was in the gym. I knew who would be cooperative but I had no idea the depth of their caring or their worrying."
In one classroom, there was a seven-year-old boy who exhibited extremely aggressive and anti-social behavior. Tom would come to class with a hat pulled down over his eyes and he never smiled. In and out of foster homes for many years, this young boy was very lonely and very angry. Mean to his classmates, belligerent, disruptive in class -- he had no friends. When the Roots of Empathy instructor, parent and baby entered the classroom, the teacher was very concerned that Tom might harm the baby. Upon the advice of ROE staff, he was placed right next to the baby. Imagine Tom's reaction when the baby smiled at him. During the first class visit, the boy smiled and interacted with the infant. During the second visit, he took off his hat when he was near the baby. And, at the third visit, he brought a dirty pink feather to tickle the bottom of the baby's feet. This young boy was learning to empathize with the baby. From that point on, his teacher and his fellow classmates saw him from a new and kinder perspective. He became integrated into the social life of the classroom through Roots of Empathy.
AE:  How can Roots of Empathy help address broader issues such as bullying in schools, teen pregnancy and violence in society?
MG:  Roots of Empathy aims to reduce the incidents of teenage pregnancy by teaching children about the responsibility of parenting through watching the care required for a real baby that they love. Other programs give children plastic dolls to care for as if they were real babies. The learning is cemented for students in Grade 7 and 8 by the real-life dialogue they have with the parent about the challenges and frustrations of parenting, as well as the obvious joys.
The idea of fostering the development of empathy is central to the program as empathy is essential for all successful relationships in life and is inversely related to aggression, violence and bullying. The most behaviorally challenging children shine in this program. Teachers frequently comment on their surprise at the depth of feeling of some of their students who typically demonstrate bullying or anti-social behaviors. As empathy grows, so does pro-social behavior and emotional understanding.
Judge Edward Ormston, a Criminal Court judge sitting on the Interior Court of Justice at Toronto Old City Hall, best expresses children's need for programs like Roots of Empathy: "The earlier we can get to our children, the more civility we have in our society and the less cause we have for alarm in respect to future generations relating to violence or anti-social behaviours… We are doing what we can for the adults, but once a person has been in prison or they have been exposed to a pattern of violence in their life, it is very difficult to change them around. I would endorse Roots of Empathy, if judges could do such a thing… This is exactly the type of thing we should be doing. The wrong answer is to build more prisons."
AE:  Based on your experience teaching empathy to children, do you think empathy is something inherent in us? Or does it have to be learned?
MG:  The capacity for empathy lies in all of us. The infancy period is an example of pure empathy. A baby inhabits the emotional landscape of the mother; if the mother is experiencing post-partum depression, the baby becomes depressed. Whether empathy is developed and how it is developed depends on what we experience and how we are taught to interpret experience. The cognitive aspect of empathy is the ability to take the perspective of the other person. Perspective taking is somewhat tied to cognitive development, but very much tied to experience. In the Roots of Empathy classroom, children are given concrete examples of perspective taking as they report on what the baby sees while lying on his tummy, as compared to lying on his back, or being propped up on a roll. These concrete levers lead to discussion of a more abstract nature, for example: how do you think Susan feels when nobody asks her to play? Perspective taking is key to any conflict resolution process, and is proven to grow with practice. The program uses literature because it opens the door to feelings. Imagination is a valuable commodity in perspective taking. Many rich discussions evolve as children verbalize the perspective of various characters in the stories they read. Having a safe platform to discuss somebody's opinion or situation gives children invaluable skills for understanding and explaining their own situation.
AE:  Several countries, including Australia, the U.S., Japan, England, Luxembourg and South Africa, have approached you about bringing Roots of Empathy to their schools. Are they trying to address issues in their society that are different from the ones in Canada? If so, what are they?
MG:  Concern about the rise in aggression in young people is universal. While contexts and cultures vary, the countries I have worked with are concerned about bullying, about issues of communication between the generations, about alienation, about emotional responsiveness in children, about the challenges of fostering healthy emotional and intellectual development. In Japan, there is major concern over the rising tide of child abuse, domestic violence and societal violence; there is also concern about the capacity of current parents to be able to parent effectively. Roots of Empathy is a pedagogy of hope and is seen as a program that brings hope where hope is scarce.
AE:  How can teachers and schools in other countries adopt the Roots of Empathy program?
MG:  Until now, our focus has been on building Roots of Empathy as a Canadian-grown program with ROE classrooms coast to coast. We are positioning ourselves to respond to the very high level of interest shown in Roots of Empathy by other countries. We want to ensure that the principles and quality of the program are maintained. We want to work with an organization or foundation that has roots throughout the country; our tradition is to work in a cross-sectoral context where there are links to government, business, health, education and welfare. Our approach includes involvement by universities who have a keen interest in the research presented by Roots of Empathy programs.


Mary Gordon



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