TOPICS > Education

In School, Babies Teach Older Children to Consider Feelings and Needs of Others

March 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
A recent study found that schools with high levels of teasing and bullying had dropout rates above the national average. In Seattle, a program called Roots of Empathy is using an unconventional method to stop bullying -- bringing infants into the classroom to demonstrate the importance of listening and caring for other people.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: two stories about how children learn.

The first focuses on a Seattle program that uses babies to prevent bullying. A recent study by the University of Virginia found the dropout rate was 29 percent above average in schools with significant levels of teasing and bullying, compared to schools in the study with lower rates.

Our story is part of our ongoing American Graduate series.

At seven-months-old, Claire Fitzpatrick is a typical baby. She is sitting up on her own, eating solid foods and developing a little bit of a mischievous streak. But what separates Claire from most infants is that she is also a teacher. Once a month, Jenny and Kyle Fitzpatrick bring their daughter into a classroom full of Seattle-area kindergartners. As soon as Claire arrives, students welcome her with a song.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Then, for the next 40 minutes or so, Claire is at the heart of lessons on what it means to care for and about others, as part of the program Roots of Empathy.

Roots of Empathy started in Toronto in 1996 with the lofty mission of building more caring and peaceful societies by raising the level of empathy in children. Empathy, as it turns out, has been found to reduce negative social behaviors like bullying and teasing.

KIM SCHONERT-REICHL, University of British Columbia: Well, some people would actually describe empathy as one of the most important of all personality characteristics, because it not only stops us from behaving aggressively to another person. It actually is the instigator of us helping another person.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kim Schonert-Reichl is a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has studied the effectiveness of Roots of Empathy.

She believes that babies can be powerful springboards for getting at difficult subjects that are seldom addressed in traditional classroom settings and that this program, which costs U.S. schools roughly $60 dollars per student to implement, has shown empathy can be taught.

Young Seattle-area students currently going through the program seem to be grasping the concept.

LINSEY SANTIAGO, Student: Empathy is to have, like, feelings for others and care about them.

ELIJAH RUSS, Student: If they’re sad, and you try to help them out, you feel empathy for them.

LUISA LORMEDZ, Student: Empathy is like if someone is feeling happy, you’re feeling happy for them. If somebody is feeling sad, you’re feeling sad for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Students from kindergarten to eighth grade cover nine themes over the course of a school year, with subjects ranging from the safety of the babies …

JENNY FITZPATRICK, Roots of Empathy Mom: Some books that are on a bookshelf that are heavy that she could probably reach that we’re going to have to put away.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … to why babies cry.

WOMAN: How can you tell, boys and girls, that she might be getting a little tired? Is a yawn.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But bringing a baby into a classroom full of children was a hard sell for Aimee Miner, the principal here at Lake Forest Park Elementary, one of the first U.S. schools to adopt Roots of Empathy in the U.S.

AIMEE MINER, Lake Forest Park Elementary: When I first heard about the program, I thought, that’s crazy to bring a new infant in a classroom of 23 5-year-olds. The first thought was, you know, risk management. What are they going to say about this? But then I saw it in action and I saw the power of it, and I was a true believer and that this is the right thing to teach kids.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So every month during the school year, Claire and instructor Marilyn Enloe teach the kids social and emotional literacy by following Claire’s growth and development.

MARILYN ENLOE, Instructor: There’s two balls, Claire. What do you do with two?

STUDENT: And her hands aren’t big enough to hold both of them in one hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Before each of Claire’s visits, students eagerly predict what she might have learned since they last saw her. And if Claire should do something new, it’s marked with curiosity.

JENNY FITZPATRICK: Has she ever done this before?

STUDENTS: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Claire’s mom, Jenny Fitzpatrick, says it’s been a privilege to watch her daughter captivate the classroom.

JENNY FITZPATRICK: It made a lot of sense that you would teach it through a baby, because sometimes when you try to teach kids to respect each other just using their peers, they don’t always pay attention.

But a baby is pretty much a universal little thing that people care about, and it’s a really simple way, because Claire tells you how she’s feeling. She’s not going to pull any punches.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reflecting on how people are feeling is an integral part of every lesson and part of the plan to instill empathy at this young age, says one of the program’s instructors, Rene Hawkes.

RENE HAWKES, Roots of Empathy Instructor: The piece that becomes really important with Roots of Empathy is having them understand that, you know, some children enter kindergarten reading, and some children are still working at reading in third grade, and that’s OK.

And so what can we do to help each other? And then it becomes not a piece of, I’m smarter than you or I’m better than you. It becomes a piece of, hey, I have already learned how to do this. How can I help you do this as well?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kim Schonert-Reichl has found that children who go through Roots of Empathy show more kindness and compassion, in addition to becoming less aggressive, and that students who don’t actually become more aggressive over the course of the year.

Research has also shown that students exposed to programs like this one perform better in the classroom.

AIMEE MINER: Students who had received the social and emotional learning programs not only increased in their social and emotional skills and decreased in behavior problems, but they also had an 11 percentile point increase in standardized achievement test scores.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Autumn Doss says the program has been a welcome relief inside her third grade classroom at Olympic Hills Elementary. Layla and Andy Haner bring their baby, Emory, every month to see Doss’ students, many of whom come from low-income households with difficult family situations.

 

AUTUMN DOSS, Olympic Hills Elementary: It’s been a struggle. It’s been really hard to teach people that, no matter how much you cram in their brains, no matter how long they have math, no matter how long their reading blocks are, if they are thinking about the trauma that they experienced last night or they are thinking about a kid who pushed them on the playground or they are thinking about somebody who took their ball or somebody who whispered something nasty about them, they are not learning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doss says her students are making up to two years of growth every school year in subjects like reading and math because the learning environment has become safer.

AUTUMN DOSS: With this program, we are able to teach them how to deal with those feelings, how to solve those conflicts, how to take a breath, and then they can go into the academics, and that’s when they are learning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And long after class is over, babies who take part in the program get an additional benefit from teaching these lessons. Their students share their own tips on how to survive the perils of elementary school.

Third grader Lacy George has this advice for little Emory.

LACY GEORGE, Student: Well, maybe try to do your homework a little earlier in the day, not when you are really cranky at the end of the day or when you are really tired. You have to work hard and you have to do your best work in school, so make sure you’re doing that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The program is now in three U.S. states, as well as Canada, parts of Europe and New Zealand. The organization plans to expand in the coming year.

Online, high school and middle school students from our Reporting Labs share their personal experiences with bullying and they offer some solutions. American Graduate is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.