SEATTLE — In Laurie Pearson’s kindergarten classroom at Lake Forest Park Elementary, students stand at attention. Pearson knows the silence won’t last long and that she needs to be quick with her instructions.
“Everyone must wash your hands,” Pearson says, “because baby Claire will be here soon.”
The 20 or so kindergartners are already well acquainted with Claire, a seven-month-old infant who visits the classroom regularly as part of the social and emotional learning program Roots of Empathy.
Roots of Empathy, first started in 1996 in Toronto and introduced into U.S. schools in 2007, aims to build more peaceful and caring societies by increasing the level of empathy in children. In the last six years, the program has spread to California, New York and other parts of Washington.
Some teachers at the school, including Pearson, say they were initially nervous about the safety of the babies in classrooms full of students.
“I thought they were crazy,” Pearson said, “but it was just amazing to see the kids respond and light up.”
Roots of Empathy instructor Marilyn Enloe visits the classroom 27 times over the course of the year and for nine of those visits baby Claire will be there as well with her mother, Jenny Fitzpatrick. It’s Enloe’s job to help students observe the baby’s development and to label Claire’s feelings.
The class then reflects on why Claire is either happy or sad and discusses how the children often have similar feelings.
At the heart of the program, which targets K-8 students, is a mission to decrease aggressive behavior patterns at an early age and therefore curb bullying. Roughly 160,000 children miss school every day “due to fear of an attack or intimidation by other students,” according to the National Education Association.
A recent study by the University of Virginia also found that the dropout rate was 29 percent above average in schools with high levels of teasing and bullying.
Kim Schonert-Reichl, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has studied the effects of Roots of Empathy and says that the program offers teachers a springboard to talk about emotions.
“It helps children learn to identify emotions, to become self aware and to develop relationship skills,” Schonert-Reichl said.
A 2011 study in the publication Child Development looked at research involving 270,000 students – comparing those who participated in social and emotional learning programs, like Roots of Empathy, with those who had not.
Their findings showed that students who received the training not only increased in social and emotional skills but also had an 11 percentage point increase in standardized achievement test scores.
As for Jenny Fitzpatrick, Claire’s mother, she says she was never worried about bringing her daughter into a classroom and that she enjoys watching the kindergartners’ reactions.
“The tone of the room changes when Claire comes in,” Fitzpatrick said, “and I think kids start to think about how it feels to be treated a certain way, because they don’t like it when she gets upset.”
A version of this report will appear on Thursday’s NewsHour
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.