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Baby teaches students about empathy at Sundre elementary school

Roots of Empathy program is running until June at River Valley School
Grade 2 students at Sundre’s River Valley School get lessons in empathy from a volunteer mom and baby. (Contributed photo).

A Sundre school is bringing in a secret weapon to fight playground bullying — a five-month-old baby.

The tot is the teacher in a Roots of Empathy program running in a Grade 2 health class in River Valley School.

Every month, about 25 students, ages seven and eight, meet with a mom and baby, who volunteer to come into the classroom for a discussion about emotions and the importance of engaging and sympathizing with another person.

“Bullying, sadly, starts at a young age,” said teacher Shaylyn Johnson, who feels it’s important to teach students about empathy at an early age.

The Roots of Empathy program was started in Toronto in 1996 by social entrepreneur and educator Mary Gordon, who found success in fostering kindness by allowing young children to observe an infant’s development and emotions.

The Sundre school program happens through a partnership between Chinook’s Edge School Division and the Didsbury Family Resource Centre. But facilitator Joleen Fluet said babies are being brought into classrooms in many central Alberta schools. “In the last 20 years, it’s become worldwide.”

The evidence-based program finds young children can be taught “a new language of emotional intelligence” as they view the mom and baby attachment, explained Fluet.

Even kids who haven’t experienced attachment at their own home, will see what healthy attachment looks like, she said — and this is effective in helping them build healthy relationships with their peers and others.

Johnson has observed a difference in her own classroom since the baby started coming in last October.

Young children aren’t always good at reading other people’s emotions, so identifying signs of the baby being happy and playful, versus angry or sad, has helped students picked up on these emotional signals from their peers, said Johnson.

“Maybe somebody is upset when you are playing with them… This helps the students understand each other,” she added.

Seeing a cranky baby who’s teething can also start a conversation that kids can relate to, said Johnson. “They can talk about how they were feeling when they lost their (baby) teeth…”

Fluet believes a feeling of inclusion is important for children’s social development. And the Roots of Empathy program helps build an understanding of what it feels like to be lonely and feel cut off from others.

Students will see what it takes to soothe a crying baby, for example. When they later observe a sad child, standing alone in the playground, the hope is they will reach out and include them in their game, said Fluet.