R oots of Empathy – Donegal has begun its sixth annual classroom-based program in Ireland, which works on teaching anger management and promoting empathy among children ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade.
The curriculum, which was first developed in Canada and later expanded to the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe and New Zealand, follows nine structured themes centered around one volunteer instructor and one local baby per classroom.
Of the 27 instructor visits, three visits are dedicated to each theme, including a pre-family visit, a family visit and a post-family visit. The baby and his or her parents then visit the classroom nine times throughout the school year.
During the 2014-15 school year, Roots of Empathy was implemented in 38 primary schools within County Donegal, with 27 visits per classroom and a total of 38 contributing babies and parents.
Although this wasn’t the highest number of participants and classrooms to date, Anne McAteer, program manager and cofounder of Roots of Empathy – Donegal, says the year was still a great success.
“27 weeks is a long time for a teacher to actually continue a program in her class, and yet the program was completed with every instructor in every class,” says McAteer, who is also the senior health promotion officer for Donegal’s Health Service Executive. “That’s the mark of success. Plus, when you hear the feedback from the children and the parents and the teachers, you know it’s very, very positive.”
“It’s engaging – getting the children to look at the connection between the mother and the baby, getting the mother to tell them her experience, watching to see the kind of attachment between the baby and the mother,” says Bill Vaughan, development officer for County Donegal’s Mental Health Ireland and international local mentor for Roots of Empathy – Donegal.
Through the observation of the local baby’s development, the program allows students to detect the infant’s feelings, needs and growth. The children then learn how to understand and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others through “emotional literacy” training and practices.
Students also measure the babies and keep track of their weight, which leads them to question and reflect on the infant’s physical development.
“They’re learning that all babies develop in the same ways but it’s not always at the same time,” McAteer says. “They learn, for the children, there might be one who’s 10 and she’s really tall and I’m 10 and I’m really small. The message is that you will grow too, but in your own time.”
According to Roots of Empathy, 100% of teachers involved in Roots of Empathy – Donegal have confirmed that their students displayed more prosocial behaviors and empathy following the curriculum’s implementation. This is said to be important in teaching anti-bullying techniques, increasing social competence and developing an understanding of respect and inclusion.
Sarah Thompson, project worker for Health Promotion – Schools and international local mentor for Roots of Empathy, says she believes that the program’s impact transcends the classroom and extends into the student’s homes.
“The program is so engaging with the young people that they do go home and discuss it and then they see the baby out [around town] and there’s that discussion again about what we did in Roots of Empathy,” she says.
McAteer says the children’s feedback at the end of the year is “actually quite incredible,” mirroring the teachers’ observations.
“They’re very actively engaged as participants and they’re all learning,” she says. “They’re very reflective about the whole experience of having Roots of Empathy in the classroom.”
According to McAteer, Roots of Empathy has worked with more than half of the primary schools in Donegal since it was first developed in September 2010. And she has even bigger plans for the future.
McAteer says she hopes that every school in Ireland has the opportunity to host a Roots of Empathy Program and experience the lasting, positive effects.