Can babies help reduce violence and bullying in primary-school children?

A unique scheme aims to encourage empathy in pupils by helping them get to know a local baby. Richard Garner sits in on a class. This is from the Independent…

The baby lies on a green blanket in the centre of the classroom. Surrounding four-month-old Zoe are 30 remarkably well-behaved eight- to nine-year-olds – pupils at Edmund Waller primary school in Lewisham, south London, one of 14 in the borough and neighbouring Croydon chosen to pilot a scheme, which has had a remarkable effect in reducing aggression in the classroom among young children.

It is one of nine visits that Zoe will make to the school – in the company of her mother and, today, father – as they watch her development during the early months of her life. Zoe will then be taken around the classroom by her mother so every pupil can get close to her and sing her a welcoming song.

As the lesson progresses, the children are asked questions about what Zoe is doing and how Zoe has developed since the last time she visited the classroom. According to her mother, Laura Seabright, she has developed teething problems and that is why she could be a little grumpy from time to time.

For the most part, though, she seems perfectly happy to smile as the children wave to her – and then struggle to crawl her way across the blanket, with her father providing a guiding hand on her foot.

This is the Roots of Empathy project – pioneered in Canada by Mary Gordon, who used to work with violent and abused children where “it used to be a case of blood on the floor” at some stage during their daily lives.

The children will be given a total of 27 sessions to learn how to empathise with the baby and understand the reasons why she giggles, laughs or cries and watch her development.

“This is emotional literacy – not the traditional literacy,” says Mary Gordon. “It’s zeroing in on what the baby is feeling.

For the children, it is taking on the feelings of another person. It’s not like ‘how do you think your brother is feeling?’ after you’ve just bopped him over the head. It is a perfect insight into the most vulnerable person in the room- a little baby.”

The children are allowed to touch the baby – but that is limited to just twice during the session.

Since the launch of the project in Canada in the 1960s, the Roots of Empathy project has spread to 10 countries – including the United States, New Zealand, Germany and Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire as well as England.

The first analysis of its impact shows that: 1) there has been a decrease in aggression in the classroom, 2) an increase in what is termed “pro-social” behaviour, ie, considering the feelings of others, 3) an increase in social and emotional behaviour, ie, an ability for children to express their feelings and 4) an increase in knowledge of parenting.

“A follow-up study of the programme indicates that improvements in pro-social behaviour are maintained and enhanced for years afterwards,” the analysis of the project adds. “It’s like riding a bike – you don’t forget what you’ve learnt,” says Mary Gordon. “More than a decade of findings have consistently revealed that Roots of Empathy children perceive a more caring classroom environment by the end of the programme and exhibit decreases in aggression, including bullying.”

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