Roots of Empathy / Racines de l’empathie
Nicole Mellin, Manager, Roots of Empathy, Canada
Charitable number: 89643 4818 RR0001
About this organization
Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Our mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.
The focus of Roots of Empathy in the long term is to build capacity for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. Part of our success is the universal nature of the program; all children are positively engaged. Few programs tip the ecology of the day care or classroom the way Roots of Empathy does, creating an environment where vulnerable children become more resilient and aggressive or dominant children become more inclusive.
Roots of Empathy strives to break intergenerational cycles of violence and adversity. Our goals include:
- To foster the development of empathy
- To develop emotional literacy
- To reduce levels of bullying, aggression and violence, and promote children's pro-social behaviours
- To increase knowledge of human development, learning, and infant safety
- To prepare students for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting
History of Organization
Toronto is the birthplace, home and international headquarters of Roots of Empathy. The Roots of Empathy program was founded in 1996 by social entrepreneur and author, educator, parenting expert and child advocate Mary Gordon, with a pilot reaching 150 children in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB).
In 2000, Roots of Empathy became a charitable not-for-profit organization and initiated a formalized research program. In 2005, Mary Gordon created Seeds of Empathy, Roots of Empathy’s “younger sibling” – a program for children ages three to five in childcare settings. Both programs have shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among children while raising their social and emotional competence and increasing empathy.
From humble beginnings, the organization has grown substantially. The Roots of Empathy organization now runs programs around the world. To date, Roots of Empathy has brought the power of empathy to more than 35,000 children in Toronto.
The Roots of Empathy Centre of Excellence is located in Toronto, hosted by and in partnership with the TDSB. The Centre acts as a beacon for visitors from across Ontario, Canada and the world, showcasing best practice, providing a laboratory for testing new concepts and measuring impact.
Accolades and Accomplishments
Roots of Empathy has been recognized by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, Daniel Goleman, and the World Health Organization, among others. The Dalai Lama has expressed his belief that programs such as Roots of Empathy will build world peace.
To date, Roots of Empathy has reached 450,000 children on three continents, and has been called “Canada’s olive branch to the world.” The European Union is recognizing Roots of Empathy as a peace initiative in Northern Ireland.
In 2008, the Assembly of First Nations endorsed Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy, calling both programs "compatible with traditional First Nations teachings and worldviews." Both programs are offered in Aboriginal communities across Canada.
Roots of Empathy was one of three winners - and the only Canadian organization selected - to win an international Changemakers competition for youth at-risk.
Roots of Empathy has been recognized through several accolades given to Mary Gordon, including a Public Education Advocacy Award from the Canadian Teachers Federation and the Order of Canada. In 2002 Gordon was named one of the first two Canadian Ashoka Fellows, recognizing her as a member of an international circle of social entrepreneurs with system-changing ideas for the world’s most pressing social problems.
Roots of Empathy is considered a model of social innovation and has two evidence-based programs: a flagship program of the same name for children in elementary school (Roots of Empathy) and Seeds of Empathy, its "younger sibling" - a program for children in childcare settings. Both programs have shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among children while raising their social and emotional competence and increasing empathy.
Roots of Empathy is delivered to schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8 (ages 4 to 13) across Toronto, in English, French, and French immersion classrooms, in classrooms with highly diverse and high-Aboriginal student populations, and in Toronto’s Priority neighbourhoods.
Coming to Toronto in 2010, Seeds of Empathy is delivered in early childhood settings to foster social and emotional competence and early literacy skills and attitudes in children three to five years of age while providing professional development for their educators.
In the Roots of Empathy program, a parent and baby from the community visit a classroom nine times over the course of a school year. A trained Roots of Empathy instructor visits with the family to guide children as they observe the relationship between the baby and parent. The instructor also visits before and after each family visit to reinforce teachings, for a total of 27 lessons.
In the program, the baby is the "teacher." With each family visit, the instructor leads the children in noticing how the baby is growing and changing over the course of his or her first year of life. The children also watch the loving relationship between the parent and baby and see how the parent responds to the baby's emotions and meets the baby's needs. The attachment relationship between a baby and a parent is an ideal model of empathy.
Children learn to understand the perspective of the baby and label the baby's feelings, and then are guided in extending this learning outwards so they have a better understanding of their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy). This emotional literacy lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are "Changers." They are more socially and emotionally competent and much more likely to challenge cruelty and injustice.
Funding and Program Partners
The Maytree Foundation, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), and The Atkinson Charitable Foundation generously supported the inception of Roots of Empathy (1996-2000) in Toronto. Over the last 10 years, Roots of Empathy has also been generously assisted with strategic grants from the Toronto Community Foundation (Vital Ideas Recipient), Toronto Department of Public Health, TDSB, Merrill Lynch, The Lawson Foundation, and the Government of Ontario (Ministry of Education and Ministry of Community and Social Services). In addition, Roots of Empathy in Toronto has received in-kind support from Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP and Hill & Knowlton. The program is delivered in partnership with all four public school boards in Toronto.
Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown children’s experiences sculpt their brains, affecting life outcomes. We know that children’s brains are extremely plastic – offering a good opportunity to increase chances for optimal development. Roots of Empathy is based on a simple, powerful idea. Instead of chasing many social issues, we can blaze a trail in young children’s brains to create a better world in the next generation.
Currently, Roots of Empathy is blazing a trail by providing 3,400 children in Toronto each year with evidence-based support for their social and emotional development. More than 130 classrooms and 100 schools are involved, in all four public school boards.
Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program
- “60 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods (43%) are at higher risk of having children with lower Early Development Instrument (EDI) scores. EDI is used to assess social, emotional and cognitive development and communication skills (all measures of learning readiness) in kindergarten children. In a dozen high-risk neighbourhoods, children will be particularly vulnerable in the first critical years of schooling.”
- “The 2008 Toronto District School Board Parent Census indicates that half of all students in the JK-Grade 6 population are from lower income families.” (Toronto’s Vital Signs®, 2009)
Through guided observations of the Roots of Empathy baby, followed by discussion, students identify the humanity in the baby and then their shared humanity – they discover that we all share the same feelings. As they come to understand the injustice of being left out, they become advocates for the inclusion of others. They learn to challenge cruelty when they witness it. Here is just one of thousands of examples we see every year in Roots of Empathy:
“A group of children were playing in the schoolyard at lunch. The children were grade 3 students. One of the students was bullying another student and attempting to exclude him from the game. One of my grade 1 students went over and said to the person bullying, ‘You are hurting his feelings.’ Those words of empathy solved a potential problem and everyone learned from a small child’s words.” — Beth Walker, Root of Empathy Instructor in a Grade 1 classroom, Toronto.
Activities a donation will support
For every $20 invested, we will be able to provide our program to one child over the course of a school year, giving that child lifelong social and emotional literacy skills that affect development powerfully.
For every $500 invested in this program, we will be able to:
- Provide our program to 25 children in a Toronto classroom for a school year.
- Provide mentoring, professional development and curriculum updates to the Roots of Empathy instructor.
- Gather feedback from the children, volunteer parent, and classroom teacher.
- Mentoring/feedback are key in our commitment to program integrity.
Since 1996, Roots of Empathy has had a powerful effect on learning and civic engagement for 35,000 children in Toronto.
Learning: Our education system addresses children’s academic needs, but pays little attention to social and emotional learning; however, social and emotional competency in childhood is a much greater predictor of success in life than academic scores.
Civic engagement: In Roots of Empathy, children learn to find their voice and build consensus. They are the children challenging injustice in the classrooms and playgrounds of Toronto, and in the future they will be the adults working for peace in the boardrooms and war rooms of the world.
Seeds of Empathy is designed for early childhood settings to foster social and emotional competency and early literacy skills and attitudes in children three-to-five years of age while providing professional development for their educators.
We teach a series of themes, each on a three-week cycle. During the first and second weeks of each cycle, Literacy Coaches (specially-trained staff from the childcare centre) read and discuss books with small groups of children. In Seeds of Empathy, we use stories to help children explore their own feelings and take the perspective of others. Attitudes to reading are formed early through trusting relationships, which is what makes early childhood educators powerful role models.
In the third week of each cycle, a Family Guide (another trained staff member) hosts a Family Visit with a baby and parent. The Family Guide encourages the children to observe the baby's development, to label the baby's feelings, and to talk about their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy).
Funding and Program Partners
The Government of Ontario through the Ontario Ministry of Education is generously supporting the inception of Seeds of Empathy in Toronto (2010).
Social and emotional literacy, including empathy, is the basis of compassionate behaviour and a key ingredient of responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. But if children do not learn to be empathetic, they cannot grow up to create a better world. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown that children’s early experiences sculpt their brains, affecting their capacity for empathy.
The Seeds of Empathy program invests wisely and powerfully in the next generation, because children cannot learn – or grow to become contributing members of society – when their emotional and social lives are in turmoil.
Toronto's Vital Signs® indicator(s) addressed by Program
- “60 of Toronto’s 140 neighbourhoods (43%) are judged to be at higher risk of having children with lower Early Development Instrument (EDI) scores. EDI is used to assess social, emotional and cognitive development and communication skills (all measures of learning readiness) in kindergarten children. In a dozen high-risk neighbourhoods, children will be particularly vulnerable in the first critical years of schooling.”
- “The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranked Canada last among 14 western nations in spending on early-learning child care and kindergarten programs.” (Toronto’s Vital Signs®, 2009)
“I see the excitement of the children, staff, and parents when it comes time for the Seeds of Empathy family visits. We are able to connect more with the children on a different level, and as they become more emotionally literate, they understand more when others are hurting and how they might help. They are so sensitive to the needs of others and seem to even understand their own feelings. They are able to express more easily what they are feeling in more effective ways.” – Lynette Braun, Childcare Centre Administrator
“There is not much bullying compared to before. I feel proud to have Seeds of Empathy in our centre. Thank you.” – Denise LeBlanc, Childcare Centre Administrator
“Children are more understanding of others from other cultures and languages. Creates a recognition of the universality of emotions. Not all cultures promote discussion or sharing of emotion within relationships in public. It is very important for all children to learn about and help normalize their own feelings.” – Mara Hawkins, Childcare Centre Administrator
“Children now have more words to describe emotions and understand them - that it’s okay to feel and talk about feelings - that others feel too and babies do also. They learn to understand and share with family and community.” – Janie Gunther, Early Childhood Educator and Seeds of Empathy Family Guide
Activities a donation will support
For every $20 invested, we will be able to provide Seeds of Empathy to one child over the course of a program year, giving that child lifelong social and emotional and early literacy skills This investment also helps to support mentoring and ongoing accreditation for childcare centre staff, so we can ensure that child’s program meets the highest standards.
For every $1000 invested in this program, we will be able to provide training and professional development to one new early childhood educator, so that he or she can deliver Seeds of Empathy as a Literacy Coach or Family Guide.
Since 2005, Seeds of Empathy has had a powerful effect on learning and civic engagement for thousands of children.
Learning: The program provides a significant boost in learning readiness. Toronto’s children are often falling behind in school, an outcome often determined in the years before Kindergarten. Social, emotional and early literacy competency are the best ways to prepare young children for learning.
Civic engagement: In Seeds of Empathy, children learn to be more caring, inclusive and cooperative. They are challenging injustice in the playgrounds of Toronto, and in the future they will be the adults working for peace in the boardrooms and war rooms of the world.