Ten-year-old Cruz Akamine’s first reaction when he heard a baby would be coming to his fourth-grade classroom at Kainalu Elementary in Kailua was “Woah!”’
But baby Felix, a pint-sized ambassador for the Roots of Empathy program, wound up entrancing Cruz and his classmates during regular visits over the school year. Babies have been spending time in 23 classrooms at 14 public and private schools across Hawaii this year, from Honaunau Elementary on Hawaii island to Hanahau‘oli School in Makiki.
“I’ve learned a lot from him,” Cruz said. “I’ve learned that babies aren’t just cute little things that you just use as puppets. You actually have to take care of them.”
Babies are the heart of Roots of Empathy, a social- emotional learning program founded in Toronto, Canada, in 1996, that has reached nearly 1 million children in 13 countries from Scotland to South Korea. The nonprofit charity relies on volunteer instructors and parents willing to share their babies with an elementary classroom full of kids.
A mom or dad brings the baby to class every three weeks, sporting a tiny T-shirt with the word “Teacher.” Children gather around the edge of a bright green blanket on the floor, observing and reflecting on the baby’s behavior and feelings, guided by a trained volunteer instructor. The parents set the parameters for students as far as touching their child.
Students learn to decode the baby’s emotions and needs, and along the way, to identify and better handle their own feelings as well as those of their peers. They learn about neurons and brain development, and watch “their baby” grow from a helpless and vulnerable infant into a playful partner. And they witness the powerful effects of a loving parental bond, a model of empathy.
“In all situations of bullying and violence, the absence of empathy is a common thread,” said Mary Gordon, founder and president of Roots of Empathy, who visited Honolulu and Maui last week. “So where does empathy come from and how do you get it? I believe it’s the attachment relationship with the parent.”
“If a child does not land lucky, how do you break that cycle?” she added. “You make it fair by bringing in that relationship for them to connect to. This is about breaking cycles of violence and poor parenting.”
Controlled research studies in several countries have shown that Roots of Empathy reduces aggression, including bullying, and promotes positive social behavior such as kindness and inclusion — and that the effects can last for years. Focusing on an infant helps students gain insight into the feelings of others and develop a sense of responsibility to look out for one another.
“It’s showing us how to see how other people feel,” said Braya Forrest, 9, a Kainalu student. “Maybe you are not good friends with somebody and so you’re, like, teasing them and they’re already having a bad day. You have to think first about what you’re going to do, and see how the person’s feeling.”
>> View more photos from the classroom in our gallery.
Roots of Empathy launched in Hawaii in 2016, with funding from Pillars of Peace Hawaii at the Hawaii Community Foundation, and is offered at no cost to schools. It is seeking expectant parents, instructors and schools for the next academic year.
The curriculum covers 27 sessions of about 40 minutes each over the school year, with the baby and parent attending every third meeting. The students explore different themes, from emotions to communications to safety. Gordon believes the personal, open-ended lessons are vital in an often fractured world where face-to-face interaction is fading.
“I think in society we’re experiencing a failure of connection,” she said. “The landscape of childhood has changed a great deal. We have to protect children from an overuse of screen time so that they have more interaction time, because you learn how to be a good person from being with other people, and you find your deepest humanity in connection with other people.
Anuenue School, the Hawaiian immersion school in Palolo adopted the program a few years ago. Glen Miyasato, principal at the time, said he was particularly interested because the approach crossed cultural and language barriers.
“When we did implement it, we definitely saw a change,” Miyasato said. “We started it in one classroom with one baby. The other second-grade classroom didn’t have the program unfortunately. By the end of the year, there was a distinct difference in the culture of the class and the kindness of the class. We were eager to continue. It’s a very powerful program.”
He now leads Fern Elementary in Kalihi, where half the students are non-native English speakers, and plans to offer Roots of Empathy in two classrooms next year.
The experiential program weaves in songs, nursery rhymes, art, writing and even math, as students chart their babies’ growth. It provides specific toys for the baby geared toward each stage of development. Watching babies fall short when trying new skills, from grasping a ball to launching their little bodies into a crawl, helps older children realize that failure is a part of learning and persistence pays off.
During a recent session at Hanahau‘oli, 11-month-old baby Gryffin took a few tentative steps, among her first ever. Later she pondered what to do with three plastic balls, too much for her to handle. So she gave one away. When she grasped a container and put a toy back in for the first time, the kids gasped.
“It’s amazing seeing her grow,” said 10-year-old Meridian Stanbro, who was watching. “At the beginning she couldn’t walk and couldn’t move around and express herself. Over every three weeks we see her, she’s developed a whole new set of skills. Instead of reading books about babies, to have a live one in front of us to reflect off of, it’s a great experience.”
WANTED: BABIES, INSTRUCTORS, SCHOOLS
Roots of Empathy is recruiting families with babies due between May and August, as well as volunteer instructors and schools statewide for the 2019-2020 academic year.
>> Instructors receive training and lead 27 classroom sessions during the school year, each lasting 40 minutes.
>> The baby and a parent visit the classroom for nine of those sessions, every third week.
>> To learn about the program and see research on its effectiveness, visit rootsofempathy.org.
>> To volunteer, contact Barb Morgan, Hawaii program manager, at email@example.com.