At a Seattle preschool, the UW Children’s Center at Radford Court, the kids learn more than just counting and the alphabet. They’re learning empathy through a program called Seeds of Empathy and Seattle is the first city to pilot it.
“Seeds of Empathy is basically a program to help preschool age children gain some social and emotional literacy,” says the school’s director, Monica Drummey. “So they learn to relate empathically with an infant and with each other. They also learn the language of feelings so that they can express their feelings and describe them.”
Once a month, Karen Stukovsky brings her six month old baby Sam into the class, so the kids can learn empathy through him. At the start of class, the kids stand in a circle and sing while Karen walks Baby Sam around so every child can touch his little feet and say hello. Then they observe his behavior and ask questions.
When Sam’s not around, the kids learn empathy through children’s books. Monica says it makes a huge difference.
“They’re really much nicer. It’s become a calmer, more thoughtful classroom. If someone’s hurt, a child will go over and care for their classmate. If they look sad they might go and sit by them or hold their hand.”
There’s also less pushing and shoving on the playground.
“A lot of times children in this age group don’t have the words for what they’re feeling, so they act out physically. With the language of empathy and the language of friendship and feelings they can say, ‘I’m really angry and frustrated that you took my seat!’ Before, all they had was the physical to act out what they were feeling.”
Michael O’Claire teaches at the preschool.
“I had a Korean boy with very little English come into our preschool. Of course, he was just very fearful and would say in English, ‘I miss Mom and Dad.’ I had children come up to him and say the exact words, ‘I know how you’re feeling.’ and pat him on the back. ‘You miss your mom and dad.’ They would lead him around. It made you get goose bumps that these children really are empathetic to how another child can feel.”
Karen has noticed a big difference in her eldest daughter, Lilian, who is in her 2nd year of Seeds of Empathy.
“With Sam she’s really been able to help me. When he’s crying she knows what to offer now. It’s really, I think, taken away a lot of the jealousy an older sibling often feels towards a younger sibling.”
The idea is that kids will have better relationships now, and then grow up to become empathetic, caring adults who know how to communicate with each other and make a more loving and peaceful world.
Seven Seattle preschool classrooms host the Seeds of Empathy Program, and over 100 Seattle elementary school classrooms host Roots of Empathy, the original program that also exists in Canada, the UK, Europe and New Zealand.