How do you teach empathy?

Jul 26, 2010, 2:28 AM | Updated: Mar 28, 2011, 3:46 pm

I spent part of my weekend sawing, drilling, spraying insulation and painting with Bonneville co-workers and listeners working on Habitat for Humanity projects.

Habitat 005Though their power tools were sweet to work with, I’m certain my AmeriaCorps pal John would have gotten our ventilation duct project done a lot faster without my “help” at the West Seattle location.

When I got home that afternoon, my 10-year-old son asked me a lot of questions about why I volunteer. “Why do you do things you don’t get paid for,” was his bottom line question. He’s an entrepreneur who tries to make a buck for every chore he does. After giving him several reasons – some logical, some emotional – he still didn’t seem satisfied with my answers, I told him, “Some things you do help other people just because.”

Now I’ve been thinking about, how do you teach empathy?

A couple of years ago I wrote a story about a project the Seattle School District has that uses babies to teach kids how others feel.

A three-month-old baby was on a fuzzy green blanket with 24 elementary school students watching her every move.

“She’s just learning to roll over,” said Michelle, baby Elsa’s mom. “Maybe she’ll do it for you.” As if on cue, Elsa struggled and then rolled onto her tummy. Students clapped for her.

Each adorable baby babble was punctuated by “ooos and ahhhs” from the 11- to 12-year-olds in Ms. Nani Castor-Peck’s fifth grade class at John Stanford International School in Seattle. When Elsa was fussy, her mother sang a song to calm her down, and one student said, “Oh, that’s sweet. She likes that.”

The program the Michelle and Elsa were involved with is called “Roots of Empathy.” The woman who started it, Mary Gordon, thinks empathy can be taught.

Widespread in Canadian schools, the program has the goal of breaking inter-generational cycles of violence and poor parenting. She says the program reduces aggression or bullying and builds empathy among children between the ages of 3 and 14.

She was a school teacher in Toronto, Canada. Later she worked with domestic violence victims and children who suffered from severe abuse or neglect. The common denominator in all the situations she dealt with was “an absence of empathy,” she said.

For the empathy program in Seattle Schools, a 3- to 6-month-old baby and mother visit a classroom at least once a month. Students aren’t allowed to touch the baby, only observe the infant’s moods and behaviors. They watch how the mother responds to the baby’s fussing or laughter. A Roots of Empathy instructor leads the kids in a discussion about their own feelings. After seeing a baby cry, for example, the instructor might ask, “When was the last time you cried, and did anyone do something to make you feel better?”

Gordon says if children understand and respect a baby’s feelings then “nine times out of ten they won’t bully another child.”

The University of British Columbia has tracked the program since it started in 2000. According to their studies – comparing children before and after they’ve been through the program – there is a notable increase in emotional knowledge, social understanding and positive social behavior with peers. Aggression and bullying behaviors decrease.

Local philanthropists John and Nancy Sabol and Dan Kranzler are funding Roots of Empathy in the Seattle area. Seattle and Kent School Districts were the first in the United States to implement the program.

More photos from the Habitat for Humanity build:

Habitat 004

Habitat 002

Habitat 006

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How do you teach empathy?