Tiny teachers foster empathy among elementary school students

Students said goodbye to their "tiny teachers" on Wednesday, as they celebrated the end of this year's Roots of Empathy program.

Roots of Empathy program uses interaction with babies to help kids learn to label feelings

In the Roots of Empathy program, the baby becomes a living learning tool to help elementary age students learn about empathy. (Submitted)

They don't have teaching degrees. They speak an unknown language. They'll probably drool on you. But babies make excellent teachers, says one Regina instructor.

Babies aren't capable of passing judgement and that's why students are so receptive to learning from them, said Roots of Empathy instructor Jessica Graham.

"There's no judgement from an infant, so everybody's the same."

The Roots of Empathy program was a big hit for students in the participating classrooms at Dr. George Ferguson school. Students who didn't get a chance to experience the program would ask when it was their turn. (Dan Plaster/CBC)

Through Roots of Empathy, Graham teaches Regina students about the stages of infant growth and empathy — and part of the course involves handing over instruction to a baby, with the help of their parent, of course.

"They are adorable and they're fantastic teachers," Graham said of the infants.

On Wednesday, three tiny teachers stared wide-eyed at everyone who gathered in the Dr. George Ferguson gymnasium to say goodbye at the end of the program.

Students crowded around the infants in a circle and eagerly raised their hands to share what they liked about the program.

Many mentioned the fascination of seeing a baby progress from a tiny, helpless being that couldn't sit up to one with purpose, zooming around on its hands and knees. 

The students then performed a rendition of "Octopus's Garden" for the babies before giving them each a gift. Graham handed out certificates to all participants.

The goal of the program is to reduce anger, aggression and bullying among students while increasing knowledge on human maturation. 

Learning to label feelings

Graham visits classrooms several times a year to teach a variety of topics like communication, safety, development and emotion recognition. 

Instructor Jessica Graham said Roots of Empathy creates a 'culture of care' that revolves around kindness and compassion, while also educating youth about the stages of infant growth. (CBC)

She gives an introduction to a topic in the first session, then a baby attends the next class so students can see the practical implications.

"We get to label feelings," she said. "Once the children are able to label the baby's feelings that moves onto being able to label their own and then others."

Lessons with a 'live learning tool'

One Regina teacher was hesitant about the program at first, but his doubt vanished when he saw the effect the interactions with a baby had on his students.

"The kids were very receptive and they were able to make lots of connections ​after the lessons with the live learning tool," said Grade 7/8 teacher Winston Montgrand. 

Winston Montgrand said the baby was the heart of the infant development lessons, and their presence made sure kids remained engaged throughout the year. (Dan Plaster/CBC)

The presence of a baby and parent helped students apply what they learned in the lectures with Graham.

"Regardless of gender, race, religion we all have to learn the needs and communication of a baby because it's not verbal," Montgrand said.

Learning opportunity for everyone 

Parent Karen McIver also felt "really lucky" to be a part of the program along with her son, Ansel.

Parent Karen McIver said she was also able to learn more about the stages of baby Ansel's development through the Roots of Empathy program. (Kendall Latimer/CBC)

She said it was encouraging to see how excited students were about the program. 

"They brightened up every time he came into the room."

McIver liked the concept of youth learning from babies and vice versa, but it also helped her "reflect more about the stage of growth and development" of her infant. 

Funding concerns

The Roots of Empathy program began 21 years ago and is now used in 11 countries around the world. It has been used with Grades 1, 2, 7 and 8 in Regina.
On Wednesday, students and staff at Dr. George Ferguson School celebrated and said goodbye to the tiny teachers who helped them learn throughout the year. (Dan Plaster/CBC )

Despite its success, there's no guarantee Roots of Empathy will continue in the city next year. 

"The program currently doesn't have long-term sustainability due to funding concerns," Graham said.

The program was able to take place for the past two years thanks to a community member who donated the operational and facilitation costs, Graham said. 

Regina's Roots of Empathy is also in partnership with the Early Learning Centre, which is actively searching for funding for the program, she said. 

Cheryl Jackson with Roots of Empathy Toronto said, "In other provinces, we are much larger and mostly funded by government, so it's a real testament to their commitment to the program that the Saskatchewan people are making it happen."