The Babies Who Teach Children

Roots of Empathy

A new way of tackling bullying is being introduced in schools across the UK.

Poppy Simpson is one of the specialist 'teachers' involved in the scheme and her teaching methods are highly unorthodox.

She helps a class of eight- and nine-year-olds develop their emotional intelligence without uttering a single word to them... although the occasional excited gurgle may pass her lips!

Poppy is just seven months old and she has been visiting pupils at Hotspur Primary School in Newcastle with her mum Kate for the past five months, as part of the Roots of Empathy programme.

"Babies need to learn, but we can learn from them too," says Kate. "The class get so excited when they see Poppy and me coming in. They all want to sit next to her and hold her foot or her hand, and she's just in awe of all the older children. She can't stop staring at them all."

The Roots of Empathy program aims to teach schoolchildren about how to understand their own emotions and the feelings of others by interacting with a baby over a period of nine months.

Once every three weeks, Kate and Poppy go into the school for an hour-long session with the Year 4 class. Each visit is themed around a topic such as crying, caring, emotions, sleeping, safety and communicating.

"'The children ask me questions about Poppy and how she's developing; some are related to the theme of the lesson, but sometimes they're completely random!" says Kate. "They ask really funny things like, Can Poppy run yet? Does she play football yet?"

The visits are preceded and followed by a session led by an instructor who reinforces what the children are learning through group discussions, artwork, drama and writing.

The idea is that by observing the baby's development children can learn to understand the baby's needs and emotions, while gaining an understanding of how to care for a baby.

The teacher will then guide the children to apply what they have learned to the way they interact with their classmates, helping them develop empathy and learning to take responsibility for how their actions affect others.

"The children are asked to think about how their behavior impacts other children in the class," says Kate. "Before they speak to one another, they are asked to think about whether they would talk to Poppy like that."

"In one of the lessons, the children were asked whether they had a happy or a sad lunchtime. One child said they'd felt a bit sad because they'd felt left out by a group of friends. We turned it around and said, 'Well,we wouldn't want Poppy to feel sad, so why would you want others to feel sad?' It helps the children to talk quite openly with each other."

So far more than 450,000 children have taken part in the Roots of Empathy programme worldwide, in countries including Canada (where the scheme originated in 1996), America and New Zealand, as well as the UK.

Independent evaluations of the programme in Canada – where the scheme has been active for the longest period of time - revealed a significant improvement in behaviour in 74 of children.

Roots of Empathy

Kate found out about about the scheme through her brother-in-law, who is the Roots of Empathy coordinator at Hotspur Primary School.

"I was a bit nervous at first," she admits. "Especially as Poppy is my first baby. Babies are so unpredictable and I was worried that it would disrupt her day and she'd cry or be grumpy. But the school were very accommodating and we scheduled the visits to fit in with Poppy's routine.

"Poppy's taken to it really well. She's completely engrossed by the older children, as all babies are, and they're all so well behaved with her."

Kate believes it's not just the schoolchildren who benefit from the lessons. Poppy is too.

"We don't have any other children in our family, so I think it's been good for Poppy to have that regular interaction with a group of older children," Kate explains. "She's a lot more interactive now and she doesn't seem shy at all and I'm sure this has helped."

In the UK, Action for Children run Roots of Empathy schemes in Newcastle, Wales and Scotland. Similar schemes are also run in Croyden, Lewisham and Northern Ireland. It is Action for Children's ambition to roll out the programme in more schools across the UK in partnership with the Roots of Empathy organisation.

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