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New born infants teach students empathy

Greyson Williams might not be able to walk or talk yet, but the infant might be one of the best instructors at Fort Assiniboine School when it comes to teaching students empathy.
Roots instructor Tamara Hubscher with mom Nikki Cabral and her son Ian during a session at BES in 2016. Student Adriana Parker (red head) and Kaylan Hiemstra (blonde)
Roots instructor Tamara Hubscher with mom Nikki Cabral and her son Ian during a session at BES in 2016. Student Adriana Parker (red head) and Kaylan Hiemstra (blonde) watching beside.

Greyson Williams might not be able to walk or talk yet, but the infant might be one of the best instructors at Fort Assiniboine School when it comes to teaching students empathy.

Williams, along with his mother Jenni, and Wendy Wieland, a specially-trained program assistant at the school, form one of the school division’s Roots of Empathy (ROE) program.

Fort Assiniboine principal Lorna Hiemstra, said the ROE has become an indispensible tool in the school’s efforts to teach good citizenship and empathy to students and therefore reduce the incidents of aggression and bullying.

“It’s just an amazing program and I can’t say enough about how much it teaches students about kindness,” she said.

In the ROE program, a parent and baby (who is two to four months old at the start of the program) from the community visit a classroom nine times over the course of a school year. A trained ROE instructor is also on hand to help facilitate discussion and guide students through the curriculum. The sessions are usually held weekly.

In between baby visits, the instructor meets with students to reinforce what the students have learned. All totaled there are 27 sessions.

Although ROE is designed for any elementary-school class where there is one teacher, due to the amount of work involved, especially in training an ROE instructor and finding a mother/baby volunteer that meets the program’s criteria, Hiemstra said they are limiting ROE to Grade 1 and 2 classes.

To become an instructor a person must undergo three full days of training at a cost of $2,000, which is borne by Pembina Hills Public Schools.

The initial session begins with the ROE instructor talking to the students about what the rules and expectations of the program are.

“Then you try to make predictions about the baby’s behaviour by asking questions,” Hiemstra said. “What makes baby happy and what does he look like when he is? What makes baby sad? How does baby communicate with mother?”

The next session the class meets mom and baby for the first time and students observe the mother and baby, who sit in the middle of the room on a green blanket.

In the third session, the class talks about what they observed and if their predictions were correct. The process then starts all over again until the end of the program.

“There’s a ton of assignments and activities that go along with each of the visits,” she said.

Currently in the program, which is in about its 10 week, the students have focused on getting to know the baby. In future weeks ROE will move on to more general discussions about human behaviour, liking it to a psychology course.

“We don’t tell the kids, but that is what empathy is,” Hiemstra said. “It’s all about how we read other people’s feelings and react with understanding and compassion.”

Barrhead Elementary School (BES) associate principal Julie Smith is also a big supporter of the program, adding in some form or another it has been at the school for over a decade.

“I know some of the children who were the Roots of Empathy babies, are actually going through the program as students,” she said.

In the past, ROE was part of the school’s Grade 1 program, but recently they decided to change that to all the Grade 3 English classes, along with one a Grade 4 French Immersion class. This change was, in part, made to ensure that every student, sometime during their BES career would have a chance to go through the program.

Like Fort Assiniboine, ROE instructors are program assistants who have volunteered to take the three-day course. This allows the teachers to step back and observe the impact the program is having on their students. About half way through, the program, instructors get together with ROE mentors to discuss any issues they are having.

“What I see when I visit the classroom is that every student is thoroughly engaged,” Smith said, adding by observing the babies and learning how they communicate their needs to people, students start understand what empathy is. “I see that as a great way for kids to learn about themselves.”

She concluded the interview by thanking the moms who have volunteered.

“It’s a big commitment,” Smith said. “Babies are a lot of work and then bringing them into the school, it is huge. Without the parents we couldn’t run the program.”

Currently in five PHPS schools (Barrhead Elementary, Fort Assiniboine, Westlock Elementary, Swan Hills, Pembina North Community) ROE is an evidence-based classroom program designed to help teach students empathy and lower the incidents of aggression and bullying in schools.