Helen O’Callaghan learns about the Roots of Empathy scheme, in which babies and their parents visit schools to help foster ‘emotional literacy’.
THE fifth class pupils in a disadvantaged area of Dublin have just welcomed the baby into their classroom. She’s three months old and she’s here to teach these 11-year-olds about emotional literacy. She’s crying — seemingly inconsolable — in her mum’s arms.
For several minutes, the 25 pupils try to guess why baby’s crying and suggest ways to soothe her: “Could she be scared? It’s her first time here.” “Maybe she’s hot, take off her jacket.” They ask baby’s mum what they can do. She says a song sometimes helps. So the whole class sings ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’, very low. They sing it twice before baby calms.
The Dublin primary school is one of 60 nationwide that, since 2011, have participated in Roots of Empathy (RoE), an evidence-based programme shown to significantly reduce aggression levels among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy.
In total, 3,794 pupils aged five to 12 have taken part in RoE. Barnardos delivers the programme, except in Donegal where HSE West is the lead agency.
At the heart of RoE are a neighbourhood baby and parent, who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. Babies first visit the classroom when they’re aged between two and four months and pupils get to see them developing through that fascinating first year of life. “The programme’s designed alongside the developmental milestones of the baby,” says Susana Nunez, RoE instructor and project leader for Barnardos.
Between baby’s visits, the class follows an internationally accredited curriculum, with modules including ‘emotions’, ‘bullying’, and ‘reaching milestones’. In the course of the year, a trained RoE instructor leads pupils in noting how baby is growing and changing.
“They observe commonality between baby and themselves. For example, first class pupils are losing teeth while baby’s growing his. When he grows a new tooth, they’re so excited. They all queue in front of me to show me the gaps in theirs,” says Nunez.
Ahead of baby’s first visit, the class tries to predict this tiny being’s capabilities. Dublin-based Emma Kirwan’s two-year-old son Matthew was aged two months when she initially brought him into second class at St John’s NS, Ballybrack. “They’d predicted he’d be able to sit by himself. They quickly saw he couldn’t even hold his head up for long without support.”
As the year progressed, the children saw Matthew able to roll. “He’d crawl towards different children, climb up on them. They thought it was the best ever — they’d known him when he couldn’t even hold his head up.”
Part of the children’s learning is watching parent and baby lovingly connect — and how parent responds to baby’s emotions and needs. Before being asked to observe baby and label his feelings, the class gets a lesson around emotions, reading a story about emotions or drawing a picture of a time when they felt scared.
“It’s difficult to exercise empathy if you don’t understand your own emotions,” says Nunez. “The children are encouraged to ask mum how she feels when baby is scared or sad.”
The pupils explore how emotions are ‘catching’ — baby smiles and they want to smile — and are invited to look at their reactions to others’ emotions. For example, when the three-month-old wouldn’t stop crying, the children said they felt anxious. They “didn’t like it”. When they succeeded in settling baby, they felt “better, happy because I helped”.
Nunez has countless stories illustrating the empathetic connection between primary schoolchildren and their ‘tiny teacher’ babies. “There was great excitement when a baby turned over for the first time in a fifth-class room. They all started cheering. Baby got a big fright. They had to quieten down and regulate their own emotions, which they did because they love the baby and didn’t want it to be sad.”
Nunez has seen teachers use the learning to remind pupils to be kind to each other. “They remind the children that their classmate is also someone’s baby.”
Edel Horan teaches in Tallaght and hosted RoE in first class. “I was sceptical at the start. My priority was the academic side. Once the programme began, I saw how important emotional wellbeing is for their learning.”
Before RoE, she says the children could identify just two emotions. “Everything positive was ‘happy’, everything negative ‘sad’. As the programme progressed, they were able to identify being excited, delighted, worried, anxious, angry, so they were able to share with me and with each other how they felt.”
Horan particularly loved the milestones module. “After detailing baby’s milestones, pupils began discussing the ones they themselves had reached since the start of the year. One boy couldn’t think of any he’d achieved but his classmates listed them for him.
“This child was very aware he struggled academically. But to his peers and himself, for those few minutes he was a superhero.”
When baby enters the classroom, the pupils sing a ‘welcome’ song. In mum’s arms, he is brought in turn to each child.
It’s lovely, says Horan, for them to feel special and singled out by a baby in the large classes of today.
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