Roots of Empathy in NB

From my Healthy Living column in Moncton’s Times & Transcript.

According to my paperback copy of Collins Canadian Dictionary, empathy is defined as ”the ability to sense and understand someone else’s feelings as if they were one’s own.” Empathy isn’t synonymous to sympathy, which is the ability to show compassion and understanding toward someone else rather than the ability to feel what another person is feeling. Being capable of empathizing with others is an important social skill; it helps reduce callousness and bullying and increase caring and helping (the stuff some individuals are unfortunately not able to understand despite hours spent watching Teletubbies, Sesame Street, and an abundance of other abominable little-kid TV shows).

Roots of Empathy or Racines de l’Empathie is a unique, award-winning program destined to teach children in kindergarten to eigth grade about empathy. This program, originally lauched in Toronto in 1996 by educator Mary Gordon and now available internationally, is currently in place in a few NB anglophone and francophone elementary schools, including some School District 01 and School District 2 elementary schools.

The program consists of a series of visits– 27 over the course of a school year– to participating schoolchildren by a specially trained instructor and a parent and baby duo from the community. With the help of the instructor and through observation of the baby and its parent’s interaction with it, kids learn about the baby’s development and emotions and witness the empathy present in the parent-baby relationship.

Students emerge from the program with a better understanding of their emotions and a stronger sense of empathy and a more proactive attitude toward cruelty and injustice. This statement isn’t wishy-washy– the Roots of Empathy program has been studied by nine independent evaluators and reviewed by two others. Even three years after completing the program (the latest follow-up done with program participants to date), participants displayed less aggression and more social/emotional understanding and prosocial behavior than non-participants.

Says Marilyne Lavallée, a Public Health Nurse in the Healthy Learners Program at School District 01, ”This program is truly a lovely, well-thought one. We’ve had a good response from students who participated in it—the children love watching the baby.”

The Roots of Empathy program is an admirable initiative, one that offers hope for the victims of school bullying and violence. Personally, I still vividly remember participating in several class discussions and activities that revolved around encouraging prosocial behavior (who can forget about random acts of kindness?) when I was a young elementary school student and am amazed when I realize to what extent my sense of morality was benefited by those discussions and activities. Working with young preschool and school age kids through babysitting as a preteen, I again witnessed the important influence one could have on kids and their view of the world by simply being present in their lives and interacting with them. I am now thoroughly convinced that it is worthwhile to invest in young children’s characters by spending time and energy to teach them life lessons.

For more information, visit

Originally published in the Times & Transcript on July 9th, 2011.


One Comment on “Roots of Empathy in NB”

  1. Thank you Marilyn

    This is fascinating. I applaud NB for getting onto this program. I will be highlighting it in my Family LIving 120 class. Thanks again and God bless! Jane

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