Local program helping young students foster kindness and understanding

10272774_708966195809461_915997358422520487_oBy Lindsay Ducharme

Teaching empathy to the youngest of Wood Buffalo residents may seem like a hefty task, however, for over a decade the Roots of Empathy program has been making it look easy.  On June 3, the program celebrated their year end celebration with community partners, students of the program, families, volunteers and most importantly, the babies the entire program is centered around.

“The program is designed to increase empathy in students,” explained Norma Shaw, neighbourhood community development with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo.

“It’s a very soft, beautiful way of increasing empathy, and decreasing bullying without you really even noticing that it’s happening.  Nobody is hammering messages at you.  The reports and research surrounding the program are phenomenal, it works.  The program is not only all over Canada, it’s in the US, Australia and Europe as well and it actually started in St. John’s Newfoundland,” she continued.

10403970_708966112476136_2760261996251351043_oThe Roots of Empathy Program has been serving the region for the past 11 years, boasting 27 programs throughout the community, both urban and rural, this year.  The program revolves around monthly classroom visits from a mother and her new baby.  The students are encouraged to interact with the baby as they learn about development and how to better understand the feelings of the child. The babies involved in the program are between two to four months old at the start of the program in October each year.  While the Roots of Empathy program can be tailored to different grade levels, Shaw said most often the program is introduced in grade one or two.

Although grade one and two students may seem not far off from the “baby” stage themselves, Shaw says the feedback they receive from the students is “astounding.”

10357732_708966212476126_3049359597984497267_o“When each class does their year end celebration the students say what their wish for the baby is.  There were lots of different wishes, but the ones that stand out the most for me are the ones like “ I wish baby so and so will have lots of friends” or “My wish is that baby will not be bullied” or “ my wish is they will have lots of friends that are kind.”  When they are saying this type of thing in grade one it proves to me that they get it.”

Due to inclimate weather the celebration for the program as a whole was held in the Sister Mary Phillips School gym, as opposed to the outdoor celebration that was planned.  However, even the weather couldn’t put a damper on the festivities.

“The event was amazing. It’s so important to celebrate community volunteers and the difference they make within the community and to say thank you.  We did blankets on the floor and people have asked why we don’t do chairs and that is because it’s not about the adults, it’s about the babies so we sit on the blankets and really interact with the babies,” Shaw described.

“For me the absolute highlight of the day is when students from each school district come up and say a few words about the program.  They are asked to deliver one message about Roots of Empathy and what it means to them, every one of them had a different message.  It’s amazing to hear them talk about it and to hear from their parents what the children have brought home from the program,” she continued.

With another successful program wrapped, Shaw is already looking towards next year’s planning. Due to the overwhelming success of the program, Shaw says all area schools are interested in having the program in each of their grade one or two classrooms.  However, Shaw notes that some schools have four grade one classes, which would mean providing about 50 programs throughout the region, almost a 100 percent increase over this year. While it is her dream to have Roots of Empathy in every local grade one or two classroom, Shaw said finding an adequate number of interested volunteers is currently holding them back.

“We are always looking for community volunteer that are interested in being instructors.  Their commitment from October to June and they would be going into the classroom teaching the curriculum, allowing at least an hour a class.  There is training provided in the fall. They are then connected with a school that is looking for a community volunteer to run their program, and honestly they can pretty much go to any school they want because all the schools want the program,” she said.

For more information on the Roots of Empathy program visit the website http://www.woodbuffalo.ab.ca/living/Education/Roots-of-Empathy-Program.htm.  Those interested in becoming a community volunteer instructor or mothers and babies hoping to get involved call Shaw at 780-743-7917.