A unique program that teaches emotional literacy to first and second graders in Lane County is looking for families with young babies to volunteer in its revamped, virtual program.

“Roots of Empathy supports emotional health and mental health and well-being by creating a safe space for children to process and talk about their emotions,” says Sara Loveless, the program implementation coordinator for Roots of Empathy in Lane County. “Students observe behaviors in babies and then are able to flip it back on themselves and recognize those behaviors around them.”

Teaching empathy and kindness
Liahona West and her infant son Jackson volunteered with the program in 2019 at Harrison Elementary School in Cottage Grove. They visited a classroom every three weeks, giving students the opportunity to interact with baby Jackson—known as their Tiny Teacher—and watch him grow and change throughout the school year.

“They notice when he’s sad or when he’s happy and they talked about it and what they could do to make him feel better,” says Liahona, a mom to three boys. “I think sometimes there’s a stigma about emotions; that we should keep it all inside. As a mom, I try really hard to help my kids understand that it’s OK to be sad; it’s OK to get angry and it’s not a bad thing. This program helps kids feel comfortable opening up and talking about how they feel.”

Traditionally, the Tiny Teacher and their parent make regular in-person visits to a classroom, but due to the pandemic, Roots of Empathy has pivoted to provide a virtual program that can work within schools’ distance learning environment.

“The participation this year is entirely virtual for families,” Sara says. “So, they’ll be sharing photos and videos of their Tiny Teacher and a trained Roots of Empathy instructor will be sharing that with children in virtual classrooms across Lane County.”

A long track record of success
The Roots of Empathy program began in 1996 and is now taught in 14 countries. The program was introduced into Lane County schools in 2018 as an initiative of 90by30, a nonprofit committed to reducing child abuse by 90% across the county by 2030.

Numerous studies on the program’s impacts show that using the parent-child bond to teach emotional literacy increases empathy and kindness in kids and dramatically lowers aggression. Researchers have also determined that people who have empathy are:

  • Better able to relate to their peers
  • More successful academically
  • More likely to have positive relationships

Pediatrician Dr. Pilar Bradshaw says Roots of Empathy lays the foundation for a more caring classroom environment and provides kids a much-needed outlet. “It’s a way of opening a door for those young children to express their feelings and their own emotions, which could not be more important than it is in the midst of this pandemic.”

The program is also beneficial to the parents and infants who participate. “We have young parents in our practice who haven’t seen anyone outside their tiny bubble in nearly a year because of the pandemic,” says Dr. Bradshaw. “For the new parents who have been isolated and the babies who have been growing up in isolation, having this connection with students is an additional benefit of the Roots of Empathy program this year.”

How can families with infants participate?
The Roots of Empathy Program is a series of either 5 or 10 lessons, depending on the needs of the school/classroom, that take place between now and the end of the school year. This year, families are participating by sending photos, stories and videos of their baby to their Roots of Empathy instructor to share with the classroom. After the lesson, the instructor shares questions, comments and feedback from the students with the family.

If you have a baby who was born between May-August 2020 and are interested in volunteering as a Roots of Empathy family, email Sara at saral@90by30.com.

Interested in becoming a Roots of Empathy instructor?
Roots of Empathy instructors are members of the community who undergo four days of training (paid for by 90by30) to deliver the program in Lane County. For more information on becoming a Roots of Empathy instructor, click here.

Additional support for families during the pandemic
In addition to the Roots of Empathy program in schools, the program’s founder, Mary Gordon, has created a video series to help support parents and teachers through the challenges of the pandemic. Those videos are free to access here.

“So much of what we’re doing this year feels different,” says Sara. “But it feels so good to be able to provide something like this to support kids and families during this incredibly challenging time.”