We need to focus more on encouraging the development of empathy in our own lives and the lives of learners with whom we live and work. Mary Gordon has founded the remarkable “Roots of Empathy” project in Canada which:

…is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression and violence among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy.

As we continue to wonder where to turn and what to do in response to last week’s tragic events at Virginia Tech, I think listening to Mary Gordon describe the background, results, and suggestions of the “Roots of Empathy” project is a valuable experience.

In October 2005, Mary shared about the “Roots of Empathy” project at the University of British Columbia in a “talk of the town” lecture. That presentation, including subsequent Q&A, is available as a free podcast from UBC: “Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child.”

Mary has helped parents as well as young children develop ethics of empathy by bringing young babies into classrooms, and helping students develop empathetic connections to those babies as well as parents who come into their learning environments on a repeated basis. The stories Mary shares in her UBC presentation are very touching. I found her point about the value of having adults share their own vulnerabilities with children to be particularly striking. The story of the classroom of students who heard parents share their feelings prior to a cleft palette surgery for their baby, the mother who expressed missing her family during this stressful time, and the young student who responded by saying “We are your family” (with respect to their classroom of students) to be particularly moving.

As Mary says near the end of the podcast, often prevention is not considered as “sexy” as intervention. This is true in the context of school violence just as it is in the context of drug control. Yet prevention is EXACTLY what we need to invest in to address the deep needs our societies have to reflect “cultures of caring” and include people of all ages who possess and regularly demonstrate capacities for empathy.

Mary Gordon’s book “Roots of Empathy – Changing the World Child By Child” is linked on Amazon.com but does not seem to still be available. I wish this program and approach to cultivating capacities for empathy was part of the formal educational program of my own children in public schools. Whether our schools have or may have a “formal program” based on or similar to the “Roots of Empathy” project, there are powerful ideas here to consider and act on as we seek to educate THE WHOLE CHILD.

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2 Responses to Encouraging empathy to address multiple challenges

  1. David Truss says:

    A timely post,
    I just posted about a life-lesson I received after hearing Marc Kielburger speak this past Friday. I mention it here because Marc’s organization, “Free the Children” is the largest organization of children helping children in the world. They really do encourage empathy!
    (post linked to my name).

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