Roots of Empathy

empathyby Matt Williams

Several months ago we had a lively discussion here on the Vanguard about empathy . . . what it is, and what its value is.  This Vanguard article is a follow-up to that discussion.

Anyone who watched the PBS Newshour last night on KVIE saw a very thought provoking segment that delved into the issue of teasing and bullying in schools, and an educational program called Roots of Empathy that is designed to address that significant challenge in our schools . . . and schools worldwide.  I sincerely hope that the Davis School Board, District Administration and Faculty members all saw the segment.  It is the kind of program that I believe Davis should move swiftly to implement in our schools.

The following information is taken directly from the Roots of Empathy website:

About the Roots of Empathy Program

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Emotional Literacy

At the heart of the program are a neighborhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained Roots of Empathy Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This “emotional literacy” taught in the program lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the “Changers”. They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other cruelties. In the Roots of Empathy program children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom. The Instructor also visits before and after each family visit to prepare and reinforce teachings using a specialized lesson plan for each visit. Research results from national and international evaluations of Roots of Empathy indicate significant reductions in aggression and increases in pro-social behaviour.


The cognitive aspect of empathy is perspective taking and the affective aspect is emotion. Roots of Empathy educates both the mind and the heart.

Empathy is a key ingredient to responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. Information on infant safety and development helps children to be more aware of issues of infant vulnerability such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Shaken Baby Syndrome, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and second hand smoke. Observations of a loving parent-child relationship give children a model of responsible parenting.

The Roots of Empathy Curriculum

The curriculum is comprehensive and attuned to the development and interests of the children. The 639-page curriculum is divided into nine themes, with three classroom visits supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit and post-family visit) for a total of 27 visits. Each of the nine themes is further broken down into four age ranges:

  • Kindergarten
  • Primary (Grades 1-3)
  • Junior (Grades 4-6)
  • Senior (Grades 7-8)

The ROE curriculum addresses the affective side of education, but the activities have many links to the classroom curriculum. For example, students use math skills when they calculate and chart the baby’s weight and measurements. Literature is used as a way to open the door to feelings and perspective taking. The discussion and reflection that follows builds solidarity and empathy. Art plays a large role as children paint their inner feelings which they cannot say with words. Music stirs powerful feelings. It speaks to everyone regardless of language or culture and builds solidarity.

Roots of Empathy Featured on PBS NewsHour’s American Graduate

On Thursday, March 28th, Roots of Empathy was the focus of PBS NewsHour’s American Graduate project, as an evidence-based strategy for addressing bullying. Seattle schools – the first to offer Roots of Empathy programs in the United States in 2007 – was showcased along with research that supports the program’s impact:


Aimee Miner, principal at Lake Forest Park Elementary in Seattle, one of the first schools to offer Roots of Empathy in the United States, is convinced that the program works: “I saw it in action, and I saw the power of it, and I was a true believer that this is the right thing to teach kids.”

Dr. Kim Schonert-Reichl, who has done research on the Roots of Empathy program notes, “Students who would receive the social and emotional programs not only increased in their social and emotional skills and decreased in behaviour problems, but they also had an 11 percentile point increase in standardized achievement test scores.”

Tune in to your local PBS NewsHour broadcast tonight to witness the impact of the Roots of Empathy program in American schools. Find your local PBS station and the NewsHour airtime, here or watch the piece online now!

About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a past member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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  1. Matt Williams

    It resonated for me, medwoman. That resonance was clearly as the kind of program that I believe Davis should move swiftly to implement in Davis schools. It also seemed to be extremely timely given the discussions we are having here in the Vanguard about the current Supreme Court deliberations.

  2. medwoman

    Do you know whether or not their is any consideration being given to this program in the Davis schools ?
    Given recent episodes of violent actions both here and in other sites in Yolo county, it would seem that an evidence based look at this program
    Would be very timely as a possible preventative measure.

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