Babies have a lot to learn from adults, but they can also teach lessons about empathy and unconditional love to students, an initiative carried out in the Central Okanagan School District under the Roots of Empathy volunteer organization. Photo: Contributed/Pembina Institute

Teaching children how to feel empathy for others

Roots of Empathy program mission gains foothold in Central Okanagan schools

To promote anti-bullying and foster more respectful and caring relationships among children, Central Okanagan Public School students are having their attention turned to infants, with the Roots of Empathy program.

Colleen Edstrom, the Roots of Empathy co-ordinator for the local school district, said there are 28 Roots of Empathy programs taking place in 18 different schools across the school district, geared for children between the ages of five and 13.

Related: Empathy, love shared during Overdose Awareness Day

The vision of the international Roots of Empathy initiative strives to break intergenerational cycles of violence and poor parenting. Beyond Canada, it has spread to New Zealand, the U.S., Ireland, Germany, England, Switzerland and Costa Rica.

“The instructor comes into the class with the mom and her baby for about a half-hour three times a month to help set a tone, to help students understand about care and compassion through the mom and her baby,” she said.

“It’s so beneficial because the kids learn so much about caring and empathy in interacting with the baby. The baby teaches them what unconditional love is and it’s just magic to see that connection with other children.”

The instructors are volunteers from a cross-section of society who undergo program training and asked to make a two-year commitment to Roots for Empathy.

“There is an investment of about $1,800 in the training process and we are nonprofit organization so we ask for that time commitment in return,” she said.

Instructors coach students on observing the baby’s development and to label their feelings over the course of a school year.

Edstrom calls it a form of emotional literacy, helping children to better understand their own feelings and the feelings of others through teaching themes of social inclusion and how to contribute to a culture of caring.

Moms with newborns between two to four months of age as of Oct. 1 can volunteer to participate.

“I think the motivation for the moms is feeling they are doing something beneficial. Babies have feelings and those feelings can get hurt, and therein is where so many problems lie. Teaching empathy in this way helps students feel a sense of empathy, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.”

The Roots of Empathy program will celebrate the support of program instructors along with their participant moms and their toddlers on May 7 at the Hollywood Road Education Centre.

For more information, check out the website or email

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