Babies beat bullies by teaching empathy to students

Roots of Empathy Class at Edmund Waller Primary in Lewisham Pic: James Farmer/Pre-school Learning Alliance.

Babies are being used as part of a new anti-bullying initiative in primary schools around Lewisham and Croydon.

The toddler tutors scheme is part of the Roots of Empathy program, which has seen wide success in schools all over the world. It has now been brought to England and the official launch was hosted at the House of Lords on Monday, November 26.

The aim is to teach students about empathy, to decrease aggression, and to prevent bullying and anti-social behaviour.

 Roots of Empathy arranges monthly class visits from a local mother and her baby, who must be between two and four months old.

Val Pope, executive manager of the Lewisham branch for the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said: “The idea is trying to get a local baby to the school so that the children perhaps might bump into the baby while they’re out and about on the street.

“It’s not just about changing nappies or feeding them, it’s about making sure they’re loved and cared for.

“You sort of think that empathy and caring are stereotypically female attributes but the boys and girls are equally as responsive and interested in the baby.”

Last month the first classes began at fourteen schools across the two boroughs. Over 11,000 children will benefit from this program by the end of the academic year.

Pope said that the children are taught about: “not shaking a baby because it hurts them or always responding to baby’s crying because that is their way of communicating. It teaches them a lot of things in terms of parenting skills.

“It helps children really recognize the sorts of things that aren’t part of the academic curriculum – the social and emotional literacy. The ability to understand what other people feel and I think that’s fundamental to any sort of civilized society.”

Founded by Mary Gordon in 1996,  the organisation follows up with students three years after the end of their toddler-taught classes.

Baroness Benjamin, Neil Leitch and Mary Gordon Pic: House of Lords

Pope said: “The research that has been done across the world shows a huge decrease in aggression and bullying in classes that have experienced the program. I think that all schools have issues with bullying and aggression these days. There are not so many positive role models around in some children’s lives.”

The Big Lottery Fund provided a £900,000 grant to the Pre-School Learning Alliance as well as the Croydon Voluntary Action to bring Roots of Empathy to England.

Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said: “The Pre-school Learning Alliance’s Roots of Empathy project is the perfect example of the sort of support that with evidence and awareness could help many more children.”

A related program called Seeds of Empathy will launch in 2013, bringing baby “teachers” to under-fives in Lewisham.

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