Roots of Empathy is coming into its own. At a time when stories of marginalization, aggression and bullying abound, educators are recognizing that Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is as important to the success of their students, as the traditional three Rs. Indeed, SEL abilities, such as empathy, are now being considered essential 21st century skills in our rapidly changing world.

Started in 1996, Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who engage students in their classroom.  Over the school year, a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor guides the children as they observe the relationship between baby and parent, understanding the baby’s intentions and emotions. Through this model of experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a catalyst, helping children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.

Research results from national and international evaluations of the Roots of Empathy program indicate decreases in aggression and increases in prosocial behaviour. According to a recent study from British Columbia1:


·         Teachers reported a significant decrease in aggressive behavior by students in Roots of Empathy programs, in contrast to an increase in such behavior by members of the control group over the same period.

·         Children who completed Roots of Empathy were much more likely to report prosocial behavior in their classroom peers, recognizing acts of kindness such as sharing, helping and understanding.

·         Roots of Empathy participants significantly improved in their ability to understand the baby’s emotions, independently generating possible causes for the baby’s crying.
As well, the Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences at the University of Washington, in Seattle, USA, will evaluate brain and behavioural development in 5-year-olds in the Seeds of Empathy program and 9-year-olds in the Roots of Empathy program. This study will begin in the spring of 2012, expanding to include a pre-post behavioural evaluation design for fall 2012 and spring 2013, with results expected in late 2013. Neurophysiological evaluations will entail investigation of structural (MRI) and functional (MEG brain imaging) changes associated with participation in the programs.

Recognition for the tangible, quantifiable results of Roots of Empathy is also growing. At the Clinton Global Initiative Meeting in New York in September 2011, the NoVo Foundation, promoter of societal transformation, launched its Social and Emotional Learning Action Network White Paper, which cites Roots of Empathy as “one of the finest evidence-based programs … of emotional literacy, using a well-tested, research-based curriculum to support student observations and interactions that lead to an increase in empathy and pro-sociability, as well as a decrease in aggression, bullying and negative behaviour…2

Additionally, in mid-October, The Ernest C. Manning Awards Foundation, which has been encouraging Canadian innovation for over 25 years, will honour Mary Gordon, President and Founder of Roots of Empathy, with one of its prestigious awards, once again acknowledging the impact that this Canadian-born initiative has had internationally. Embraced by English, French and Aboriginal communities in every province in Canada, Roots of Empathy has been adopted on three continents, and continues to expand, earning the moniker “Canada’s olive branch to the world.”


1 Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Anat Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011) Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviours in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children.

Sherman, Robert F., for the NoVo Foundation (2011) Social and Emotional Learning Action Network White Paper, Version 1.0 present at CGI Annual Meeting, September 21, 2011.