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Can babies help reduce violence and bullying in primary-school children?

A unique scheme aims to encourage empathy in pupils by helping them get to know a local baby. Richard Garner sits in on a class.

The baby lies on a green blanket in the centre of the classroom. Surrounding four-month-old Zoe are 30 remarkably well-behaved eight- to nine-year-olds – pupils at Edmund Waller primary school in Lewisham, south London, one of 14 in the borough and neighbouring Croydon chosen to pilot a scheme, which has had a remarkable effect in reducing aggression in the classroom among young children.

It is one of nine visits that Zoe will make to the school – in the company of her mother and, today, father – as they watch her development during the early months of her life. Zoe will then be taken around the classroom by her mother so every pupil can get close to her and sing her a welcoming song.

As the lesson progresses, the children are asked questions about what Zoe is doing and how Zoe has developed since the last time she visited the classroom. According to her mother, Laura Seabright, she has developed teething problems and that is why she could be a little grumpy from time to time.

For the most part, though, she seems perfectly happy to smile as the children wave to her – and then struggle to crawl her way across the blanket, with her father providing a guiding hand on her foot.

This is the Roots of Empathy project – pioneered in Canada by Mary Gordon, who used to work with violent and abused children where "it used to be a case of blood on the floor" at some stage during their daily lives.

The children will be given a total of 27 sessions to learn how to empathise with the baby and understand the reasons why she giggles, laughs or cries and watch her development.

"This is emotional literacy – not the traditional literacy," says Mary Gordon. "It's zeroing in on what the baby is feeling.

For the children, it is taking on the feelings of another person. It's not like 'how do you think your brother is feeling?' after you've just bopped him over the head. It is a perfect insight into the most vulnerable person in the room- a little baby."

The children are allowed to touch the baby – but that is limited to just twice during the session.

Since the launch of the project in Canada in the 1960s, the Roots of Empathy project has spread to 10 countries – including the United States, New Zealand, Germany and Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Eire as well as England.

The first analysis of its impact shows that: 1) there has been a decrease in aggression in the classroom, 2) an increase in what is termed "pro-social" behaviour, ie, considering the feelings of others, 3) an increase in social and emotional behaviour, ie, an ability for children to express their feelings and 4) an increase in knowledge of parenting.

"A follow-up study of the programme indicates that improvements in pro-social behaviour are maintained and enhanced for years afterwards," the analysis of the project adds. "It's like riding a bike – you don't forget what you've learnt," says Mary Gordon. "More than a decade of findings have consistently revealed that Roots of Empathy children perceive a more caring classroom environment by the end of the programme and exhibit decreases in aggression, including bullying."

"Roots of Empathy reminds each student fortunate enough to have this marvellous programme of what being vulnerable feels like, and how we need to care for each other in this complex world," says Dr Daniel Siegl, neuroscientist and clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Or, as put another way by an eight-year-old in the classroom who has been observing Zoe for the past 45 minutes: "I think it's great. I have a little brother and it is a great opportunity to remember what my little brother has been doing and think about it. I think it would be great to get other schools doing this. If anything, I've learnt never to shake a baby because they're very fragile and if you suddenly drop them they will hurt themselves."

The programme is mushrooming across the UK and is going to be extended to Cardiff and Newcastle in the near future.

Talking to parents of young children before arriving to see the project in action, many said they would be wary of subjecting their baby to so much scrutiny. So is there a problem in recruiting baby volunteers for the project? "In the summer you can be looking out the window to see who's passing and who's pregnant," says Mary Gordon. "We want a local baby – someone in the neighbourhood that they can identify with."

In the case of Zoe, it did not need any watching out of the window, though. Zoe's mother, Laura, shares child-minding with Jessie McCulloch, the trained tutor for the class (her official title is Empathy Instructor and every project will have one in front of the class – training takes three days). "We know Jessie and she said she was looking for a little baby to use and did we mind if Zoe did it," says Laura. "It's great for Zoe to be the centre of attention."

Amos, Zoe's father, adds: "I thought it was an interesting idea. It's an opportunity for her to mix at a very young age."

During the course of the lesson, Amos explains how Zoe has become fascinated by seeing herself in the mirror and is able to recognise herself. "She is also ticklish," he adds. Cue demonstration which ends up with her giggling as he gently tickles his daughter.

The project has been given the green light in the UK thanks to funding from the Big Lottery Improving Futures fund and support from the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA) and a voluntary action group in Croydon. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the PLA, describes the programme as "unique" and "ground-breaking".

More than 3,000 children from a variety of different age groups up until they leave primary schooling will benefit from the project. The scheme will last for four years.

A new and innovative project called Seeds of Empathy is also being launched, which will bring three- to five-year-olds in five selected children's centres in touch with babies. This scheme also is modelled on similar schemes operating abroad.

Mary Gordon cites the teachers in the schools where the project has been introduced as evidence of its impact on school life: "You've got teachers who have been teaching nine-year-olds for years," she says. "The teachers say, 'I want the Roots of Empathy every year,' because the children are a dream to teach afterwards."

As for baby Zoe's comment on the proceedings, she just continues to gurgle uncontrollably.

Baby steps how it began

The Roots of Empathy programme began in 1966 when Mary Gordon started up with 150 children in Toronto, Canada.

Her aim was to create an environment where children were kind to one another and she thought it best to start with younger children who were just developing their social skills.

It has since grown to cover children in Canada, the United States, parts of Europe, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the Isle of Man and now reaches more than a third of a million children.

The programme is a useful tool in preventing violence through teaching pupils to be kind to each and understand the emotions the baby in the classroom goes through.

Founder Mary Gordon has written a book on the subject, Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, which has been published in both the United States and South Korea.