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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £35K - £45K: SThree: SThree Group have been we...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'