With their wide eyes, chubby cheeks and wobbly movements, babies are built to be cute. And that cuteness, researchers say, is evolutionarily designed to trigger an urge — even in children — to care for them.
A recently imported program from Canada is tapping babies’ natural adorability to teach empathy and curb bullying in kids from kindergartners to eighth grade in 85 schools in the greater Seattle area.
Roots of Empathy brings a volunteer parent and their infant into school classrooms and allows students to touch, play with and sing to infants in an effort to build empathy and emotional literacy. The interactions are believed to cause the release of oxytocin, otherwise known as the “cuddle chemical,” a hormone that stimulates interpersonal bonding. Additionally, helping others activates the reward centers of the brain in much the same way that chocolate, drugs and sex do.
Through the program, the parent and baby visit the classroom every three weeks over the course of the school year. A Roots of Empathy instructor accompanies them, teaching the students how to observe, respond to and label the baby’s emotions. The activities help the students to identify and reflect on their own feelings as well as the emotions of others. The students learn how to consider others’ perspectives — a crucial skill for developing empathy — and gain a better understanding of infant care.
“Roots of Empathy provides a unique way to bring out compassion and tenderness in students,” said Nancy Smith, a third-grade teacher at Olympic Hills Elementary in Seattle, by email. “For kids, Roots of Empathy is a respite from the day-to-day realities of school, and helps them deal with the difficulties and challenges in their home lives, as well. The visits are a breath of fresh air, giving kids a break from the work of academic learning and interactions with peers.”
Roughly one in four students is bullied during the school year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, and research shows that bullying has an adverse effect on physical and emotional health, leading to poorer academic performance.
Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, a University of British Columbia psychology professor, has studied the effectiveness of the Roots of Empathy program and found that in first- through third-grade students, bullying decreased by 88 percent among kids in the program, while a control group saw an increase in bullying. When the program was implemented across Manitoba, there was a 50 percent decrease in students involved in fights.