Can schools realistically prevent bullying, teach empathy?

interns Contributor
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In a Canadian second-grade classroom, a group of bright-faced 7-year-olds ponder how Hudson, a 4-month-old baby, might be feeling in this new, possibly intimidating environment. “Shy?” one child asks as Hudson works industriously on his pacifier. “Scared?” another child offers. In another classroom, when a giddy baby waves a toy and then drops it, a small student scoots forward to offer it back. Students in another class giggle as they watch a baby drool on a large plastic doll. “He’s giving him a bath!” a child squeals.

These interactions, captured on video, will melt even the coldest hearts—which is exactly the point. They’re examples of Roots of Empathy, a Canadian program now in 47 schools in the Seattle area, brainchild of educator and writer Mary Gordon. Roots of Empathy seeks to reduce aggression, violence, and bullying in schools by teaching children to see the world from another’s perspective—in this case, the perspective of a baby—and in the process teach children empathy, compassion, and a few parenting skills to boot.

It’s a program that’s offering educators a ray of hope after a grim year. A spate of teen suicides triggered by antigay bullying has spurred a kind of national soul searching: Is high school getting nastier? Is it even possible to teach kids to be kinder people? “Teaching kindness is related to ‘social and emotional learning,’ ” says Barbara Gueldner, a psychologist who worked on a University of Oregon study that evaluated anti-bullying curricula, in an email. Gueldner is optimistic that kids can learn both to manage their emotions and to be kinder to others.

Full story: Can schools teach empathy?