South Lane spreading ‘Roots of Empathy’

For three months, a baby has been visiting Deb Henderson’s second-grade classroom at London School. He visits with his older brother who attends fourth grade there and his mother, once Henderson’s student herself chats with the staff but that’s not why they’re there.

Little Paeson, now four months old, is one of South Lane School District’s Roots of Empathy babies and he’s there to teach as part of the program meant to explore empathy in children and shared across 11 countries.

“He has a little T-shirt that says ‘teacher,’” Henderson says, sitting in one of the second-grade sized chairs in her classroom that’s filled to the brim with colorful everything — papers, cubbies, projects, rugs, streamers.

She’s just gotten her students on to the bus or handed them off to parents who will soon have their kids full-time for over two weeks. It’s the eve of Christmas break.

“One student asked me on Monday if baby Paeson was coming and I said, ‘No, we finished the lesson and we’re taking a break until after the holidays.’ And he said, ‘But we can start the next lesson!’”

The next lesson means baby Paeson returns to the classroom.

The visits are the core of the Roots of Empathy program that’s being piloted in South Lane County by 90by30 and at two schools in the South Lane School District; Harrison and London.

It’s the latest stand-out program offered by 90by30 — a nonprofit that aims to decrease child abuse by 90 percent by the years 2030. The group uses programs based in community outreach to help further its goal.

Roots of Empathy was developed by Mary Gordon and launched in Canada in 1996. It’s since been implemented in 11 countries and became the second 90by30 flagship program introduced in South Lane County in the last three years.

“A testament of the program or something I think is great is that the lessons are in groups of three,” said London principal Bill Bechen. And while Bechen hasn’t observed many Roots of empathy sessions, he said the feedback he receives from Henderson has been positive.

“When it’s baby day, you can tell on their faces,” Henderson said of her class.

Every month, a 90by30 trained instructor visits the classroom to conduct a “pre-baby lesson” revolving around that week’s theme. Themes range across 27 lessons from crying to emotions to sleeping to communicating. Then, it’s time for Paeson.

A green blanket is laid on the floor and the baby is placed on it while the class forms a circle. The second-graders make observations about Paeson’s development, emotions and actions.

“Once, she put him on a roller and he was trying to reach a toy and you can see him really struggling and getting frustrated,” Henderson said. “And the kids can see that in themselves because we always talk about having grit and trying hard.”

Just over 10 miles away at the brand-new Harrison Elementary School, four second grade teachers echo Henderson’s approval of the program.

“When they first enter, the baby goes around with the mom and they make eye contact and that’s part of the age there,” said second-grade teacher Scott Hoffman. “The baby is making these little bonds and I think the other aspect is the kids know this is a year-long thing. It’s not just one visit so they’re more invested.”

Spending the year with a baby who started its class visits between two and three months old means second-graders can track the baby’s development and teachers can draw connections between what the students observe and their own experiences. While babies are teething, second-graders are often losing teeth. When the baby is sad, lessons ask the second-graders to think of a time they, too, were sad allowing them to express feelings of exclusion or incidents of bullying.

“I think what’s interesting about a baby for empathy is that the baby can’t tell you how he’s feeling, he doesn’t have the language,” Hoffman said. “So, it’s an opportunity for the kids to think how do you tell how a baby might be feeling?”

Each baby visit is followed up by a return visit from the 90by30 instructor who walks the class through the lesson, often through drawing or reading a book.

Those lessons, some instructors said, are just as valuable but don’t draw the same excitement as the baby visit.

“When I look back at the pictures of the family visit, every single child’s eyes — there’s never a child who’s looking off or elsewhere. They’re always watching the baby,” said Sarah Loveless the project implementation manager for 90by30.

South Lane is only three months into Roots of Empathy so instructors say it’s hard to tell if there is a marked difference between classes from years’ prior who did not have visits from babies. However, they all agree that it’s become a valuable tool in reaching their students who may not have been comfortable discussing issues they faced from insecurity to bullying.

“Hopefully,” Loveless said, “it creates a safe space for students to share something that even the staff might not have even known.”


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