Thursday, April 11, 2013

Babies Teach Empathy

In November 2011, a 15-year-old Nova Scotia girl was gang-raped. After someone used their cell phone to circulate a photo of the sexual assault, Rehtaeh Parsons endured more than a year of cyberbullying and harassment until she couldn't take it anymore. Rehtaeh was taken off life support on April 7, 2013 – three days after she tried to hang herself.
Rehtaeh's mother wrote on her Facebook tribute page, "Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun. All the bullying and messaging and harassment that never let up are also to blame. Lastly, the justice system failed her. Those are the people that took the life of my beautiful girl."

How can we prevent tragedies like these? An anti-bullying program that is gaining national attention centers on babies teaching empathy to young children. Roots of Empathy is a social and emotional learning program for K-8 students which started in Toronto. The mission of the program is to reduce aggressive behavior as a way of decreasing bullying. In 2007, the program was introduced to US schools, and has spread to California, New York, and parts of Washington.

Baby Claire visits a kindergarten class once a month, and a Roots of Empathy instructor also visits the classroom to help the students recognize Claire's development and label her feelings. The students then discuss why Claire is happy or sad, and how they have similar feelings.

A 2011 study of 270,000 students compared those students who participated in social and emotional learning programs like Roots of Empathy, with those who didn't. The study found that the students in these programs not only had increased social and emotional skills, but they also had an 11 percent increase in standardized achievement test scores.

Claire's mother says, "The tone of the room changes when Claire comes in, and I think kids start to think about how it feels to be treated a certain way, because they don't like it when she gets upset."

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