Roots of Empathy

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Roots of Empathy
Founded 1996
Founder Mary Gordon
Type Educational
Focus Society
  • Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Roots of Empathy is a classroom program that claims to have dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. In Canada, the program is delivered in English and French and reaches rural, urban, and remote communities including Aboriginal communities. Roots of Empathy is also delivered in New Zealand, the United States, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man.


The Roots of Empathy programme began in 1996 when Mary Gordon, child advocate and parenting expert, started the program with 150 kids in Toronto, Canada. Her goal was to help create a society where people were kind to one another and thought it would be best to start with children who are just developing their social skills. Since 1996, the Roots of Empathy program has surpassed many milestones and impacted over 500,000 children's lives directly and countless children indirectly.

Mission and goals[edit]

The mission of the website according to its website:

“…to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.”


The idea of Roots of Empathy is very basic. Children will learn based on observation and interaction with their classmates and a “teacher.” The “teacher” is an infant, ranging from two months to four months at the beginning of the school year. The infant visits a classroom of elementary school children accompanied by a Roots of Empathy facilitator and the infant’s mother. Through the course of the school year, the children are able to witness the baby grow and change. Further, the students are able to observe several different emotions conveyed by the baby that they might not recognize as easily in children their own age. For example, the baby may start crying and the facilitator will ask the children for a reason as to why the baby is crying. From this observation, the students will understand what type of different actions upset the baby and may then relate these actions to future situations when they see that someone else is upset. In short, it develops their skills to recognize and investigate emotions; it makes them more aware of others around them and their emotions. Another tactic that helps the children learn is that they watch the loving relationship between the parent and the baby (said to be the “ideal model of empathy”). The students witness how the parent meets the baby’s needs. These visits take place an average of nine times a year per classroom. In addition to the parent-infant visits, the facilitator will stop by the classroom before or after each visit to reinforce the newly observed concepts. In the 2009–2010 school year, there were 1,867 classrooms participating in the program.

Concepts taught[edit]

Emotional literacy[edit]

The idea of emotional literacy involves allowing the students to watch the infant and draw conclusions on the baby’s emotions. The students are guided through the exercise by the facilitator asking a variety of questions regarding reasons why the baby may be reacting the way it is. These exercises are believed to help students better understand one another and in turn cause them to be kinder to one another.


The perspective-taking section teaches students to listen to one another’s opinions. This leads to students being more accepting of one another because they are able to better understand someone by listening to the person’s opinion.


The neuroscience concept is a small section that leads into the section of the development of an infant. In general, this simply helps the children understand that for brains to develop, they need to be cared for with attention and love.


When learning about temperament, students see what type of temperament their classroom baby has. The facilitator emphasizes that each baby is different and unique. This is then related to how each student is also unique; hence, each student is taught to respect and understand one another’s differences.


The concept of attachment is meant to show students the most long-lasting bond that exists; that of a parent and a child. The children are able to watch the development of the relationship between the parent and the baby throughout the year during the nine visits. This idea demonstrates the importance of loving relationships.


Along with temperament, the concept of inclusion aids students in appreciating one another’s uniqueness, beliefs, opinions and contributions. This idea is taught through open discussion among the students. The students are further shown the unfairness of exclusion. They become sympathetic and begin to advocate for one another, thus reducing bullying.

Violence prevention[edit]

Violence prevention is taught hand in hand with a few of the other aforementioned topics. By teaching students to be kind to each other and to stand up for one another, violence will be reduced. Therefore, with the help of the facilitator, students learn about how to stop violence through discussions.

Participatory democracy[edit]

Participatory democracy is taught in the classroom by encouraging students to ask questions and to listen to one another. This teaches them that everyone’s opinion is important and to make sure one always voices his/her opinion in an appropriate manner.

Teen pregnancy prevention[edit]

Life skills such as teen pregnancy prevention are taught by demonstrating the needs an infant requires. One exercise involves students recording their sleep habits for a week and then coming back to class and comparing it with the parent’s sleeping pattern. The children then discuss these demands in class.

Infant safety and development[edit]

Infant safety and development is taught to help students understand how fragile babies are and how much care must be taken around them. They are made aware of SIDS, Shaken Baby Syndrome and Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder as well as first- and second-hand smoke. These dangers are emphasized when children learn about how fragile and important infant development is.

Research and evaluation[edit]

The Roots of Empathy program effectiveness has been evaluated nine different times by third-party independent reviewers. Overall, the results were positive. The results showed that participating students demonstrated several qualities including an increase in social knowledge, a decrease in aggression, an increase in sharing/inclusive/helping behaviour, and an increase in emotional perception. These effects appeared to be lasting. As previously mentioned, there had also been a decrease in bullying among the students who have participated in the program.[1]


As a result of the positive evaluations, the Roots of Empathy program began to gain both momentum and recognition throughout Canada. The program began to spread from the Canadian province of Ontario to Alberta and New Brunswick. As a result of the expansion, the program was translated into French to correspond to Canada’s French provinces. Currently, six out of the ten Canadian provinces participate in the Roots of Empathy program. The program was so successful in Canada that it spread to the United States in Seattle, Washington, and to the country of New Zealand in 2007. It continued to spread to Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Scotland. Germany is also currently working on launching the program.


In 2008, the Canadian Assembly of First Nations passed a resolution to endorse the Roots of Empathy program. This resolution further helped the program expand to reach Aboriginal tribes in Canada as well as other indigenous people around the world.


Mary Gordon is the President and Founder of Roots of Empathy. She has received several recognitions including being appointed a Canadian Ashoka Fellow and conversed with the Dalai Lama in person on two separate occasions. She is also recognized as a best author for her book Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child, which made a Top 100 books list and has been published in both the United States and South Korea.[2][3][4][5][6] [7]



  • Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child Gordon, Mary. Toronto: Thomas Allen, 2005.
  • Family Literacy in Canada: Profile of Effective Practices, Edited by Adele Thomas. Chapter: "Parenting and Family Literacy Centres of the Toronto District School Board" by Mary Gordon, editions Soleil publishing inc., 1998.
  • Child Honoring: How to Turn This World Around, Edited by Raffi Cavoukian, Sharna Olfman. Chapter: "The Power of Empathy" by Mary Gordon, Homeland Press, 2006.


International Advisory Board[edit]


External links[edit]