Babies as Teachers

The director of my kids’ school recently thanked me for doing some carpooling. It’s easy for me, since I have a big van and spend my afternoons driving anyway. But she made a point of telling me she was grateful that her teenage daughter and her friends get to spend some time with my daughter, who is two years old.

And that’s one of the things that makes our local school so valuable: the concerted effort to get kids of different ages to mingle. The idea is that everyone has something to offer, and that everyone does better when we spend time around people who have different talents, different tastes, different joys, different troubles, different perspectives. The school has “all school gatherings,” where the kids display their achievements, put on little shows, and sing happy birthday to each other. They can make lunch dates with kids in other grades, and the older kids are matched with little guys for reading time.

Contrast this with another school we checked out. The principle made a point of assuring me that, although there were middle school-aged kids in the same building as the kindergarteners, there would be no contact between the grades. The older kids were strictly sequestered. We did not stay long at that school.

This idea, that it’s a good thing for kids of different ages to mingle with each other, is catching on in other schools, where there is a deliberate effort to teach empathy. According to this article in the Washington Post, in DC schools, where kids are “disadvantaged” – meaning that they are not only poor, but may be growing up to learn that the only virtue is survival at any cost – many teachers believe that empathy not only makes life more pleasant, it’s something that makes teaching and learning easier.

Enter the babies. Roots of Empathy is a program that helps teachers welcome silly, unpredictable, helpless babies into the classroom, and spending some time afterwards talking about the experience.

Roots pairs each classroom with a baby, who visits nine times throughout the year with his or her mom or dad, a volunteer recruited from the community. Each child has a chance to look the baby in the eye, squeeze its toe and say hello before the class settles into a circle around a green blanket.

A volunteer instructor asks questions related to one of nine themes, from the reasons babies cry to the emotions they feel. The classes — which range from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the baby’s mood — are mostly a chance for students to watch the baby as it responds to songs and games and to ask questions and share observations about whatever comes to mind.

Skeptics may groan at yet another extraneous, feel-good program, where tax dollars are squandered on things that parents ought to be teaching at home. Teachers should spend their precious class time teaching math, reading, and science, right? 

But others believe that an increase in empathy is not only desirable for life in general, but it also makes for a better learning experience. Kids who have participated in Roots of Empathy bully each other less; kids are calmer and more respectful of the teacher and of others; kids feel more free to ask questions and to work on problems that they don’t immediately understand. They are learning, in short, how to live with other people, and how to live with themselves.

Roots is built on a simple notion: When babies such as June bring their huge eyes, irrepressible smiles and sometimes unappeasable tears into the classroom, students can’t help but feel for them. The idea is that recognizing and caring about a baby’s emotions can open a gateway for children to learn bigger lessons about taking care of one another, considering others’ feelings, having patience.

Psychology professor Kimberly Schonert-Reichl says that, according to her studies,

children who participate in Roots tend to show declines in aggressive, bullying behaviors and growth in sharing, cooperative and helping ones, as measured by surveys filled out by the children and their teachers. In one study, she found that 88 percent of Roots participants decreased in what’s known as “proactive aggression” — the coldhearted use of aggression to get what you want. In a control group that did not participate, only 9 percent of students decreased in proactive aggression, and 50 percent increased.

I don’t think that babies are the answer to every question. This program won’t work everywhere. But here is the thing that strikes me: so often, the modern world sees people as a problem, and money and technology as a solution. Here is a movement that sees people as a solution. The more of that kind of thinking, the better.