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Program teaches empathy to local students

By: Stacie Snow

  |  Posted: Monday, Feb 14, 2011 04:18 pm

Six-month-old Kai Newman takes centre stage during a Roots of Empathy visit at Good Shepherd School in Airdrie, Feb. 10.
Six-month-old Kai Newman takes centre stage during a Roots of Empathy visit at Good Shepherd School in Airdrie, Feb. 10.
Covy Moore/Rocky View Publishing

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Kai Newman may only be six months old but he is a teacher at Good Shepherd School in Airdrie.

With the Roots of Empathy program, facilitated by Community Links, baby Kai teaches Grade 1 students about emotions, empathy and interaction.

“This gives students empathy with children, each other and their families,” said Denisa Sanness, community outreach manager with Community Links.

“We don’t know what is happening behind closed doors for these kids, so this teaches them that love grows brains and that Kai is loved and strong and cared for. Now he has 17 more friends that will care for and love him as well.”

People don’t often realize that children are not born with empathy; it is something that has to be nurtured, she said.

The program runs from October to June with infants between the ages of two and five months. The baby visits the class once a month so children can see how he or she develops.

“We teach them about how babies use facial expressions and temperaments to tell their parents how they feel because they don’t have words,” said Sanness.

“We tell them he has his own individual personality and that’s OK. He becomes a rock star to them.”

Students sit around a mat on the floor and talk about Kai and his moods, actions and feelings. The Community Links instructor then relates Kai’s reactions to those of the students and their peers.

“It is a great opportunity to connect with the kids and draw attention to emotions and what they look like,” said Quinn Donaldson, instructor for the program.

“We will ask them, ‘How do you feel when baby Kai smile?’ and when they say it makes them feel happy, we say, ‘Smiling at your friend when they are sad might make them happy as well.’”

Students are asked to give the baby his space but are individually invited to hold the baby, sing to him and play with him. They are encouraged to ask questions and interact with him.

“Seeing how much the students love to interact with the baby is heart-warming,” said Tanya Newman, Kai’s mother.

“I cried the first two visits and since then, I have learned so much from them. They are so sweet to him and you expect that from siblings and family, but not from strangers.”

She encouraged other mothers to take part in the program as well.

“It is a wealth of knowledge, especially for first-time mothers,” she said, adding she has a daughter at home who was born in March and therefore could not be part of the program.

“It is great to see the children take part in your child’s development and you are helping the kids learn as well. It is humbling and satisfying.”

The Roots Of Empathy program is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren by raising social and emotional competence and increasing empathy. The program reaches elementary schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Roots is currently running in three classes in Good Shepherd School and one in Beiseker.

“The program is a huge benefit to kids in the rural community because they are more isolated,” said Sanness.

In addition to visits from the babies, the program includes follow up activities in the classroom like drawings and readings.

Good Shepherd principal Don Lauzon, said students really look forward to the visits and he is amazed at how their actions affect others and can reduce family violence.

“Teachers have really bought into this and make it a success time after time,” he said.

Marli Kavanagh, Grade 1 teacher at the school said the program has gone over really well with the students and she is impressed with how attentive they are with the baby.

Six-year-old Sophie Hansen said baby Kai has taught her empathy.

“It’s understanding how other people feel,” she said.

“My favourite part is singing to him and seeing him smile.”

For more information on the Roots of Empathy program, visit


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