Washington, D.C., classrooms welcome babies in effort to teach empathy

Emma Brown / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON - The newest teachers at Washington’s Maury Elementary School haven’t been to college. They can’t tie their own shoes. They don’t speak much English. And they aren’t potty-trained.

They are babies. Mostly bald, and completely mesmerizing.

Maury is one of five D.C. elementary schools attempting to harness the disarming power of infants to help students recognize and deal with emotions in themselves and their classmates. The babies, in other words, are meant to help teach children how to be kind.

“I think it’s really changed people in our class,” said 10-year-old Vivian Dougherty, a fourth-grader at Maury who has spent the year learning from Baby June, who is 11 months old. “It’s really made people nicer.”

The program, called Roots of Empathy, was conceived nearly two decades ago in Toronto and has since become common across Canada. Now it has been imported to the United States, amid growing concern about classroom bullying and growing conviction that teaching certain character traits - such as persistence, self-control and self-confidence - is just as crucial for students’ futures as teaching academics.

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.

“As important as it is to learn to read, it’s also important to learn to relate,” said Mary Gordon, who founded the Roots of Empathy program in 1996. “So we teach them emotional literacy, the words to understand what you feel based on what you’ve witnessed with the babies.”

Roots is one of many character-education and social-emotional learning programs that are in vogue. President Obama has spoken of the need to address the nation’s “empathy deficit,” while KIPP - the well-known and successful charter school network whose motto is “Work Hard. Be Nice.” - has popularized the effort to teach grit and other intangible traits in addition to rigorous academics.

But Roots costs time and money - two commodities that are always scarce in schools, especially in urban districts struggling to lift the achievement of disadvantaged children. And while much of American education policy focuses on improving reading and math proficiency, the idea of using babies to help build social skills has its share of skeptics.

Chester Finn, president of the conservative-leaning Thomas B. Fordham Institute, called the program “a costly diversion that probably does no harm but isn’t what serious policy makers should be spending their time and scarce resources on,” especially given persistent achievement gaps.

Finn added that programs such as Roots are attempting to make changes that “are so nebulous long-term and hard to measure that, frankly, it’s exceedingly difficult to gauge program effectiveness with any reliability.”

Gordon and others who support her approach say that research has shown connections between social-emotional learning and academic progress and that bullying is a pervasive problem linked to poor academic performance and high dropout rates.

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.

“How come my baby sister can walk, but Baby Joshua can’t walk?” asked a puzzled second-grader at Bishop John T. Walker School for Boys, a tuition-free private school in Southeast Washington.

“We all develop in different ways,” said the instructor, Anthony Davis.

The schools hosting Roots in the District this year include private schools exempt from the city’s standardized tests and public schools that have a lower-than-average proportion of poor children. It can be hard to see how bringing babies into the classroom could make a dent in children’s overwhelming needs across the city, in places where poverty is more concentrated, where teachers say there often is too little in the way of mental health counseling and where some schools are not even able to offer a full year of science and social studies.

But Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia who has studied Roots since 2000, said it is particularly important to teach social-emotional skills to at-risk youths.

“The evidence is so clear that when you do it, it doesn’t interfere with test scores, but it actually helps them do better in school,” she said. “It builds resilience.”

Schonert-Reichl has found in multiple studies that 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.

To an outside observer, the program doesn’t always seem all that remarkable. But the tiny creature transfixes students in a way that math lessons often don’t.

Instructors reinforce each baby visit with lessons before and after, for a total of 27 sessions throughout the school year. That’s about 20 hours of class time, roughly equivalent to the time a college student spends in a 1.5-credit course. Teachers say the baby visits and focused instruction serve as a common reference point for students that helps spur ongoing lessons about dealing with emotions throughout the rest of the year.

VanNessa Duckett, whose fourth-grade class at Maury has hosted June, said she was initially a bit skeptical. But the 15-year teaching veteran said the sessions have triggered real change, both in her approach to managing the classroom and in her students. They have become more thoughtful, she said, and less likely to misbehave.

“I feel like every moment is truly a teachable moment when it comes to these children’s character,” Duckett said. “I wake up excited to come and work on who they are as people. It makes them available for learning.”

Duckett said the empathy instruction appears to have made a significant difference for four or five students in particular. One of them is Kanye Cheeks, who during a recent classroom visit returned June’s shy smile with a grin.

Kanye was new to Maury last year, in the third grade. He tells it pretty straight: He didn’t have many friends, he didn’t always feel comfortable asking questions, and he got into a lot of trouble.

This year, he has almost all the same classmates. But Duckett said things are different.

Kanye raises his hand in class. He participates. His classmates say he’s more respectful and nicer.

“I’m getting better,” Kanye said. He said he has learned to “keep pushing instead of giving up” when he encounters a tough class assignment. He knows that he can ask classmates for assistance without risking his dignity. “I’ve got this desk partner, and he helps me. He’s not going to be yelling at me,” Kanye said.