Mary Gordon
Ashoka Fellow since 2002   |   Canada

Mary Gordon

Roots of Empathy
Mary Gordon's program, Roots of Empathy (ROE), works to reduce childhood aggression by teaching students emotional literacy and fostering the development of empathy. Her program, which consists…
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Empathy has emerged as a critical 21st century skill as countries around the world are desperately seeking ways to reduce violence and foster inclusion. I created Roots of Empathy in 1996 to answer this call. My mission is to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults. My vision is to change the world, child by child. In the short term, my program raises levels of empathy, resulting in more respectful and caring relationships, and reduces aggression, including bullying. In the long term, it builds the capacity of the next generation for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. I have successfully developed Roots of Empathy’s evidence- and school-based programs in twelve countries on three continents, reaching close to a million children worldwide. We continue to expand internationally, reaching children in rural, urban and Indigenous communities, with the support of governments, foundations and corporations who value these programs.

I'm a graduate of the Ashoka Globalizer program and speak internationally on the topics of empathy, child wellbeing and resilience, child protection and violence reduction. I have consulted on policy with governments and international NGOs such as the World Health Organization.


Featured in Rippling: How Social Entrepreneurs Spread Innovation Throughout the World, by Bev Schwartz (2012) Featured in Who Cares? documentary (2013)

This description of Mary Gordon's work was prepared when Mary Gordon was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Mary Gordon's program, Roots of Empathy (ROE), works to reduce childhood aggression by teaching students emotional literacy and fostering the development of empathy. Her program, which consists of children hosting parents and infants in a classroom setting, has been successfully launched in 133 Canadian schools, directly affecting some 4,450 children.

The New Idea

Mary's Roots of Empathy is an innovative, classroom-based parenting program that reduces childhood levels of aggression by counteracting the physical, psychological, and neurological effects of parental violence and neglect.

Scientists have proven that abuse during a child's formative years affects the formation of the brain and has a lifetime impact on a child's learning, behavior, and health. However, child development research indicates that teaching children to be compassionate and caring–and how to recognize and manage their own emotions at an early age–can mitigate the impact of violence. Mary's program grasps that potential for recovery from the effects of childhood trauma and is able to reduce the frequency of aggressive, antisocial behavior.

Roots of Empathy makes emotional literacy–the ability to recognize and understand each others' emotions–a core school subject. It brings a living example of the loving relationship between parent and child into the classroom. Targeted to children's varying levels of emotional development, Roots of Empathy provides young people with strategies to effectively recognize and respond to the emotions of others.

The Problem

Parents model for children how to formulate emotional responses in stressful or unusual situations. When a child looks to her parents for guidance and is faced with abuse, violence, or simple neglect, she is often left with an impaired ability not only to recognize and respond to the emotions of others, but also to manage her own emotions. Beyond poor emotional regulation, an abused or neglected child may experience diminished learning capacity and inadequate social coping mechanisms.

The long-term physical, neurological, and mental effects of abuse and neglect on an individual have been well documented through scientific study. Recent neurobiological research indicates that negative childhood experiences like physical, sexual, or verbal abuse or domestic violence contribute to the sculpting of the brain. During early childhood, the reflective, intellectual areas of the cortex gradually come to govern the flush of fear and anger from the amygdala, an area deep within the brain. As a child's brain matures, connections between the cognitive areas of the brain begin to monitor and regulate the aggressive impulses generated by the amygdala. Repeated stress experiences during the period of rapid brain development bathe the brain in cortisol, damaging the amygdala and inhibiting its connection to cognitive areas of the brain, resulting in decreased ability to monitor and control emotional impulses.

Over the past decades, Canada has experienced an increase in reports of domestic violence, child abuse, child and youth violence, and bullying. Further, levels of abuse risk growing exponentially, as often those who are abused become abusers themselves. One study of men in Canadian prisons showed that those who were abused as children were 3 times more likely to commit violent crimes as adolescents and adults. The few educational programs designed to deter future violence often fail because they focus on consequences, rather than on providing individuals with alternative ways of interacting and responding in stressful or violent situations.

However, new psychological research pointing to the connection between empathy and aggression highlights a possible solution to the effects of violence. Abusers have an inability to recognize physical manifestation of emotion: they often misread fear for anger and respond inappropriately. Cut off from their own emotions, they are unable to feel empathy for others. If one is successful in teaching children empathy and emotional literacy–the ability to recognize and understand others' emotions–the brain can, in effect, be re-taught, giving children some of the necessary emotional skills and abilities they will need to form successful relationships in life.

Just as many parents are unable to provide their own children positive emotional interaction and education at home, schools as they currently exist do not teach the affective side of development or emotional literacy. Through the vehicle of public schools, Mary is creating a sustained learning opportunity for teaching empathy and emotional management.

The Strategy

Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based program that teaches children as young as 3 years of age about the necessary affective side of parenting–empathy, and emotional literacy. Each class "adopts" a baby who visits the classroom along with a parent and a trained ROE instructor once a month for the duration of the school year. The instructor meets with the class before and after each family visit for a total of 27 sessions.

Roots of Empathy aims to reach children during several stages in their development that will allow for maximum impact. Mary has designed a comprehensive, specialized curriculum for four grade levels: Kindergarten, Primary (grades 1-3), Junior (grades 4-6), and Senior (grades 7-8). Each of the family visits focuses on a different theme related to the baby's development including Caring and Planning for the Baby, Sleep, Crying, Safety, Emotions, Who Am I?, Goodbye, and Good Wishes.

During a typical family visit, the students observe, ask questions, discuss the baby's behavior, the sounds she makes, and her temperament, gaining insights into the infant's growth and development and learning to respond appropriately to what the baby is trying to "tell them" through physical cues. The program increases students' knowledge of human development, learning, and infant safety, better preparing them to be responsible and responsive parents. Each level of the curriculum uses a new infant to deepen the students' understanding of the tremendous amount of time, patience, love, and energy required to parent a child properly.

Instructors work with the students to recognize the baby's emotions, and as they become more comfortable identifying and labeling the feelings of others, they are able to explore and discuss their own feelings. This newfound "emotional literacy" helps them recognize the feelings of their peers and understand how violent actions (like bullying) affect others.

Preliminary studies, both independent and commissioned by ROE, have confirmed the success of Mary's early work in teaching emotional literacy as a solution to reducing violence and aggression. A 2001 study of 6- to 8-year-old participants found a decrease of aggression in the treatment group and a predictable rise in aggression in the control group.

Currently, there are 178 Roots of Empathy programs in 133 schools, across five provinces in Canada. The four-day ROE instructor training course will be offered to an additional 225 instructors across Canada this year, more than doubling their reach. Before expanding her program internationally (she has received requests for the program from every province in Canada as well as the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Japan), Mary plans to spread her program nationwide in Canada, adapting the program for Aboriginal and French-speaking groups.

The Person

Mary grew up in Newfoundland in a large family with a strong social conscience. She remembers being allowed to talk only about ideas at the dinner table. "There was definitely a sense that you were a citizen," she says, "and that you were lucky for that."

After graduating from Teacher's College in 1969, Mary became a kindergarten teacher in the hope that she could have a positive effect on children's lives. Within weeks, she realized that any real change in a student's life happens within the context of the family, that she as a teacher could only have so much influence–parents and families always held the power. Starting on her fourth day of teaching, Mary worked to bridge the disconnect between the family unit and the education system by integrating families into the classroom.

Mary's growing interest in the role of the family in early cognitive and affective development led her to found Canada's first Parenting and Family Literacy Centers. Mary originally engaged parents by conducting outreach in the streets, laundromats and diners, growing the program dramatically and steadily over two decades. Working in the deepest inner-city schools with the highest dropout and teen pregnancy rates, Mary became the face of a program that garnered international recognition and continues to serve thousands of Toronto families.

One of the best examples of Mary's entrepreneurial creativity was in solving the problem of finding suitable books for children of the families that attended the centers who did not speak English. Whenever Mary took a taxi, she would ask the driver to translate the book into his native language; drivers translated during red lights while Mary watched the road. Mary was successful in translating a dozen children's books into 12 languages in this way. The translations were pasted into books and lent to the immigrant families who attended the literacy centers, resulting in dramatically higher literacy levels as tested at school entry.

In 1996 Mary used her experience bringing together parents and schools both to address the problem of rising societal aggression and to provide those children lacking a true model of good parenting with a new benchmark and a framework for their own current and future actions. Within a few weeks, she outlined the initial curriculum of Roots of Empathy and began piloting the program in two schools. In 2000 Mary left her job with the Parenting Centers at the Toronto Board of Education–two years away from a hefty, guaranteed pension–to strike out on her own and establish ROE as a national and international organization.

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