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.