The federal government has identified bullying as a “national problem” and as of this August, the Department of Education has launched its first ever “anti bullying campaign” (complete with badly drawn animal cartoons, lesson plans, and threatening letters promising legal repercussions for administrators who fail to recognize instances of bullying in their institutions).The route to harmony, as outlined by these terms, seems to be paved with “scared straight” tactics and “Big Brother” type observation.Despite historic success rates of “fear as motivator” strategies — just ask a Catholic school girl– David Bornstein recently brought to light a new kind of intervention program that has been to shown to decrease aggression, augment altruism, and help develop empathy for others in children ages 5 to 12. How? By letting them interact with infants.A Canadian based program called Roots of Empathy has worked with almost 13,000 classrooms since 1996 to teach what Bornstein calls “acceptance of others.” The program brings in a two to four- month-old infant, its mother (or father), and an instructor for a forty minute visit at the beginning of the school year. Then, every month for nine months the baby comes back for another visit and the children watch the infant’s development,
“During the baby visits, the children sit around the baby and mother (sometimes it’s a father) on a green blanket (which represents new life and nature) and they try to understand the baby’s feelings. The instructor helps by labeling them…Children learn strategies for comforting a crying baby. They learn that one must never shake a baby. They discover that everyone comes into the world with a different temperament, including themselves and their classmates. They see how hard it can be to be a parent, which helps them empathize with their own mothers and fathers. And they marvel at how capacity develops. Each month, the baby does something that it couldn’t do during its last visit: roll over, crawl, sit up, maybe even begin walking. Witnessing the baby’s triumphs – even something as small as picking up a rattle for the first time — the children will often cheer.”
The goal of Roots is to increase human biological capabilities for compassion by helping to teach kindness. “…We are beginning to understand how to nurture this biological potential. It seems that it’s not only possible to make people kinder, it’s possible to do it systematically at scale – at least with school children,” says Bornstein. He has observed Roots’ work in several Toronto schools and has seen first hand how bringing a baby into the classroom setting changes social dynamics,”What I find most fascinating is how the baby actually changes the children’s behavior. Teachers have confirmed my impressions: tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up. In a seventh grade class, I found 12-year-olds unabashedly singing nursery rhymes.”
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