The Roots of Empathy

The Roots of Empathy

When 4 month-old Indigo visits “her” third grade classroom in Toronto, Canada, 26 students sit on a green rug in a horseshoe shape in front of her and practice empathy – building their capacities of tuning into Indigo’s emotional states and relational needs.

“Tiny teachers” like Indigo are part of Roots of Empathy, an emotional literacy program created in 1996 by Canadian educator Mary Gordon, now reaching 325,000 students in 12,600 classrooms, K-7th grade, in Canada. Prominent in the media recently as an effective antidote to bullying, Roots of Empathy has been called Canada’s “olive branch to the world.”

(See www.rootsofempathy.org for an inspiring video on how the “tiny teachers” help students become more competent and compassionate human beings today and more competent and caring parents tomorrow. See Resources below for links to coverage in the New York Times, Time magazine, and CNN.)

In Roots of Empathy, a mother/father and their baby (2-4 months old at the beginning of the school year) visit their adoptive classroom every month for the nine months of the school year. Students are guided through a well-honed curriculum of pre-visit, baby-visit, post-visit exercises each month as they witness the baby’s development, share in the parents’ responses to the baby’s needs, and celebrate milestones in his/her life.

The youngest classes sing songs and recite rhymes to learn what holds the baby’s attention the most and when the baby prefers a gentle silence instead. Intermediate classes learn to interpret the baby’s facial expression, which translates readily to better listening with their peers and caring more about each other’s happiness. The more advanced students explore “rings of caring” – expanding their focus from “their” baby and the impact of issues that could affect their baby – sudden infant death syndrome, fetal alcohol syndrome and second-hand smoke – to the more global impacts on children and families of pollution, famine, and AIDS.

The outcomes of practicing empathy in programs like Roots of Empathy have been well-researched and validated: Roots of Empathy participants decreased aggressive behaviors like bullying, intimidation, gossiping, backstabbing and exclusion by 88%, while non-participants increased those behaviors by 50% in the same time period.

In general, researchers have noticed a decline in name calling, racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks among Roots of Empathy participants. Roots of Empathy participants listen better to their peers and care more about an other’s happiness. Peer and family relationships improve. Tough kids smile more; disruptive kids focus better, and shy kids open up. And a very important bottom-line for all parents and educators: practicing empathy and other skills of relational intelligence is a better predictor of higher grades than standardized intelligence tests.

In this season of families and friends gathering for celebrations and the occasional gritting your teeth obligations, when our capacities for empathy may feel stretched to the snapping point, may these reflections and resources on the roots of empathy be inspiring and useful to you and yours.

REFLECTIONS on the Roots of Empathy

Empathy is one of the most powerful and direct means we have to understand another person’s inner reality. Empathy includes the capacities to read the non-verbal cues that help us identify, name, and understand the why’s of the emotions of another, to make sense of those signals based on resonant signals in our own body-mind as well as our life experience, to respond in ways that are helpful, and to reflect our understanding back to the person so that they experience their inner reality as “felt” or “grokked,” whether that person is nine months old or ninety years old.

When students in Indigo’s classroom are asked what Indigo might be feeling as she interacts with them, they are also asked, “How do you know? What tells you?. When they watch the role modeling of Indigo’s parents Indigo interacting responsively and helpfully with her, they learn how to respond to others directly, intuitively, skillfully.

Empathy is one of the nine biologically hardwired in capacities of a mature pre-frontal cortex in the “higher” – and social – human brain, according to Daniel Siegel, founder of the discipline of interpersonal neurobiology studies.

The capacity for empathy is kindled and strengthened one human brain to another – and only in brain to brain interactions; there is no other way. A parent mimics the coos of his/her baby, shifts gears when the baby suddenly starts to cry, uses resonance, experience, imagination, best guess to comprehend the baby’s reality now, the needs NOW, and responds appropriately, soothing, comforting, changing a diaper or providing a bottle.

The students in the Roots of Empathy classroom are watching the parents’ empathy leading to problem solving and begin to apply their own skills of empathy to decipher what their peers might need or want.

The parent’s empathy is the primary gateway to physical caregiving so the baby can stay safe and grow strong and healthy. More than that, the parent’s empathy is the primary gateway to the baby “feeling felt” – “you see me and I know that I matter” – the intersubjective foundation of the internal secure base of secure attachment – the psychological foundation of resilience.

Participants in Roots of Empathy become protective of “their” baby. They are also learning to stand up for themselves and for each other, challenging injustice or cruelty outside the classroom, on the playground, in the community.

More than psychological resilience, the parent’s empathy kindles the maturation of the brain structure of the baby’s pre-frontal cortex itself, the structure that will allow the maturing child to experience self-empathy and genuine empathy for others, lifelong.

As the students learn about their baby’s temperament, they also learn about their own temperaments and those of their peers. They come to value differences and diversity, becoming more accepting and tolerant of people different from themselves. That empathy and tolerance can last a lifetime.

We develop our capacities for empathy all of our lives, offering and receiving empathy in every interpersonal circumstance possible. As lovers, best friends, as teachers or students, as therapist or patients, as more and more students are learning to do in emotional literacy programs like Roots of Empathy – thank goodness.

Empathy is the fulcrum of the arc of relational intelligence, of social/emotional competence, that scientists are increasingly demonstrating is more important to our “success” as human beings than I.Q.

The arc begins with resonance – the autonomic nervous system in our body-brain tuning into the energy or “vibe” of another body-brain, completely non-verbal, often unconscious. Students in Roots of Empathy classrooms get to witness their baby’s rapid development over the nine months of the school year. When the students see the baby sit up for the first time, or pick up a rattle for the first time, they often spontaneously cheer in resonance with the triumph.

To attunement – our limbic system and pre-frontal cortex tuning into the emotional state of another person or even attuning to ourselves to our own inner reality. Students watch Indigo’s face change as she becomes scared of a stranger, identify what she’s feeling and why, and then explore their own facial expressions when they identify with feeling scared.

To empathy – the full capacity of the pre-frontal cortex to register and integrate information coming from our bodies, our feelings, and our cognitive thinking to make sense of someone else’s story, while maintaining our own reality as separate and possibly different. With this capacity of perspective taking, and with the role modeling of responsible parenting they see with their baby, students in Roots of Empathy programs begin to see how hard it is to be a parent and beginning to have more empathy for their own parents and value becoming responsible parents themselves.

To compassion – “feeling with” – another’s pain or suffering, not pulled into an emotional vortex but caring and being moved to action. Roots of Empathy participants learn to act in ways that are are helpful to another human being. Because the curriculum emphasizes social inclusion and consensus building, students are learning to expand their “culture of caring” and friendships beyond the classroom.

I believe that the future of world doesn’t lie in the hands of the children; it lies in the hearts of the children. Roots of Empathy brings together the education of the heart and the mind; it is the foundation of a compassionate and peaceful society.
– Mary Gordon


Resilience in the face of difficulty requires a particular form of intelligence. Traditional smarts – book smarts or even street savvy – won’t necessarily bring happiness, but social and emotional intelligence will. Social and emotional intelligence are nothing less than the foundation of lasting happiness.
– Christine Carter

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I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.
– Roger Ebert

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Empathy is full presence to what’s alive in the other person at this moment.
– John Cunningham

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When you start to develop your powers of empathy and imagination, the whole world opens up to you.
– Susan Sarandon

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If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we much see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces. Here it is love that is the frame we see them in.
– Frederick Buechner

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When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
– Henri Nouwen

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The core of our humanity is the ability to feel what the other person feels…to be able to take the other’s perspective. We think we’re islands of emotional pain unless we hear others discuss their feelings.
– Mary Gordon

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You know, there’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid-off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. When you think like this – when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers – it becomes hard not to act; hard not to help.
– Barack Obama

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The act of compassion begins with full attention. You have to really see the person. If you see the person, then naturally, empathy arises. If you tune into the other person, you feel with them. If empathy arises, and if that person is in dire need, then empathic concern can come. You want to help them, and then that begins a compassionate act.
– Daniel Goleman

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Suffering and joy teach us, if we allow them, how to make the leap of empathy, which transports us into the soul and heart of another person. In those transparent moments we know other people’s joys and sorrows, and we care about their concerns as if they were our own.
– Fritz Williams

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To embrace suffering culminates in greater empathy, the capacity to feel what it is like for the other to suffer, which is the ground for unsentimental compassion and love.
– Stephen Batchelor

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Self- absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts and our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.
– Dan Goleman


This month’s stories are offered through links to videos of children learning/displaying empathy. I’m offering the actual URL which you can copy/paste in your browser if the link through this e-newsletter doesn’t get you through.

Roots of Empathy classroom video: emotional literacy in action and some of the curriculum behind it.

Empathy and altruism in toddlers: Six 15-second video clips of toddlers displaying empathy and altruism from research by Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello. Unbelievably inspiring.

CNN classroom video of Indigo, the “tiny teacher” highlighted in this newsletter.


The Roots of Empathy

These exercises and even much of the text are adapted from Christine Carter’s Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, with deep thanks for such a gem of a book and a clear approach to cultivating emotional literacy in children. (See Resources below also.)

1. Eye Contact Helps Empathy

“Studies show that eye contact opens our neural pathways for empathy. If we are looking someone in the eye when they hurt themselves, for example, our own facial expression is more likely to mimic the pain in the injured person’s face.”

Practice sitting with your child at their eye level and quietly establish eye contact before speaking. Tune in to your child’s emotional state and let him/her tune into yours before you begin speaking. (Remembering the love you have for your child not matter what behavior you’re needing to address, helps, too.) Maintain eye contact so you can better read and communicate emotionally back and forth, remembering that emotions may shift several times during the conversation.

2. Label and Validate the Feelings at Hand

Naming the feelings coming up in the moment, yours and your child’s, helps build a vocabulary for natural waves of body sensations signaling that something important is happening, pay attention! Naming and validating the feelings as natural, OK, part of being human, even with very, very young children who are not using their words yet at all, nonetheless strengthens the part of our brain (the pre-frontal cortex) that does regulate our emotions and that does make sense of our inner subjective reality. Naming, validating, accepting the child’s emotional reality is a key element in their “experiencing being experienced” in Dan Goleman’s phrase. That “feeling felt” is the heart of empathic resonance.

3. Role Model the Knowing and Accepting of Feelings

Children learn to know, name, and accept their feelings (self-empathy) by watching you know, name, and accept yours. You can narrate your own emotional experiences out loud so your children learn by copy-catting.

I am so happy that the sun is out.
I feel frustrated when the store lines are so long.
I am hungry. I wish I had eaten more for lunch.
I am so excited to go hiking tomorrow.
I feel disappointed with myself when I forget to call people back.
I feel so thankful and appreciative when dad folds all the of laundry!

4. Create a Family Feelings List

a. Write “Family Feelings List” at the top of a large piece of paper.

b. Brainstorm feelings and emotions that you and your kids have felt. The idea is to generate a list of lots of feelings, not to edit or decide what is or isn’t an emotion. Vague descriptions such as “left out” are fine.

c. Post the list in a place where anyone can add to it anytime, and revisit it regularly.

d. Start talking about the emotions on the family Feelings List. At dinner or during a family meeting, take turns telling one another about a time when you each had a particular feeling on the list. Before you begin, make sure that everyone understands that no one is allowed to criticize, judge, or lecture about what is shared.

e. Let kids put checkmarks by the emotions on the list when they feel them, assigning each family member a different color. This will help kids realize that other family members sometimes feel the same way they do, dissipating the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies negative emotions.

f. Decide on a feeling for everyone to watch for the following day. Next time, have everyone share their observations of that emotion. How did it make your body feel? What did the person’s face look life?

5. Empathy Leads to Forgiveness

a. Tell family stories about times when you have hurt others. During dinner, for example, recall a time when you hurt someone else, either intentionally or accidentally. Then discuss whether or not you feel forgiven for the offense. If you feel as though you’ve been forgiven, here are some questions do discuss:

* How do you know you’ve been forgiven?
* Why do you think the person forgave you?
* Do you thing the person you hurt felt better or worse after they forgave you?
* How did you feel after you were forgiven?
* What is your relationship like with the person now?
* Did being forgiven make you more or less likely to repeat the hurtful behavior?
* If you do not feel that you’ve been forgiven, talk about how you might ask for forgiveness.

2. Role-play empathy and forgiveness. Pick a family member to describe a particular person whom they blame for something hurtful. Then take turns standing in the offender’s shoes. Why might he have done what he did? What emotions might he have been feeling? Try to give the offender the benefit of the doubt; imagine lots of different things that the offender might have been going through. Remind everyone that practicing empathy is not the same as excusing bad behaviors, but it is simply a technique for letting go of anger.

Finally, role-play forgiving. What can you say to the offender? What emotions are you feeling as you do the role play? Try on the facial expressions that you think you might have when expressing forgiveness. What does your body feel like when you’re feeling or expressing forgiveness?



This website of the Roots of Empathy program highlighted in this e-newsletter is a wealth of information about the impact of emotional literacy on children, families, and society. Does your heart good.


Entering “empathy” in the search feature of the Greater Good website yields more than 50 well-written articles on empathy. Greater Good recently hosted Mary Gordon as a featured guest speaker in its Science of a Meaningful Life series: Seeds of Compassion, Roots of Empathy.

New York Times:

This November 10, 2010 article in the New York Times, Fighting Bullying with Babies, quickly became the paper’s most e-mailed article. An excellent overview of Roots of Empathy as a gentle but effective antidote to the rise of bullying in schools.

Time magazine:

This May 24, 2010 article, How to De-Program Bullies: Teaching Kindness 101, also focuses on Roots of Empathy as a preventive to bullying, but also explores a bit of social neuroscience that underscores how essential empathy is to a healthy society.

Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child by Mary Gordon, The Experiment, 2005.

A further exploration of emotional literacy, attachment, temperament, social inclusion, and the neuroscience of empathy by the founder of the Roots of Empathy program highlighted in this newsletter.

Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents by Christine Carter. Ballantine Books, 2010.

Masterfully written, Raising Happiness offers very practical, down-to-earth art and science of emotionally intelligent parenting. See also for Christine’s blog, e-newsletter and parenting videos. To be treasured.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: the Heart of Parenting by John Gottmann and Joan Declaire. Simon and Schuster, 1997.

Teaches parents empirically validated tools of emotion coaching.

Born To Love: Why Empathy is Essential…and Endangered, by Bruce Perry and Maia Szalavitz. HarperCollins, 2010.

An exploration of how and why the brain learns to bond with others, why empathy is essential for our development into healthy adults, and how empathy is threatened in our modern world. The authors posit that recent changes in technology, child-rearing practices, education and lifestyle are starting to rob children of necessary human contact and deep relationship, essential foundations of empathy and a healthy society.

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