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By Rebecca Leslie, Roots of Empathy Instructor

I had the incredible privilege of volunteering with Roots of Empathy the very first year my family and I moved to Ontario. What a strong, timeless message that we send to kids, parents, and the community: tucked safely within relationships which are secure and nurturing, empathy blossoms and, from that, the world becomes a little bit kinder, one child at a time.

As luck would have it, I got to teach the Roots of Empathy program in a Grade 3 class hosting a mother who is also a valued teacher at the same school! On maternity leave with our teaching baby, our Roots of Empathy mom still maintained strong connections with many of the children and facilitated my bonding with the students.

We watched our baby Kinsley for communication signs to indicate hunger, fatigue, excitement, and over stimulation. We focused on the unique bond and attunement between mother and child, fascinated by how baby Kinsley’s unique character and independence developed over the 10 months with her. We learned about the realities and responsibilities that come hand-in-hand with parenting: changing diapers, feeding, and safety, to name a few. We greeted our baby with songs, celebrated first teeth as well as first steps, and engaged with her in stimulating activities. We became familiar with temperament and what that means for our tiny teacher as well as for ourselves. Finally, we addressed issues that are common to both babies and humans of all ages: we all have unique needs, crave safety and security, and can learn to better interpret our own and others’ emotions. Most importantly, we learned that by understanding our baby’s, our own, and our classmates’ commonalities and differences, we can also strive to develop empathy for everyone.

One of my favorite moments in our classroom was reading storybooks after baby Kinsley’s visits which flawlessly linked universal concepts to what we had just learned about her. The dedicated classroom teacher and I would then engage in challenging conversations with these young thinkers and help them link these concepts to similar, familiar experiences. Another valuable and unexpected take-away for me that first year with Roots of Empathy was that my then 5-year-old son learned about babies, attunement and empathy in such a unique way as I prepared my material at home. Without ever meeting our baby, my own son learned so much just by hearing about my experiences and seeing pictures of Kinsley as she grew.

At the year-end baby celebration for Toronto, one of my students from Syria was asked to speak. Nervous speaking in a second language he was so committed to learning, he was able to convey the essential message that our class took away that year: everyone wants to feel safe, heard, appreciated, and understood, regardless of age, background, or life experience.

I know, without a shadow of a doubt, that teaching Roots of Empathy in that classroom made a world of difference for those kids who have now brought empathy and understanding into their own unique contexts. Empathy and kindness have a contagion effect and I am overjoyed to be part of this social change!

To hear Rebecca Leslie and mom Sarah Walker talk about their experience in the classroom, you can listen to their radio interview with Gill Deacon on CBC’s Hear and Now.

A Roots of Empathy instructor plays with a baby on the greet blanket.

Roots of Empathy Instructor Rebecca Leslie with Baby Kinsley, Mom Sarah and Grade 3 students at Gateway Elementary School in Toronto