What’s at the Root of Empathy? We Asked Mary Gordon

By Loralyn Mears PhD Loralyn Mears PhD has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team
Published on July 17, 2020

Grit Daily News was a member of the media and one of more than 32,000 people who dialed in remotely for Collision From Home. The 2020 event shifted to a virtual setting given the pandemic. One of the most compelling efforts was shared by Roots of Empathy founder, Mary Gordon. To date, her team has coached more than 1 million students worldwide on the soft skill, empathy. That data point is clearly impressive on its own, but the real story is that students who are coached show less aggression, are more likely to stand up against bullies and perform better in school.

Grit Daily: Your Roots of Empathy program was established in 1996, tell us about some of your key observations.

Mary Gordon: Children have a good sense of fairness and social justice and they understand that racism is simply not fair. Roots of Empathy was recently named by HundrED in Finland as one of world’s most inspirational programs. We are able to effectively teach anti-racist education through a baby. How does it work? We help children understand how a tiny baby feels and how much that little baby struggles to do the most basic things like hold a toy or crawl. All students universally fall in love with the baby that we bring into the classroom and the experience enables both cognitive empathy (perspective-taking) and affective empathy (understanding another person’s emotions and feelings with them). Affective empathy is the part that’s generally missing in the world. We may be literate with words and technology but we have huge levels of emotional illiteracy. By raising levels of empathy in children, they learn that it is unconscionable to treat someone in a bad way because they start to think about, “How would I feel if…” We ask them how they would feel if when their little Roots of Empathy baby grew up and started school and was told that they can’t play because they’re different. There is a high level of moral indignation in children because they quickly come to understand that we all have the same feelings and that we’re just bigger babies. Those feelings are what joins us in humanity; we have the capacity to feel and connect to the feelings of others. It’s not something that can be overtly taught by pushing it down a student’s throat with repetition. We also coach children on the concept of moral courage – the equivalent of taking a knee.

GD: Can you give us a specific example?

MG: Today’s cancel culture is showing kids how to stand up against injustice; if you see it – say it. Children were playing in the school yard one morning before classes began. One 8-year old girl witnessed her BFF, who was in foster care, being bullied and mocked because her running shoes were ‘babyish’ and ‘geeky.’ The 8-year old who was horrified and unable to concentrate on her schoolwork that morning because she felt what her friend was feeling (empathy). She couldn’t focus and didn’t know what to do but, intuitively, she knew that it was wrong for those children to mock and bully her friend that way. It took her until morning recess to process what she should do and her empathy coaching spurred her sense of moral courage. At recess, she offered to swap one of her shoes for her friend’s shoe. That quiet act of empathy and courage without a word spoken taught all the children at recess that there are heroes among us and being hurtful is shameful. My faith is in our children: they may not see the long-term impact of standing up against cruelty in the playground and peer pressure has a way of silencing them. The hope  is that they’ll grow up prepared to speak out against cruelty and injustice of any kind. This may not mean marching but it could start with speaking up against a racist joke.

GD: How have children changed over the years?

MG: The landscape of childhood has changed but children have not changed. Yes, teenage milestones like puberty are happening earlier but the basic physical, cognitive and emotional milestones remain unchanged. Socially children’s lives have changed but they are as emotionally vulnerable as they’ve always been. Of course, they amaze us with their tech skills because they have learned different skills than we did when we grew up, but, emotionally, they’re no different. We make assumptions because kids sound sophisticated with all that they’ve absorbed from the media, but they don’t have the emotional maturity to meet us at the level we think they’re at. We can accelerate language development but not emotional development. Children are more stressed and pressured than ever before; even more so than what has been observed during war times. The lenses that used to be used to protect children against hearing adult conversation that was deemed developmentally inappropriate have all but vanished. Today, media has become the backdrop in every household with televisions and news always-on, exposing children to violence and other frightening themes like death from COVID-19. Children are innately predisposed to be empathic. Grade school children deepen their empathy by watching how people they love or respect treat others as well as how empathically they themselves have been treated. Children are always watching so when they see something inappropriate, like racism, they become confused and don’t know if they should feel guilty and/or do something. The greatest lessons in life do not come through instruction but by observing how loved ones treat one another and how respected figures behave. What are the leadership models we have of empathy?

GD: How are children coached in empathy?

MG: There are usually only 25 kids in a classroom, typically we focus on children ages 5-10 but not exclusively so. We’re high-touch and go far beyond a video and basic curriculum. We offer 4-day in-person training with a curriculum for every grade level that is taught by our certified Instructors. The 60% implementation rate of teacher-taught extra-curricular programs pales compared to our 97% implementation rate. A massive research effort spanning three continents with an annual evaluation of every child, teacher, parent and instructor who’s been part of the program, provides us with incredible data. Scientific research and peer-reviewed findings offers unprecedented accountability. Another critical aspect is that we conduct our classes under the watchful eye of the classroom’s teacher, so we have to get things right. Along the way, we became the gold standard and spread around the globe where our program is now taught in multiple languages. For example, Norway has recently rolled the program out in second-grade classrooms in one city with plans to eventually offer the program to all students in second grade nationwide.

Mary Gordon, founder Roots of Empathy

GD: Has your empathy program changed over the years?

MG: We originally came at trying to break cycles of violence. What underscores all of it, be it gratuitous social or domestic violence, what’s at the root of it is the absence of empathy. It is innate; it flourishes or fades depends on attachment relationships that a child has with the parents in the first two years of life. At that age, you either build sociopaths or lovers. Empathy is caught, not taught. We need to be cultivating empathy in children, but you can’t teach empathy in traditional instructional ways like schools use. Over time, we have collected evidence that children who participate in our empathy program throughout the year have dramatically lower levels of bullying and aggression and higher levels of pro-social behaviors and emotional competence. Basically, the program helps ‘grow good people.’ We’ve never advertised or marketed our program, it just sort of caught on like a contagion. The word got out through my book and various speaking engagements. Although my carbon trail is embarrassing, I’ve had incredible opportunities to share stories of innovation and hope around the world on how we break cycles of violence by growing empathic people.

GD: Your efforts are evidence-based. Can you share some of the statistics that you’ve collected?

MG: We do a lot of research in various forms. In a Swiss study conducted 2015-2017 at the Bern University of Applied Science, the Roots of Empathy program outcomes were compared in 187 participants versus 249 controls. The result? There was a significant decrease in aggression recorded in participants versus controls and those results persisted even one year after program completion.

Every year every classroom around the world completes our survey which includes feedback from the classroom teacher who hosts the program, the instructor who teaches the program, the parent who volunteers with their baby and most importantly the children who receive the program. The students’ survey questions include scenario evaluations. For example, ‘If your friend was being bullied in the playground, would you help them?’ And then we offer five levels of response from definitely not to absolutely yes and 86% say yes after they’ve been coached on empathy. Our curriculum is designed so that every child in the program sees everyone else as a potential friend where loyalty must extend beyond our friendship circles and that every person has a right to happiness and deserves to be protected. Feelings connect us to humankind and our packaging, be it skin color or gender or cultural differences, does not interfere with our capacity to feel.

GD: How do words matter with respect to empathy?

MG: We’re still warped as a society with our thinking that STEM holds greater value than soft skills like creativity and empathy, yet creativity is what we need to nudge people towards new ideas that they haven’t heard before. If people have empathy, they will be able to connect with each other in the Universe and advance humanity. I’ve always respected the power of the pen. We grew up somewhat isolated in Newfoundland, but we read everything that we could get our hands onto. At dinnertime, we weren’t allowed to talk about people or things, so we all learned to discuss ideas which underscored the power of the word. In our work, we teach children that they need to use words to describe what they’re feeling.

GD: Can empathy be taught to adults?

MG: It’s never too late to develop empathy. The Roots of Empathy program is guaranteed to work in Elementary schools where the students are together as a group with one teacher for the bulk of the time. We do not offer the program in high schools or prisons because we cannot replicate the successful conditions of offering the program to a consistent group. Unique to the program and connected to its success is the concept of intrinsic motivation. In most classrooms, extrinsic motivation is the main motor and it looks like competition and pitting one child up against the other. This system is based on authoritarian praise or criticism from teachers. Many children in this kind of setting feel nervous and avoid the risk of contributing. There is little trust and friendships are frail. Roots of Empathy classes operate on a principal of intrinsic motivation. Instructors never praise or criticize students and use a Socratic method of experiential questioning. High levels of trust and low levels of stress flourish in these classrooms as children become fearless learners.

GD: It took a global pandemic to spur empathy. How long will that last and is already showing signs of disappearing?

MG: Yes, without question the word empathy has been used in media at a higher level than ever before. The universality of suffering and fear during the pandemic allowed us globally to understand one another’s vulnerable feelings. This empathy eclipsed language, culture, race, gender and religion; resulting in a new shared humanity. How long will it last? It didn’t take long before the Chinese were blamed and shamed or before the LGBTQ community was blamed and shamed for an outbreak in Korea. In spite of our regression, the pandemic has brought together scientists, educators, religious leaders and country leaders in a way that we have never seen before in times of peace. Empathy is the best peace pill that we have and yes, I think it will last. There is no going back after 2020; there’s been an awakening. In the words of another Canadian, Leonard Cohen, ‘There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.’

GD: What do you wish people knew about you?

MG: I’m a regular Joe. I get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other. I’ve had a remarkable opportunity to make a difference in the world and the ability to do that with children answers my dreams. I’ve always believed that if we can help children develop empathy, then they’ll help the rest of us. I’m a social entrepreneur; I see patterns, like violence, that need to be changed and I have had the privilege to be able to implement my solution in four corners of the world.  I’m identified in introductions as an educator, an author, child advocate and parenting expert but I describe myself first of all as a social entrepreneur.

GD: Any parting comments?

MG: Mentorship is how learning is best enabled. It’s all about coaching with empathy.

Images provided by Mary Gordon.

By Loralyn Mears PhD Loralyn Mears PhD has been verified by Muck Rack's editorial team

Journalist verified by Muck Rack verified

Dr. Loralyn Mears is a Columnist at Grit Daily and a podcast host (The Grit Files, which aims to shine the spotlight on female founders). She is a content marketer, founder of the WORKtech startup, STEERus, specializing in personal and professional development to address gaps in soft skills - communication in particular. In her consultancy practice, she helps clients with content and strategy. Loralyn spent over a decade playing with mosquito DNA, got her PhD, decided she would rather market science than be at the bench and has never looked back. Along the way, she’s wined and dined her way around the globe. She's authored two books, including the 2018 Gold Medal Indie Book award-winning, One Sip At a Time: a Memoir and the hard science thriller, "The Battle for Humanity: How Science Saved Us." 

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