Interview - Mary Gordon

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Founder of the Roots of Empathy programme which was officially launched in England last month.

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Children from 14 schools in the London boroughs of Lewisham and Croydon are taking part in the programme, which is co-ordinated by the Pre-School Learning Alliance.

In 1996 you piloted the Roots of Empathy (ROE) programme in Canada - how did you come up with the idea?

While working with families who were dealing with domestic violence and child abuse I realised the common denominator was the absence of empathy. I believe that empathy is innate and either blooms or fades in a baby's earliest attachment relationships. Empathy cannot be 'taught' in the traditional sense, but can be 'caught' through guided observations of children and parents.

What part have you played in the programme's introduction to the UK and, in particular, England?

For several years I have been meeting with child-serving agencies, educators and policymakers in the UK. There is a consensus that children's social and emotional learning matters, and that ROE is a cost-effective, evidence-based, child-friendly vehicle for delivering social and emotional learning effectively to children.

How does the programme work?

The programme takes place in one school classroom, with one volunteer family (parents and baby), and one instructor over a school year. An ROE instructor visits a classroom 27 times over a year, nine of which include the volunteer family. The ROE instructor guides the children in the class to observe and connect with the baby's intentions and feelings.

Throughout the programme children develop emotional literacy as they become proficient at discussing their own emotions and understanding the emotions of their friends. They also learn to take the perspective of a vulnerable baby, and of each other.

What impact has the programme had on children?

In ten countries, nearly half a million children have taken part. Research has shown that ROE children have increased emotional competency and decreased aggression, which is long-lasting.

What next for Roots of Empathy?

Last month, we also launched the programme in Germany, and plan to launch in German-speaking Switzerland very soon. Over the next few years, we hope to expand Roots of Empathy across the UK, the US, and to continue the programme in every province in Canada.

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