ALMAGUIN – A new program aims to embed empathetic attitudes in youngsters.
TOOLS FOR EMPATHY.
“They’re learning about emotions and trying to help recognize how others feel,” explained Cheri Sidon, co-ordinator of childcare operations for the District of Parry Sound Social Services Administration Board (DSSAB), of the board’s new Seeds of Empathy program.
“Age zero to six is a crucial time for brain development,” said Sidon. “Whatever kids take in during that period of life will stay with them forever. If the kids learn to recognize their own feelings during that time, it’s easier for them to identify those feelings in another person.”
Newfoundland author and child advocate Mary Gordon developed Seeds of Empathy as a spin-off of her classroom-based international Roots of Empathy program.
“The goal is to build caring, peaceful and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults,” explained Sidon. “Mary Gordon’s idea is to change the world.”
The Seeds program is offered at three early learning and childcare centres within the Almaguin Highlands and one in Parry Sound, which operate under the umbrella of the DSSAB. First Steps in South River, Fairview in Powassan, and Highlands in Emsdale each rolled out their Seeds of Empathy programs in October.
“There were actually 20 of us from our organization that were trained for this program,” said Sidon.
Cec Barks, manager of children’s services for the Parry Sound DSSAB, said she hopes the program will nip bullying in the bud.
“There just seems to be so much of it. Especially with social media,” she said. “We’re hoping to help kids be more empathetic toward others. Hopefully it will lead to less aggression in the schools.”
A main component of the Seeds of Empathy program involves watching a baby develop over the course of eight months, beginning when the infant is between two to four months of age. After the children at the centre complete each module, the infant is brought into the centre to visit the children as they gather around the lavender Seeds of Empathy blanket.
“Gathering around the blanket teaches the kids boundaries and respect for the baby,” said Sidon.
When the baby arrives, the children sing a welcome song and the parent brings the baby around the circle to be welcomed by each child. The children are encouraged to touch the baby’s feet as he or she comes around. Then they discuss how the baby has developed since the last time he or she visited.
Out of respect, each time anyone wants to touch the baby or offer him or her a toy, they ask the baby’s permission. The kids decipher what the baby’s wants and needs are based on his or her facial and vocal expressions with the help of the lessons learned in the module.
“If the baby is crying in the story, then we discuss why the baby is crying and what they might be feeling,” explained Sidon. “We teach them that crying doesn’t mean the baby is bad. It means there is a problem.”
Sidon said she has been impressed with the level of ongoing support from program administrators. “It’s great because sometimes you go through training and then you just try to do it to the best of your ability,” she said.
According to Sidon, the effectiveness of the program is already being seen.
“We have a child in our program who is very shy and when the baby first came around the circle during the welcome song he wouldn’t touch his (the baby’s) feet,” said Sidon. “When the baby came around during the goodbye song, he leaned forward and kissed the baby’s feet. It was so sweet.”