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Originally published May 18, 2011 at 7:20 PM | Page modified May 18, 2011 at 10:33 PM

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Jerry Large

Baby, what a lesson! Kids learn a little empathy

In 47 classrooms around Puget Sound, in seven public-school districts and seven private schools, babies are part of the learning experience.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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What makes Asa Berg such an effective third-grade teacher is that he is not quite 11 months old.

It's an ideal age for the subject he's been teaching for more than half his life. The course is called Roots of Empathy. Asa is teaching the students about emotions, and his are right on the surface, easy to observe.

In 47 classrooms around Puget Sound, in seven public-school districts and seven private schools, babies are part of the learning experience.

The idea, which began in Canada and is spreading in the United States, is that children need to learn more than letters and numbers, they need emotional and social literacy in order to learn well now, and to grow into good parents and constructive citizens.

Asa's mother, Deana Berg, brings him to Seattle's Beacon Hill International School once a month for a visit with the children. They enter the room and students start calling out, "Baby Asa, Baby Asa."

They've fallen in love with him since he started coming to class last fall, and that, too, is part of the program.

I asked Mary Gordon, who founded Roots in 1996, about its origins.

"I was a kindergarten teacher and I realized early on, as in the first week, that there was a great injustice, that some children came to school so ready to learn and a lot came with a lot of problems that prevented them from taking advantage of what schools had to offer," she said.

She was teaching in Toronto and started a parenting-support and early literacy program. Working with that program led to another insight.

"I worked with thousands of families and came across neglect, abuse and domestic violence," she said. "In all those cases I came to see that the common denominator was an absence of empathy in the adults."

That lack of empathy was being passed down through generations. She created Roots to break that cycle.

"I use a mother and baby so children can see the most perfect example of empathy we have," she said.

It's important for children to have experience with that relationship, she said. "You can't hold up flash cards saying, 'Be nice, play fair.' "

The program finds mothers or fathers from the neighborhood around each school. They don't look for super parents, just caring ones who are doing a good job with their own children.

The students learn to read other people's emotions by watching the baby and parent interact, and they learn to think about the underlying causes of various behaviors.

A Roots instructor, who visits the class every week, prompts them to explore their own emotions.

Studies have shown reduced levels of aggression in schools that use the program. Kids are more attuned to each other's feelings and they police each other. But bullying prevention is just a side benefit. The core purpose is breaking that cycle.

In Marianne Bratsanos' class at Beacon Hill, the children told me they enjoy the visits, and they know a lot about how to treat a baby now. It's made a difference in how they treat each other too, their teacher said.

The Tuesday I was there, Asa was trying various foods. He smiled after his mother fed him a spoonful of yogurt. He spat out a cube of cantaloupe and made a frowny face that made the kids laugh. His reaction to feta was even more dramatic.

When Asa first came in he was crying. Natasha Nimmo, the Roots instructor, told the class that a crying baby is not a bad baby. He's trying to communicate something. What might that be, she asked?

That's how the conversations go.

After class, Nimmo said, "I see kids willing and able to talk about their feelings, and without judgments." Building the lessons around a baby makes the difference. "Who doesn't love a baby?" Nimmo asks.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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