Tiny Teachers Foster Empathy In Students

Tiny Teachers Foster Empathy In Students
Posted on 05/23/2024

A 9-month-old baby recently took Callie Nordell’s place as a fourth grade teacher at Lake Wilderness Elementary School. For each of the past several months, “Baby Ava,” as she’s known to her students, has subbed in as the instructor of a 30-minute lesson in empathy. Baby Ava’s visits are part of an established program called Roots of Empathy, which strives to empower students in developing social and emotional skills through positive interaction and guided play with a baby.

Baby Ava on a green carpet in an elementary classroom

Infant instructors begin their teaching tenure soon after birth and teach a 30-minute lesson each month throughout the school year. As the baby develops, students witness changes in physical growth, behavioral milestones, and mental and neurological development. The baby’s parent(s) serve as teaching assistants, helping to answer questions students have about the baby’s development and to facilitate planned lessons and activities.

At Lake Wilderness Elementary, Dean of Students Amanda Blashaw is the mother of the instructor, Baby Ava. In collaboration with Lake Wilderness school counselor, Leanne Rollet, who coordinates the Roots of Empathy program at Lake Wilderness, Mrs. and Mr. Blashaw have been bringing Baby Ava into school once per month since soon after her birth in August 2023. The results have been astounding.

Students wave hello to Baby Ava

“After our first baby visit, one student couldn’t stop smiling and didn’t even know why,” said school counselor, Leanne Rollet. “Kids in the class look forward to their visits and ask every time they see me when she is coming next. They ask thoughtful questions to learn how she’s grown and what she’s learned since the last time. They really care.”

At Baby Ava’s most recent visit to Nordell’s classroom on May 21, students were challenged to think about what it’s like to try something new for the first time. The main activity for the lesson was introducing Baby Ava to a new food: cucumber.

Baby Ava holds a cucumber in one hand and looks at a slice of banana in her mother's hand

“At first, she made a weird face,” said one student in the class in response to a question about Baby Ava’s reaction to trying the new food. “And I don’t blame her, because cucumbers are, like, slimy and wet.”

Students in the class were encouraged to think about what it was like for them when they try something new for the first time. Baby Ava was given a banana, which is one of her favorite foods, to eat in between interactions with the cucumber, which seemed to improve her comfort level with the new food.

Aside from learning about developmental milestones, language development and the importance of learning, the primary goal of Roots of Empathy is for students to grow their skills in empathy for others.

Baby Ava (center) plays with a toy, students in background have hands raised above their heads

“Empathy is an important skill for our students to learn,” said Rollet. “It helps them to be better able to make friends and regulate their own behavior. Empathy reduces bullying, gossiping, and exclusion. It helps everyone feel understood and supported and overall creates belonging for everyone.”

Will you have a 2–4-month-old this September/October and want to learn more about participating as a Roots of Empathy family? Please fill out this Roots of Empathy Family Volunteer Interest Form.

Learn more about Roots of Empathy at https://us.rootsofempathy.org/

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