Imagine a Kindergarten classroom where the teacher can’t walk and talk, but is able to teach children how to listen, how to find their own emotional language and how to empathize.
That’s what’s been happening in Chris Zackodnik’s Kindergarten classroom at Duncan Cran Elementary since October with the Roots of Empathy program. Baby Naomi was two months old when she started visiting Zackodnik’s class – with her parents, of course.
The five year olds have been watching Naomi progress with visits once every three weeks.
“They have been so enthusiastic about this program,” said Zackodnik. “They have been fascinated since the beginning and you can see that they’re so excited they’re shouting out now.”
The nearly 20 students sat cross-legged in a circle around a green blanket and simply watched Naomi as she grew and progressed the way babies do.
“In the beginning, when she wasn’t moving as much, they were very interested, but now they’re just overjoyed,” she continued.
For the first time since the program began, Naomi approached a few of the students with her big blue eyes.
These students immediately smiled, clasped their hands over their mouths and emitted pure joy and excitement.
“It’s a milestone,” one student said.
Jaimelia Turner calmly agreed with a big smile.
Her soothing voice coached the students, Naomi, and her parents through the half hour visit.
Turner is Fort St. John’s Roots of Empathy champion, in addition to being the Early Learning Coordinator with School District 60.
“It helps connect families to children in schools and helps them watch the development of an infant through the course of a school year,” said Turner.
Turner said the Roots of Empathy has a focus of 12 pillars.
“The biggest pillar is emotional literacy, so having language and an understanding of our own feelings and a way to name them and being able to take the perspective of someone else and imagine how they might be feeling based on their experiences,” she said.
“These are not the experiences that are commonly held, especially in young children, and they’re key indicators for success in social relationships and in academics.”
The other pillars include perspective taking, neuroscience, prevention of teen pregnancy, male nurturance, temperament, attachment, participatory democracy, inclusion, infant development, infant safety and violence prevention.
There are also four main areas of educational focus.
“Roots has four curriculums,” said Turner. “Emotional literacy is the Kindergarten focus.”
Naomi’s parents, Nicole and Jared Bell, said this experience has been a good one.
“It’s been a range of emotions for her because there have been moments of shyness for her and more brave moments where she’s interacted with the kids or just sat there and cried because she felt intimidated,” said Nicole.
“It’s sort of like this mini community to celebrate all the things we’re already excited about,” she continued.
Jared said they got involved because Naomi was the right age and he works at the school district.
“The development we’ve been able to see in them (the students) is quite impressive,” said Jared. “When we talk about the emotions that Naomi feels, these kids have a better comprehension of things like empathy than a lot of other kids.”
Fort St. John has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in Canada, and bullying is prevalent throughout the country among school-aged children.
Zackodnic – who’s been teaching at the Kindergarten level for about 14 years - said she’s already noticed a difference with these students in comparison to others who haven’t taken the program.
“I’m hoping that it’s going to make a real difference to (bullying),” she said.
Turner said it’s hard to predict the future.
“It’s really difficult to say about the parenting and the bullying, but what we do know, we’ve already seen in this classroom and there’s extensive research on Roots done, is the ability to, once children to name, recognize and talk about emotions, and those conversations are opened, then it’s so much easier to talk about (empathy),” she said. “Would you want this to happen to baby Naomi? Absolutely not.
“Well, anyone else in our classroom has the same (rights) as baby Naomi, we were all someone’s baby and, I can’t make guarantees around what it (the program) will do, but it gives the children an opportunity to use language they wouldn’t necessarily have had otherwise.”
Turner noted that there is currently a longitudinal study being done in Manitoba that’s in year four.
“They’re seeing increased levels of emotional vocabulary, increased levels of empathy, body language reading three years later,” said Turner. “The results are holding.”
This is the first year this program has been offered in School District 60. Next year it will expand from two classrooms at Duncan Cran to at least one more at another school.
“In a perfect world, you’d have the opportunity to do more than one Roots experience,” said Turner. “As a dream it would be Kindergarten, Grade 4, Grade 9, that would be my dream to have four inoculations.
“It’s a big project; it could get really big.”