The youngest children can often teach us all such a lot

I first came across Roots of Empathy two years ago, when I was invited along to the first training session for facilitators working within Northamptonshire Schools. That day I had my ‘Communications Officer’, hat on, discovering the project and working on a feature about the University of Northampton’s involvement. Fast forward two years and I’m mother to a beautiful one-year-old, who, since she was three months old, has been a Roots of Empathy tiny ‘Teacher’.

Holly is Senior Communications Officer at the University of Northampton and mother to the beautiful Isabelle

Roots of Empathy is a school based intervention project for young children, which aims to improve social and emotional skills of children. Using a baby and their exploration of the world as a tiny teacher, the sessions help the children to understand and articulate their feelings, learn about respect, child development and safety, and the power of a loving bond between parent and baby.

The monthly ‘family’ visit, where Isabelle and I (Dads and other family members are encouraged to go too) visit the classroom, is also supported by a Roots Facilitator, the wonderful Jill at Kings Heath Academy, who works with the class in advance, and after each of our visits, as well as keeping the session on track when we visit. Although, Isabelle has her Roots of Empathy T-shirt, along with ‘Teacher’ printed across the front to demonstrate very clearly who’s boss and is leading the learning.

“Hello baby Isabelle and how are you”

Whatever Isabelle is doing, when the first few words of the ‘Hello’ song is sung she will stop her in her tracks — She knows it’s time to teach. Our monthly visits are a real opportunity for the children to see the changes in Isabelle, and over time they’ve understood her development.

The sessions haven’t shied away from some complex issues; and the importance of caring for a baby is covered in depth and reinforced in some way at every session. For example, we’ve talked about crying; how crying is a way for Isabelle to communicate, and how I as a mother have developed an understanding of her various cries.

Jill has posed questions to the children to develop their problem solving skills, questions like ‘how do you think Isabelle is feeling now?’ and ‘how can you tell?’ and ‘how does it make you feel when Isabelle…’, for example, cries or smiles, are woven into every session. The children share suggestions for why Isabelle might be behaving in a certain way, or doing something in a particular way, and they’ve shared their ideas for things I could try to respond to these observations. On a personal level, I love how Jill facilitates the sessions, the way she has bonded with both Isabelle and I, and the relationship she has with the class, and in particular the way she thanks each child’s contribution to the session with genuine warmth. I feel like the children are not afraid to speak in front of each other and contribute their opinions in the session — I hope they manage to keep this confidence in their other lessons.

From the first session, I could tell that the children were invested in Isabelle and were taking the classes seriously. Twice now, I’ve carted a TV reporter, camera man and other observers into sessions, the amazing thing is, once the session starts, they forget about the lights, camera and adults, those children are focused on Isabelle.

Over the last few months, the children of R. Carle class have gone from being fascinated by the small baby in my arms, to being climbed on by a boisterous near toddler, who loves visting them. The Roots mission is to change the world child by child. I’ve seen the impact Roots can have. Anecdotally, a child who started the school year mute, spoke their first words about Isabelle, I’ve recently watched this child be interviewed, by a TV reporter, in front of a camera, for a filming project I’m working on now I’m back at work. I’m a realist, that this progress is largely down to the wonderful class teacher, Mrs Hope, and the other support the school offers, but this child’s first words were about Isabelle and that’s down to the Roots programme and Isabelle’s temperament — she’s only cried once during a session, although she has grumped a little if I’ve not got the rest of the day quite right around the session — It’s hard work being a tiny teacher, she’s always fast asleep in the car on the way home!

We’ve just attended the ‘Baby Celebration’, a day to celebrate the close of the programme each year, it was lovely to see the 20 babies who’ve been working with about 500 school children across Northamptonshire this year. Seeing them all crawling and laughing and playing (and crying) was quite something.

So for now, it’s nearly time to (formally) say ‘Goodbye baby Isabelle’, but in reality Isabelle and I have also bonded with the class and I plan to attend any school events we’re invited to. I’m keen to keep in touch with the class of R. Carle, they’ve been a huge part of Isabelle’s life up to now, they’ve helped her become the confident, delightful little girl she is. Let’s hope when/if Isabelle has a baby brother or sister, they come along at a time when we can be a Roots family again.

If you’re an expectant parent with a baby due in either July or August, and would like to take part in the programme with your new baby, or if you’re not expecting, but are interested in the programme for your school, or sponsoring a school to have a programme then email Katie Cohen on info@rootsofempathy.org and see how you could be involved.

About Roots of Empathy in Northampton — The Roots programme has been delivered in 11 primary schools in the borough of Northampton and is supported by the Education Psychology Service, Northamptonshire Police, the University of Northampton and Northamptonshire Educational Psychology Service.

Thanks to Holly for writing this blog for us. Find out more by reading this BBC News report, and stay tuned to @UniNhantsNews on Twitter for more from our Press Office.

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