This short post summarizes the evaluation work of the Roots of Empathy program up to 2012. I was not involved in the evaluation. Regardless, I suggest some recommendations for future evaluations in different cultural contexts considering the emerging international scope of the program. You can view publications of the Roots of Empathy program here.
The Roots of Empathy (ROE) program is an evidence-based classroom program that is meant to foster the development of social and emotional learning and understanding while decreasing aggressive and other anti-social behaviors in children (Roots of Empathy, 2012). The emotion of empathy is considered to be a core developmental competency that supports and enhances other prosocial behaviors that last a lifetime (Roots of Empathy, 2012). ROE began in 1996 in Toronto, Canada with the support of the Toronto District School Board. Since then, the program has expanded and implemented in rural, urban and Aboriginal communities across Canada, internationally in the United States, New Zealand, the Isle of Man, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, and Scotland with pilot projects elsewhere (Roots of Empathy, 2012).
The three primary goals of the program are to (1) develop children’s social and emotional understanding, (2) promote children’s prosocial behaviors and decrease their aggressive behaviors, and (3) increase children’s knowledge about infant development and effective parenting practices (Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman-Zait, Hertzman, 2011).
The cornerstone of the program is monthly visits of a parent and their infant child. These visits serve to springboard discussions, lessons and activities within the classroom that are facilitated by ROE program instructors and classroom teachers. One of the core material inputs of the ROE program is a 639-page curriculum with lesson plans and activities which are divided into affective and cognitive components (Roots of Empathy, 2012; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). The affective component of the program is meant to address the short-term goal of developing children’s social and emotional understanding, empathy and problem-solving skills (Schonert- Reichl et al., 2011). The cognitive component of the program is meant to increase children’s knowledge about infant development and promote effective parenting practice (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). The ultimate goals of the program are the development of prosocial behaviors and decrease of aggressive behaviors that last a lifetime (Roots of Empathy, 2012).
Why It Should Work?
The ROE program operates on the well-researched understanding that emotional processes and social understandings play a critical role in the development of prosocial and aggressive behaviors, and interpersonal relationships in children (Schonert-Reichl et al., 2011). Furthermore, empathy is understood to be a core component in the genesis and enactment of prosocial behaviors (Schonert-Reichl, 2011). The lesson plans and activities that address the affective component of the ROE program create an ecology in the classroom environment which emphasizes caring, collaboration and understanding of others (Cohen, 2011; Noddings, 1993). This environment is also conducive to the general classroom curriculum as children use math skills to determine an infant’s height and weight, build literacy skills through books on emotions, and develop artistic skills as children express their inner emotions through paintings, drawings and song (Roots of Empathy, 2012). The program should work as an effective preventative initiative to guide children onto successful development paths by emphasizing prosocial behaviors and decreasing aggressive behaviors. Furthermore, the sustainability of the program is addressed by emphasizing its role in the state-mandated, general education curriculum (Roots of Empathy, 2012).
A previous program evaluations was conducted by Schonert-Reichl, Smith, Zaidman- Zait and Hertzman in 2011 in order to evaluate the impact of the ROE program on the social and emotional competence of school-aged children. Their study used a quasi-experimental control- group pretest-posttest, multi-informant design with 585 4th – to 7th grade children from 28 classrooms in two Canadian cities. They found significant improvements across several domains including understandings of infant distress, empathy, perspective taking, prosocial behaviors and a reduction in aggressive behaviors.
Since then, 7 other program evaluations have been conducted across Canada with different grades and populations (Roots of Empathy Research Report, 2009). Most early evaluations of the program used selected control groups that matched with respect to grade, gender, and race/ethnicity composition. Two other evaluations were conducted using randomized controlled studies, which represent ‘gold standards’ in program evaluations because it ensures both known and unknown confounding factors are evenly distributed between the groups (Roots of Empathy Research Report, 2009).
Considering that the program is currently operating in multiple countries with varying social and cultural characteristics, I would propose a program evaluation that carefully considers the assumptions and external factors that lead to the program outcomes. The assumptions made by Schonert-Reichl et al. (2011) were based on the typical developmental paths by children in a Canadian, urban context where stories of marginalization, aggression and bullying are prevalent (Roots of Empathy, 2012). Other contexts in which the program is operating, for example, in Northern Ireland where conflict is underpinned by historical, religious, political, economic, and psychological elements (Cairns & Darby, 1998), the assumptions and external factors that lead to improvements in prosocial behavior and decreases in aggressive behaviors may be radically different than the Canadian context.
A key challenge for many schools involve serving culturally diverse students with varied abilities and motivations for learning (Learning First Alliance, 2001). As such, I recommend a mixed quantitative-qualitative program evaluation of the ROE program using randomized controlled groups from various schools that represent radically different ethnographic populations. The evaluation measurements of the outcomes would be based on the unique needs and characteristics of the children. For example, to assess participant’s empathy related response, Schonert-Reichl et al. (2011) used the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI; Davis, 1983), a self- report that measures different dimensions of empathy. In another study on empathy, Cliffordson (2001) used the IRI in combination with a global measure to examine the agreement of empathy between parents and students. The use of the parents’ judgement in children’s empathy development may provide extra context and validation to the child’s empathic development within the ROE program that reflects their unique social and cultural context.
Cairns, E. and Darby, J. (1998). The conflict in Northern Ireland: Causes, consequences, and controls. American Psychologist 53(7). 754-760.
Cohen, J. (Ed.). (2001). Caring classrooms/intelligent schools: The social emotional education of young children. New York: Teachers College Press.
Cliffordson, C. (2001) ‘Parents’ judgments and students’ self-judgments of empathy’. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 17(1), pp. 36 – 47.
Davis, M. H. (1983). Measuring individual differences in empathy: Evidence for a multidimensional approach. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 113–126.
Learning First Alliance. (2001). Every child learning: Safe and supportive schools. Washington, DC.
Noddings, N. (1992). The challenge to care in schools: An alternative approach to education. New York: Teachers College Press.
Roots of Empathy (2012). Roots of Empathy: From Research to Recognition. Retrieved June 13, 2012, from http://www.rootsofempathy.org/en/
Schonert-Reichl, K. A., Smith, V., Zaidman-Zait, A., & Hertzman, C. (2011). Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviors in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children. School Mental Health, 4(1), 1-21.