Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child

On the playground during recess, a fourth grader notices that other children are making fun of Sylvie’s shoes. Instead of joining in, and instead of doing nothing, the little girl watching it all asks Sylvie if she can wear one of her shoes.

This small act of empathy holds they key to building a caring and peaceful classroom, community, and world. When Mary Gordon created Roots of Empathy in 1996, she recognized that human beings are relational creatures, and that the more competent children were in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others, the less likely they were to hurt or bully each other. Raising levels of empathy not only results in more respectful and caring relationships, but also frees up students to learn, and has lifelong benefits as children become parents and leaders.

This “pedagogy of hope,” as Mary Gordon describes it, is a well-orchestrated series of 27 visits to K-8 classrooms; nine of the visits include a baby and his or her parent from the neighborhood. A trained Roots of Empathy instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and label the baby’s feelings and intentions. With the baby as the “teacher,” children begin to identify and reflect on feelings—theirs and others’. And as they gain emotional literacy, they see themselves as changers – people with the ability to challenge what is not fair and help those who need it.

It’s a powerful, evidence-based program with scientific findings that show significant reduction in levels of aggression (including bullying) and increased social/emotional competence and empathy. Roots of Empathy is now delivered in ten countries and in multiple languages.

Mary Gordon

Hawaii is one of the locations where Roots of Empathy is taking hold. And Mary Gordon, who recently spoke to 1500 educators at the 2015 Schools of the Future Conference in Honolulu, is encouraged by the conducive climate she witnessed in the Islands: “in Hawaii, we’re working in vineyards with like-minded people who have already tilled the soil.” That bodes well for our children, who will one day become the leaders of this community.

Mary Gordon’s vision is of a society of compassionate and caring children who will pass on their legacy of empathy to their own children. As she sees it, schools play a critical role: “Now part of the Department of Education, schools could also be considered part of the Department of Peace.” To learn more, visit