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Program teaches from the mouths of babes

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Attention parents with babies born this summer: you and your newborn are needed to teach school kids how to play nice, starting this fall.

Courtney Custer, who runs the Roots of Empathy program at Southwest Family Guidance Center along with CEO Craig Pierce and creative director Nathan Hoge, holds the T-shirt her sister's newborn daughter, Harper, will wear on school visits. (Elaine Tassy/Albuquerque Journal)

Courtney Custer, who runs the Roots of Empathy program at Southwest Family Guidance Center along with CEO Craig Pierce and creative director Nathan Hoge, holds the T-shirt her sister’s newborn daughter, Harper, will wear on school visits. (Elaine Tassy/Albuquerque Journal)

Commitment? An hour a month for nine months.

Background? Three days of training, but no particular job experience.

Pay? A $100 Toys R Us gift card.

Starting this fall, Roots of Empathy, a program that invites parents and their newborns into elementary school classrooms, is coming to New Mexico.

It will be in 19 classrooms in six elementary schools in Albuquerque and one in Rio Rancho starting in the 2014-2015 school year, after being shown in published research to be effective in Canada, where it originated almost 20 years ago.

Since 2007, it has been used in elementary schools in Washington, DC, Oakland, Seattle and New York.

The purpose of the program is to teach students empathy up close, as they watch the infant cry, play, roll around, and express needs before the kids’ eyes. The theory is that having such a close-up and unfiltered look at the vulnerabilities of such a small baby exposes elementary school students to their own feelings, and enables them to feel more for those around them, thereby reducing aggression and bullying.

“Using the baby is such a unique way to teach children about babies,” said Courtney Custer, program coordinator of ROE at the Southwest Family Guidance Center, which is bringing the program to the schools.

SFGC is an 8-year-old North Valley family counseling center with 90 staffers and counseling programs for students in 50 APS schools.

In January, Custer and other members of the center’s staff went to Toronto, where the program was first launched in 1996, and saw it in action. Excited, Custer came back and proposed it.

Once APS got on board, Custer began recruiting mother/baby pairs. She found one in her younger sister, Chelsea Layman, 28, who had baby daughter Harper on July 16.

She already has some other parents and babies on board, but she’s looking for between eight and 10 more moms or dads with infants born between May and July who are willing to visit the same classroom once a month for between 30 and 50 minutes, until May.

She hopes the same volunteers will stay around, even as new ones come on board, in upcoming years. “Hopefully by year three we are reaching 60 classrooms,” she said.

She also needs one volunteer instructor for each parent/infant team. The instructor will spend about 100 hours on the project during the school year, going to the classroom a week before the parent-baby pair arrives, to prepare the students for the lesson.

Each visit has its own topic, which might be about why babies cry, their sleeping habits, emotions, or safety.

The instructor also goes with the parent-infant duo to look for teachable moments during their visit, and again a week afterward to discuss how the experience went, whether it met their expectations, and what they learned.

Custer is going to be the volunteer instructor for the pair formed by her sister and newborn niece, and she has some volunteer instructors on board already – most retired teachers and retired social workers. She still needs seven more.

Roots of Empathy programs in Seattle, Oakland, New York and Washington, D.C., have been paid for with private donations. Running it costs about $50 per student in Seattle.

In Albuquerque, Custer is seeking private donors and grants to fund the program, which she expects to cost less in New Mexico than it does in Seattle.


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