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Tiny teachers help students connect with emotions in Roots of Empathy Program

Harper Layman, 1, was a teacher for elementary students through the Roots of Empathy Program. Her mother Chelsea Layman, left, and her aunt Courtney Custer, coordinator of the program, hope to recruit more babies for this year’s program. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Harper Layman, 1, was a teacher for elementary students through the Roots of Empathy Program. Her mother Chelsea Layman, left, and her aunt Courtney Custer, coordinator of the program, hope to recruit more babies for this year’s program. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Baby Harper Layman just had her first birthday, but she already had a job this past year teaching Mission Avenue Elementary kids about their emotions, by sharing her own.

She is one of 16 babies and their parents who volunteered at seven schools across the metro area as part of the Roots of Empathy program, coordinated locally by her aunt Courtney Custer, a therapist and director of communications at Southwest Family Guidance Center.

One recent morning she reprised her role, wearing her tiny teacher T-shirt, smiling her toothy grin, waving and showing off her brand new accomplishment of standing alone at the center’s North Valley offices.

“The students didn’t need any training to respond to Harper,” explains Custer, who was the volunteer instructor in the same classroom with Harper and her mom, Chelsea Layman. “We’re hard-wired to respond to babies. Babies are pure examples of emotions. They don’t censure their emotions at all. They just are.”

Roots of Empathy is an international nonprofit program begun in Canada 20 years ago. It came to Albuquerque last year through Custer and her CEO Craig Pierce, who had learned about the program through professional channels.

Albuquerque is the fifth city in the country to implement the program that independent academic research has shown reduces aggression and increases social and emotional understanding among children who receive it.

Children who have participated in Roots of Empathy programs are kinder, more cooperative and more inclusive of others, the studies show. They are less aggressive and less likely to bully others compared to children who do not participate in the program, Custer says.

Aging out

Baby Harper is hanging up her T-shirt though; she’s outgrown the program.

The program explores the baby’s development stages during her first year, so it needs new babies, born in May, June or July this year, and one of their parents to come to class for an hour about once a month through the school year. The program is expanding to nine schools and 30 classrooms and needs more babies and their parents to participate. Roots of Empathy can accept baby and parent volunteers until the first of September.

Volunteer instructors are already in training, but Custer says she’s recruiting instructors for the 2016-17 school year. Instructors visit the classroom about once a week, including the monthly parent-baby visits. They receive training and teach a Roots of Empathy curriculum about emotions and child development. All elementary grades are in the program.

Veteran teacher Therese Saunders, now retired after 29 years in the classroom, will be back this year after teaching the course last year. “I had so much fun. It was all the joy of teaching with none of the assessments.”

Elementary teachers increasingly have to focus on testing and don’t have as much time to teach other essential childhood lessons, like being kind and compassionate. Students need to learn to share, take turns, manners and respect for others, Saunders says.

The babies in the classroom teach those things quickly, she adds. In one class, the kids guessed the baby’s emotions and discussed how maybe she was feeling two emotions, sleepy and frustrated, at the same time. That allowed one shy, sensitive girl to open up. She told the class that she often felt happy, but embarrassed at the same time.

“They get the lessons pretty early on. They learned we’re all different. They were a little kinder to each other. They were so excited for their baby. When she learned to roll over they all burst into applause,” she says.

Safe environment

Moms in the program this past year say any worries they had about cleanliness or safety were alleviated quickly.

“I watched the kids wash their hands,” explains Layman about times she visited the class room with Harper.

Each baby has a green blanket spread on the classroom floor that marks her space and the students sit around the perimeter. The parent decides how much touching is allowed, usually allowing the kids to touch the baby’s feet.

Colleen McGannon O’Malley says she and her son, Michael, felt very safe. O’Malley who has a doctorate in microbiology, knows about germs. “It was very safe and comfortable. I did not have any hesitation. It was nice. It was something I could do with the baby and help this group of kids.”

Michael was such a hit, he was invited to the fifth-grade graduation at La Mesa Elementary. One student wrote at the end of the year that he would never forget when baby Michael crawled up to him on the blanket and touched his knee and smiled at him: “It was split-second connection, but it mattered,” O’Malley says.

Jennifer Kinyak was a parent volunteer last year with her son, Elliott, and will be an instructor this year: “It was really a great way to get out and do something fun with my baby. The baby was a celebrity at the school. When he rolled over the first time, they burst out cheering. Elliott loved the attention. And it was powerful how it helped the kids.”

She says the principal was able to remind two third-graders who got into a fight about their Roots of Empathy training: “She asked them if they would act that way around their baby. Would they want their baby to see that? She was able to use it to help them.”