It’s a chilly December day and Ms. Snowden’s grade five class at Griffiths Scott Middle School is filing into a classroom that contains only a few bookshelves, a lone table and a ping pong table. There are no desks, or chairs but there is a bright green blanket spread out in the middle of the floor.
Waiting for them is their teacher– her name is Taos (pronounced Tay-ohs) Quinn Seutter. She is only six months old but for the next 30 minutes, she has no trouble commanding their attention. It’s pretty clear from the moment the children enter the room and start singing their welcome song to her, that they adore her and she adores them.
Taos is just one of many babies in Canada who is a Roots of Empathy baby. Although Blaine and her fiance, Ty, are young (she is 20 and he is 24) and first time parents, they made a very significant decision to share their little girl and volunteer for a program that is beneficial to so many.
Roots of Empathy was developed by Canadian, Mary Gordon and launched in 1996. An evidence-based classroom program, it has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. At the heart of the program are a neighbourhood infant and parent who engage students in their classroom. Over the school year, a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor guides the children as they observe the relationship between baby and parent, understanding the baby’s intentions and emotions. Through this model of experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a catalyst, helping children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. 
Jo-Anne Walker, Family School Liaison at Griffiths Scott Middle School, received her Roots of Empathy certification three years ago and has led the program at both Millet schools (the other school is Millet Elementary – grade one to four –right next door to Griffiths Scott). She proudly shares with me that all of the elementary schools in the Wetaskiwin School District with the exception of one, have Roots of Empathy programs in place and that she is the key point person for the school district. There are now six trained instructors delivering the program in Wetaskiwin schools.
“The program teaches children to see beyond themselves”, explains Jo-Anne. “The baby doesn’t judge, she is just here, being herself – no matter what her mood. The students learn that the baby’s moods aren’t personal to them, she might be having pain from teething or be cranky from lack of sleep. Or in the case of Taos, she just seems to be happy all the time. Whatever the situation, it’s hers, not theirs. This is how the baby teaches empathy.”
As Blaine, Taos’ mother, puts her down on the bright green blanket, the children all vie for their tiny teacher’s attention. They talk to her in soothing, caring tones, many of them getting down as low as they can to the edge of the blanket. Taos is very gregarious and happy, she loves the attention and seems eager to show off her recently developed skills - new since her last visit three weeks ago. And, she does have something else to show off – her new tooth. Jo-Anne asks the class to guess what new ‘thing’ Taos has and they all start shouting their answers – very quickly, someone shouts, “a tooth!”
The rules are fairly simple, raise your hand to ask a question or make a comment and no touching the baby. Obviously the latter is to protect her from any viruses or other germs that may make her sick. This doesn’t mean the children don’t feel connected or possessive of ‘their’ baby because they are encouraged to make eye contact, talk to her and ask questions of the instructor, or Taos’ mom. Make no mistake, this is THEIR baby – and she is adored by all of them.
The 30 minutes seems to fly by, and the lesson of the day, about emotions, is met with a lot of conversation, comments and questions. Then, it’s time to sing the farewell song to baby Taos and her mom until after the holiday break. It will be nearly four weeks before they see her again – who knows what lessons she will bring with her then? Whatever her new found skills are, you can be sure that she will continue to teach these young children about caring, respect and love – and even about what it means to parent a baby.
It truly is amazing what our babies can teach us – being an observer of this special program, I had to reflect on all of the valuable lessons my babies taught me – and how they continue to teach me. You see, Taos’ is my granddaughter and her mom, Blaine Critchley, is my 'baby'. I was so proud to be in that Roots of Empathy classroom that day and watch my babies contribute to such an important part of this program and their community.
Nancy Critchley is Director, Communications for United Way of the Alberta Capital Region. She is the mother of three grown children and grandmother of four. She also believes that you are never too young to teach or too old to learn.
 The Griffiths Scott Middle school is in the small farming town of Millet (population 2,125), located just south of Edmonton on Highway 2A.