Early intervention programme shown to have life-changing benefits for young people - Paul Carberry

It has been over a decade since Action for Children launched Roots of Empathy in Scotland and in that time we have reached more than 30,000 children. We recently commissioned a 10-year evaluation and the findings have shown it to be highly sustainable and cost-efficient with life-changing benefits both inside and outside of educational settings.

Paul Carberry is the Action for Children director for Scotland.

Roots of Empathy is a classroom-based early intervention programme developed in Canada by Mary Gordon, an award-winning educator, author and parenting expert with a long history of advising governments and educational bodies around the world.

The premise of the service is to help children build empathy so that they are better equipped to go on and navigate relationships, form connections and be inclusive of others throughout their childhood and into adulthood.

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It is delivered by trained instructors with a mother and baby as the focal point of the learning. Children observe the relationship between the mother and baby and engage with the infant under the guidance and observation of the Roots instructors.

Over the course of the programme, the children form a bond with the baby as they learn about its emotional needs and expressions, celebrate the stages of development and gain a deeper understanding of their own feelings and the feelings of others.

I’m eternally grateful to Donna Bell, the director for mental health for the Scottish Government, for making me aware of Roots. Fittingly, Donna was on maternity leave when she told me about the programme back in 2010 and that conversation led me to reach out to Mary Gordon. We launched the first Roots of Empathy programme in North Lanarkshire that year and now, 11 years on, Action for Children delivers the service to 28 local authorities in Scotland.

Having delivered the programme for over a decade, we accumulated a wealth of data that has shed more light on not only the immediate benefits of the service but the long-term benefits as well. The independent review we commissioned found that the emotional literacy and empathy which Roots develops fosters a culture of kindness and that in turn leads to a reduction in aggression and bullying amongst participants years on from the delivery.

There have been significant academic benefits too. Teachers have consistently reported significant improvements in the behaviour and engagement in their classroom which has established an environment more conducive to learning. This has helped close the attainment gap and we have been able to achieve this in the areas that need it most with Roots of Empathy consistently reaching over 50 per cent of the most deprived schools in Scotland.

We interviewed young people about their experience of the programme up to seven years later and found Roots of Empathy has had a life-changing impact on past participants. Remarkably, they were all able to recall in detail the key messages and themes they learned about and many said a similar service would benefit them as teenagers as they navigated the stresses and mental health issues of adulthood.

The outcomes achieved through our delivery of Roots of Empathy are reflected in the Scottish government’s core education targets which include a focus on improving the health and wellbeing of children and closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children. This high-quality service is cost-effective- equating to only £30 per pupil- and has tremendous potential to expand and evolve within Scottish schools.

Paul Carberry, Director of Action for Children

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