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Mary Gordon Interview - Founder and President of "Roots of Empathy"

By Andrew DeCanniere

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When I turned on the TV on Friday, December 13th, I was absolutely blindsided, horrified to learn of yet another school shooting, this time at Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado. When I learned that a student there, 17-year-old Claire Davis, had been shot and critically wounded, I was heartbroken. How could someone do this to her? How could someone do this to her family? How is it that we, as a nation, seem to find ourselves in this place time and again? Was it not only a year ago that we all sat, stunned, in front of our televisions, watching as satellites beamed the news of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary into our homes? If anything at all is clear, it’s this: something absolutely has to change. This just cannot be the new normal. While some may be able to distance themselves from such events in the short term, I — much, I would venture to say, like most people — simply cannot. I cannot ignore the fact that yet another life full of promise has been so senselessly and brutally taken. Even if I could, I wouldn’t want to. Her parents, family and friends don’t have that option. They can’t just ignore the reality of what has happened, or the tremendous void in their lives that has doubtless been created by her absence. What happened to Claire this month should concern all of us. Indeed, it does concern all of us, regardless of whether you knew her personally or not — as I, and many others who followed the developments of this tragedy, did not. Hers is not just another news story. She is not just another statistic. She was a real person. She was someone’s daughter, someone’s friend. She had hopes and dreams, goals and aspirations.


Unless we want to risk having another Arapahoe High School or Sandy Hook Elementary on our hands, unless we plan on accepting this kind of risk as inherent to sending children to school, we need to start talking about what happened and keep on talking about it until we’re able to come up with real, implementable solutions — be it the passage of new laws, implementation of new programs or both — if we’re to prevent such a heinous and heartbreaking act from happening again. It is because of my desire to be a part of the solution that I began my search for organizations that are already on the frontlines, working to stop violence before it starts. One such organization is Roots of Empathy, created in 1996 by Founder and President Mary Gordon, and proven effective time and time again in independent studies. Roots of Empathy is designed to “reduce levels of aggression among schoolchildren while raising social/emotional competence.” Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Mary Gordon about the program. Read on to see what she had to say…


Andrew DeCanniere (AD): From the moment I first stumbled upon some information regarding Roots of Empathy on Twitter, I knew I had to share the organization with our readers. It’s such a wonderful organization, the need for which only seems to be increasing.

Mary Gordon (MG): Unfortunately, yes. When you look at the broader context of the world, the canvas that children are surrounded by is becoming increasingly less democratic and more violent, and within their countries they are seeing all kinds of ways that we are failing to understand and support one another. I think there’s an increasing need for empathy and an increasing need to reduce bullying, because we now really understand the huge deleterious impact bullying has on children. I mean, it’s scary.

AD: And then there’s the whole issue of just outright violence, not that name calling or intimidation are acceptable. I don’t think that it’s any secret that there are parts of the Chicagoland area that are particularly rough and violence is commonplace, and I think that this is a good way to combat that as well, given that I noticed that “violence prevention” is one of the goals listed on your website, along with reducing aggression. Just look at what happened at Arapahoe High School earlier this month in Colorado. It’s impossible to even begin to wrap your mind around how something like that could happen. How could someone do that to this innocent 17-year-old girl, her family and friends? It just doesn’t make any sense.

MG: Exactly right, and you know children are watching and listening all the time. What’s the new normal for how we treat people? I’m really delighted that there’s such a wonderful receptivity for our work in the United States. I don’t have a marketing person or advertising person. We generally let the program speak for itself. Then what you get are really serious people who want to take the program and honor the implementation. Because we are getting so many requests, we are organizing to be able to respond in a bigger way. There have been people in Chicago who have been in touch with us and they want to do some national research on the Roots of Empathy program. I think Chicago is important in the country. When we first look at going to the U.S. — we always wait for an invitation. We don’t just descend. One of four places I said that I’d like to go is Chicago.

AD: Your program is really two different programs, too, right? There’s Seeds of Empathy and then Roots of Empathy. What is the difference between the two?

MG: Right. There is Seeds of Empathy, which is a combination of early literacy support for children, but in a way that’s very personal and connected to the little baby. So, they have the emotional component, as well as the early literacy. Some people say it is the best example of the school readiness program that has social and emotional development in it. I’m not too keen on any of the descriptors. It is what it is, and it works. I think that [Seeds of Empathy] is one of the things that we will be spreading.  Right now it’s only in Seattle.

AD: Can you talk a bit about how the programs work, who the two programs are geared toward and what the differences are between the two? Obviously one is an early childhood program, the other is an elementary school program, but apart from that could you delve a little more deeply into how the program works?

MG: When we’re working with a particular school, we identify a classroom and train an instructor who is someone who works with an agency — a social service agency — or someone who actually works in the school but is not a teacher. They have another job. It could be the librarian or it could be a Speech and Language Therapist or someone who is on staff, because you’re trying to get someone you don’t have to give a separate salary to. Very often it’s people who are working with social service agencies. You train a group of 15 to 20 people, with a group of schools that come together. There’s a four-day training. They’re given a mentor to help them, and they’re matched with a particular classroom for a year. They’re given a lot of learning materials and curriculum. They have a lesson plan for every time they go into the classroom, and they  go into the classroom 27 times over the school year. So, nine of those times — once a month, basically — they go in with the Roots of Empathy baby and the parent or parents of the little baby. This is a neighborhood baby two to four-months-old before the program starts. That’s usually in October that the baby is two to four months old. We do usually do the training in September. We can do it in August, but generally it’s in September. We start in October and the program goes pretty much through the end of the school year. The way the mentoring goes is that you’re paired up at the training with someone who will come into the classroom and help you. They’ll talk to you on the phone, they’ll be available to you via e-mail, in order to make sure you have all the support to deliver the program in the best possible way. There’s a meeting with the principal and higher-ups before you ever start this, so everybody is supportive of the program coming in.

The classroom teacher is always charmed, because they don’t have to teach the program, but they participate in the program with their children. They’re always amazed to see their children differently, because they’re usually responsible for what the children know — the test results and everything else — but in Roots of Empathy we don’t ask them what they know. We ask the children what they think and what they think other people think — which is perspective-taking — and how they feel and how they think other people feel — which is the emotional literacy piece. There’s a very different agenda, there’s no stress, and we operate on a principle of intrinsic motivation, which is kind of counterintuitive to what goes on in school. We don’t have any prizes or rewards or anything like that. The children realize that we are really interested in what they have to say, and that no one is going to judge it, and that there aren’t any right or wrong answers — there are opinions and there are feelings. When they realize that what they say isn’t being judged — you can judge with praise or you can judge with criticism — and I think in our culture we don’t think of praise as judgment, but it’s very controlling, actually. In school, a lot of children operate as praise-junkies. They will say or do whatever they think they need to say or do to get the light of the teacher on them. That disappears in the Roots of Empathy program, so that you have authentic dialogue the very first week you start the program. The children are so smart. They get it. They get that they’re not impressing this person. They’re not being called on just because they had their hand up first. So you’re not regarding the child who can get their brains and mouth together faster than most of the other kids.

AD: And I would think that removing that sort of element of competition — or perceived competition — or grading system already changes the dynamic.

MG: Completely. It completely change the dynamic and also because what you’re doing is you’re focusing in together, as a group, on the vulnerable little baby to find the humanity in the baby and what makes that baby who the baby is. In that discussion, of course, we’re really talking about all of us. Who are we? How are we like the baby? How are we like one another? How are we different from one another? Before the baby comes, we say ‘Okay. A real baby is going to come. We want you to think about what that baby will be like. Here’s a picture of the baby. Is that baby going to be bigger than this doll? The same? Smaller? Let’s vote.’ Immediately you’re having children make decisions, predictions, and you’re graphing opinions and you’re really helping children find their voice. Who cares if you guessed right or wrong? It doesn’t matter, but you are learning to speak in public and to vote. So, we consider these classrooms a participatory democracy, where children find their voice, where they have opinions, where they learn to build consensus, and where they learn to challenge injustice. So all of those are really incidentals.

The children probably aren’t even aware of what’s going on, but then when the real baby comes in the next week with the family, they measure the baby. They’ve also made other predictions, so they go back to the chart and they say ‘Yup. The baby is exactly the same size, or bigger or smaller,’ depending on the situation. We don’t really care what the answer is, but we’re checking out their predictions to give them the courage to have predictions. If children don’t start examining what is, and think about what could be — we’re in trouble if they don’t do that. So, we want to give them positive experiences in taking a guess. Then they make predictions about what this little two-month-old baby will be able to do. The young children — say, in Kindergarden or grade 1 — make wonderfully outrageous predictions of what the baby will be able to do. The mother answers every single prediction that the classroom teacher has written up that the children made. So, the classroom teacher doesn’t teach the program, but supports in ways like that. They might have a list of 20 things. They go through the list, and every time it’s something the baby can do, the mother will say ‘Yes.’ The mother, of course, has been home-visited by the Roots of Empathy instructor to say any time the baby can’t do something that the children ask them about, they shouldn’t say ‘no,’ but rather ‘not yet.’ Within that ‘not yet’ is the whole concept for the children that anything they can’t master that makes them feel frustrated or stupid and unsuccessful, they need to think of it from the framework of ‘not yet.’ It gives them permission to keep trying. So, everything we do, like understanding the baby’s temperament — Is this a very intense baby who cries easily, who cries loud and long? Is it a very laid-back baby who’s not easily troubled, who doesn’t shout but whimpers, and who gets over upset easily? — So the baby is used as a way to get the children to understand themselves, because as they come to understand the baby through different lenses, they come to self-understanding and self-empathy. Empathy is understanding how another person feels, and if you don’t understand your own feelings and develop emotional literacy, you cannot understand others.

AD: Well, I would think that it would make it extremely difficult to have any sort of relationship with others, that’s for sure. 

MG: Exactly. You absolutely nailed it, because what is life all about? If it’s not about being able to have positive relationships, what is it?

AD: Exactly.

MG: That’s huge, and what happens is the classroom teachers — who aren’t responsible for teaching the program — see all sorts of wonderful things happening with their children. They particularly see — usually for the first time — the vulnerability in the children who are probably their worst nightmare. You know? The child who gives you the gray hair? Those children who are acting out are children who are carrying a burden. No child sets out to be unpopular and acting badly. Usually, not only does the teacher gain his or her understanding of that child’s behavior, but so do the children.

AD: Well, I’d imagine that there is usually — or often — some underlying issue with those children.

MG: Always. And you know, teachers have so many hats to wear, but this is one thing that they say — and it’s only 27 classes over the school year — they say it’s worth years of experience, because they see unfolding before them — without any manipulation at all — the children gaining some sort of self-control, because they have self-understanding. They are much kinder to one another because they understand, so that you can appreciate why the bullying decreases so much. They know what it feels like to be bullied. The differences that children get bullied over — being too fat, too skinny, too smart, too stupid, too handsome, too ugly, living in the wrong part of town, having an accent — whatever it is that kids decide to marginalize another child for, those differences are understood by all the children. What really changes for them in Roots of Empathy is that they understand that everybody shares the same feelings, and that really transforms their behavior. We teach through asking questions, and many of them don’t have an answer, like ‘what would you imagine?’ or ‘what do you think about this that or the other?’ So it’s really the children considering — for the very first time, in many instances — major issues of what it is to be a human being, what it is to be a friend, figuring out your friendships with people. They come to the realization that everyone has a right to feel that they belong. That, within the classroom, making someone feel like they don’t belong is a really cruel thing to do — and so let’s not do it. No adult tells them that.

AD: And it’s so great that this program is not just one unit. I was just discussing this with someone. In some schools it is not this ongoing thing, but this unit on respect that the teacher seems to go through out of some obligation, some requirement on the part of the school’s curriculum, not because they want to or feel it is important or relevant. In the class on respect that I was a part of, along with all of my other classmates, in grade school was more of the teachers explicitly telling you what to do and what not to do and why to do it or not to do it, instead of teaching them what’s right and wrong in the way that Roots of Empathy does, letting this sense of right and wrong sort of develop organically or evolve organically, based upon what they’ve learned and observed in the Roots of Empathy Program. Compounding the ineffectiveness of that other program was that it was so infrequent and so inconsistent.

MG: It’s true. It’s good you had the class — the more we do, the better — but what we do know is what happens around the green blanket [that is used during the Roots of Empathy classes] is biologically embedded in the children’s brains. That’s the scientists speaking, not me. It’s experiential learning. It’s what the Dalai Lama calls ‘the mind and the heart.’ The scientists say that when you engage cognition and emotion you have ‘deep learning.’ That becomes a part of your ethos. It is part of who you are and it is part of your experience in the world going ahead, rather than instruction, which maybe gives you ideas, but it doesn’t transform you.

AD: Let’s just say the route my school took — without getting into it, because it’s not about me — was not too effective. I think that this seems to be a much more effective  approach.

MG: Well, without question it’s effective, but that doesn’t mean that people should stop there. I always feel that there should be lots of things that we do to give kids experiences that allow them to deepen themselves and consider themselves in relationship with others. It’s quite a safe way of doing everything, because we talk through the baby, and that’s kind of a very easy thing to be doing. Nobody is critical of one another. I think it’s quite remarkable that children make these amazing changes, because they really make them on their own. They’re not graded, they’re not warned, they’re not told they’re going to be tested on it.

AD: And there’s obviously a different curriculum, geared toward different age groups, right?

MG: For the school-based program, Roots of Empathy, we have a Kindergarden program, which is really interactive. Then we have grades 1 to 3, which is really geared to the little ones who are up to age eight, usually seven. Then we have one program for children in grades 4 to 6 and one for grades 7 and 8. We also have Seeds of Empathy, which is for children who are in a completely different setting. They’re in a childcare setting. In that program we don’t bring in an external instructor as we do with classrooms. We work with staff at the childcare center and train them. We train them in early literacy, to understand the role of relationships in learning to read or in learning anything, and then also the social and emotional. It’s interesting, because in Roots of Empathy we don’t want the classroom teacher to teach it, because that teacher knows the dog ate your homework, you know? They already have an opinion of you. We want to bring in someone else, so that the teacher — who is so important to the child — will be able to see every child reinvent themselves around the green blanket. That way they can see the whole child, not the child who is doing poorly in math or the child who doesn’t know how to read and it’ll reflect poorly on the teacher, but to see the child as a person who has feelings and is scared about things, who is sad some days about what is happening at home. A child who is sad, sick or lonely is not a learning child. So often teachers are pressured to deliver, and their time is spent frantically teaching instead of reaching. You can’t teach the child until you can reach them.

AD: Yeah. You can definitely see that there are underlying, unaddressed issues, perhaps in some schools in some communities more than in others, but I think that there was so much fighting going on, there were so many interruptions, so many distractions, that for many teachers it was impossible to even teach effectively. So I think that if this program were implemented here, in Chicago — particularly if you were to start with children at an early age — I think that the focus of the teachers in many of these schools could then be more on the academics and would be far less on the discipline.

MG: It’s very interesting. I think that the U.S. is kind of at a tipping point, where there’s more of an understanding that the well-being of the youth of the country is really going to determine what happens in the future. If we have children who are able to consider the other — if you look at the environment, if children don’t have empathy in childhood, you will never have respectful interactions with the environment, because they won’t care about the people on the other side of the mountain, and they won’t care about the people under another patch of sky, because they won’t feel that they are connected to them, that they are the same. With empathy, the children have the capacity to understand that people under the sky, we are all the same. We may speak different languages, we may be younger or older or a different gender. We may have different likes, we may come from a different culture, but the common denominator of the human being in the world is that we have feelings — and, brilliantly, the children come to this on their own, not by telling and yelling.

AD: Yeah. It seems that the program provides children with a totally different skill set, if you will, that enables them to go from a “Me, myself and I’ orientation to a them in relation to those around them orientation. That, I think, is a tremendously important shift.

MG: It really is huge, because there’s no limit to this. Who knows where these children will take us? Most eight-year-old children — and they’re studying eight-year-old children in Seattle for behavior and brain-based changes, the structure and functioning of their brains — and they’re looking at children who’ve had Roots of Empathy and those who haven’t. They’re wondering what will happen long-term with these children, because if the structure and function of your brain has been changed in such a way that you have the capacity to understand the other better, and that that can improve, we have a very different level of morality at play here. You know? For young people to understand that their happiness includes the happiness of others, generally speaking that happens in the home, but not in the classroom for sure. In the Roots of Empathy classroom that becomes the norm. Then you move out to the playground, and if these children see horrible things happening, they do step in. Principals always tell us that they want some children from Roots of Empathy on a bus that’s taking any of their kids anywhere, because so much bullying happens on the bus. Children from Roots of Empathy, particularly the ones who’ve had it previous years, they say ‘Hey. That’s not okay.’ They have the courage to do that. Same thing for sleepovers for school trips. Many principals have told us that they want some Roots of Empathy kids there in case anyone wets the bed or anyone gets homesick. The children will make sure that nobody teases the kids or bullies them, and they’ll be able to give them comfort because they’ll know what they feel like.

AD: And that’s huge. To me that’s huge that they challenge the bullying and injustice that goes on, because in the world at large — especially when you’re looking at older kids, teenagers, as well as adults, and you’re paying attention to what’s going on — it does seem that if you don’t go toe-to-toe with wrong behavior or injustice or evil, then you’re going to come face-to-face with it more often.


MG: For sure. So, you’re really tuned into this area. How come you’re so interested? I’m curious.

AD: Well, one reason is that when I was in high school there was a fair amount of bullying that went on. There was at least one incident in which I was nearly attacked for my property. This was over nine years ago now. First we called the school about the incident and got nowhere. They were only concerned over whether the incident occurred on their property, and once they learned it was not on the school grounds they didn’t really care. They only cared they’d be legally absolved. My mom then called one of the higher-ups who told her that I ought to learn how to fight back. He said that’s just how life is, that his father taught him how to fight, and that I should learn how to fight, too.

The other reason, as I said, is when you look at what happened in Connecticut last December at Sandy Hook Elementary, or you look at what happened earlier this month at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, it’s obvious to me that — at least in the United States — there seems to be this major problem with violence. There seems to be this sub-culture of violence and aggression. We clearly have a problem when a student can go into a school and just shoot this innocent girl point-blank, for example. I think there’s a solution to it. There has to be. This just can’t be the norm. How can we consider ourselves a civilized society if it is? I was just watching a program yesterday, and on it the host, Bob Schieffer, underscored the fact that in the last year alone there were 28 school shootings. I don’t think that happens in any other developed country.

MG: Incredible. It’s absolutely incredible. I’m always interested in how people come to be interested in programs like ours, and usually they come from having an insight from experience or experiences that inform them about the injustice of bullying or something like that, which makes them all the more passionate.

AD: Well, as far as I’m concerned — take what happened in Colorado, for instance. The way that I see it, we all have a responsibility toward each other. As long as students are being shot in the hallways of their schools, it is all of our issue. It doesn’t matter whether you have a child or not, or whether that child is school-age or not. I, for instance, do not have children.

MG: Well this is exactly what the children in Roots of Empathy learn. That we do have a responsibility to one another, and in the classroom they do and everywhere they do. I just am putting together a book now, based upon a TED talk I did where I told the story about a little girl’s velcro shoe. I don’t know if you’ve come across that yet, but it was a TED talk I did in California with Dr. Dan Siegel. I told the story of this little girl. The children were making fun of her running shoes. The short story is that her best friend in the class felt terrible and, at recess, asked her to wear one of her running  shoes. It transformed the schoolyard. Everybody noticed. The courage of the little girl to do that — to go out on the playground with one of her friends shoes — the message being ‘if you make fun of my friend, you make fun of me.’ That is not unusual for courage in little children. I don’t think people have any idea about the courage of little children because they love so purely. That’s why they need protection. There are many untold heroes. That little girl was just a regular little girl. Because of the discussions she’d been having in her Roots of Empathy class, she realized she could stand up and she could do something. She’s a changer. We tell the children you can be a changer. You’re not responsible for things that are wrong, but you have a chance to make some of the things around you right.

AD: Lastly, you had said that, generally speaking, people reach out to your organization. if they want to participate. So, how does it work if a community were to want to participate in Roots of Empathy?

MG: Well, on our website on the US page, it gives you a sort of idea of how to go about it. Also the easiest way would probably be to have a conversation with Amanda Roberts, because we don’t just train one-offs. We train a cluster of schools who are interested together. We go down and we do the training there. It’s very relational. We have a very close, supportive, mentoring relationship. People would just get in touch with Amanda. If you go to our website it gives you Amanda’s number and her e-mail address. We would get back in-touch personally. [Note: You can find contact information here.]

[Important sidenote: You can also contribute to Roots of Empathy’s “Stop Bullying with Empathy” campaign, which has been recently extended, on Indiegogo. Contributions will now be matched 100% through January 27, 2014. You can access Roots of Empathy’s “Stop Bullying with Empathy” Indiegogo page here or by visiting the Roots of Empathy website and clicking on the “Donate to Roots of Empathy USA” graphic that appears on the homepage.]

Mary Gordon is recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur, educator, author, child advocate and parenting expert who has created programs informed by the power of empathy. In 1996 Mary outlined the initial curriculum of Roots of Empathy and began piloting the program in Toronto. In 2000 she established the national and international organization Roots of Empathy, which now offers programs in every province of Canada, New Zealand, the USA, the Isle of Man, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, and Germany. In 2005, Ms Gordon created the Seeds of Empathy program. She is a Member of the Order of Canada and an Ashoka Fellow. For a longer version of her bio, click here.

Roots of Empathy is an award-winning charitable organization that offers empathy-based programming for children, whose vision is to change the world - child by child.

Roots of Empathy is considered a model of social innovation and has two programs: a flagship program of the same name for children in elementary school (Roots of Empathy) and Seeds of Empathy, its "younger sibling" - a program for children ages three-to-five in early childhood settings. Both programs have shown dramatic effect in reducing levels of aggression among children while raising their social and emotional competence and increasing empathy. For more information about the program, click here.

You can find the “Roots of Empathy Report on Research 2009” here. Additional research information on Roots of Empathy is available by clicking here.

You can find more information on the Roots of Empathy program here and on the Seeds of Empathy program here. Follow Roots of Empathy on Twitter here

Published on Dec 28, 2013

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