Roots of Empathy - Puna Atawhai is an international programme, which is run in New Zealand through The Peace Foundation. It started in Toronto, Canada, and The Peace Foundation started investigating piloting it here in 2001. With the support of various organisations, including Plunket and the Children's Commisioner, a three year pilot started in 2007. By the end of 2009 they hope to have delivered Roots of Empathy - Puna Atawhai to 100 classes, which is about 3000 students.
So what is it? I'll borrow from their website to explain:
Roots of Empathy (ROE) is an award winning programme that has shown dramatic effects in reducing levels of aggression and violence among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. It also provides these children with a clear understanding of the needs of a baby and what it is to be a good parent, thus offering the potential to break intergenerational cycles of family abuse....Awww, doesn't that sound awesome?!
At the heart of the programme is a neighbourhood infant and parent who visit the classroom every three weeks over the school year. A trained ROE Instructor coaches students to observe the baby’s development and to label the baby’s feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “Teacher” and a lever, which the instructor uses to help children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. This Emotional literacy taught in the programme lays the foundation for more safe and caring classrooms, where children are the “Changers”. They are more competent in understanding their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy) and are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying and other behaviours. In the ROE programme children learn how to challenge cruelty and injustice. Messages of social inclusion and activities that are consensus building contribute to a culture of caring that changes the tone of the classroom...Empathy is a key ingredient to responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. Information on infant safety and development helps children to be more aware of issues of infant vulnerability such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), Shaken Baby Syndrome, Foetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD) and second hand smoke. Observations of a loving parent-child relationship give children a model of responsible parenting.
You can find out more by contacting the Peace Foundation, checking out the Roots of Empathy - Puna Atawhai information on their site, or looking up the Canadian programme's website.