Young children learn empathy through MFRC program

Roots of empathy children

Mothers and children participate in the MFRC’s Roots and Seeds of Empathy. Left to right: Maj Angela James and her son Finnegan, Lt Amanda Kihn and her son Mason, A/SLt Melanie Aqiqi and her daughter Scarlett, and Jennifer Hawke and her son Benjamin pose together outside the Colwood Pacific Activity Centre.

An internationally-recognized, anti-bullying program developed in Canada is hitting its stride at CFB Esquimalt, and helping young children from military families build important skills.  

Roots and Seeds of Empathy sprouted eight years ago at the Esquimalt Military Family Resource Centre (MFRC). There are now four groups actively reducing aggression in children while raising social and emotional competence.  

The program uses a mother and baby to teach children aged three to five empathy, and to become aware of other people’s emotional needs, as well as their own. The children observe the interaction between mother and baby, and then talk about how the baby might be feeling.

Maj Angela James and her baby son Finn participated in the Roots of Empathy program at École John Stubbs School located near the Belmont Park Resident Housing Units.  

“It was very meaningful to us,” said Maj James. “It was a real privilege to be a part of these kids’ lives.”

She and her son visited the class once a month from October to June with each visit focusing on a new theme.

One memorable visit involved a “wish tree” where the children thought into the future and did their own dreaming for her son.

The children’s wishes were quite profound: that her son would “grow to be an old man,” “have lots of friends” and “grow big and strong.” When she compared that with her own dreams for her son, she was sincerely touched by what came out of the mouths of the five year olds.

A/SLt Melanie Aqiqi and her baby daughter Scarlett participated in the Seeds of Empathy program at one of the MFRC’s daycares for three to five year olds.

“When she was upset or crying, they would talk about why she was upset,” said A/SLt Aqiqi. “They could identify with how she felt.”

Themes explored included feeling loved, friendship and feeling scared. MFRC daycare staff read stories and conducted activities related to the theme before each mother-baby visit. During the visit, and under the guidance of MFRC staff who are trained facilitators, the children talked about the theme, interacted with the baby and asked questions.

Former Kindergarten teacher Mary Gordon developed the program because she thought it important children learn empathy. Linda Scott, program manager at the Esquimalt MFRC, brought the program to CFB Esquimalt.  Scott, a Roots of Empathy mentor and Seeds of Empathy facilitator, felt it was a great program for military families.

“The stories and activities help children learn emotional literacy,” she explains. “Children can have strong feelings, especially when they are experiencing a deployment. Now they can express if they feel frustrated or lonely.”

The program runs October to June with a baby aged two to four months, and ends when the baby is close to one. Over the past eight years, 24 babies have participated in the program and more than 450 children have benefitted from the training. The MFRC currently offers the Seeds version in its Colwood and Esquimalt daycares. The MFRC also brought the Roots version to two schools with a high number of military families: École John Stubbs School in Colwood, and École Macaulay School in Esquimalt.

-Jon Chabun, Esquimalt MFRC

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