Rotorua children learning to develop empathy

Kiri Honey and her baby Lauki Honey visit with a class at Kaharoa School as part of the Roots of Empathy programme.

In a world where empathy is becoming endangered and we are becoming increasingly disconnected, the Roots of Empathy programme is connecting Rotorua children to their inner selves and to one another.

Roots of Empathy was founded by global social entrepreneur Mary Gordon in Canada in 1996 and is now offered in 14 countries.

It was introduced into New Zealand in 2007 in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, and celebrated its 10th anniversary in Rotorua today at a celebration hosted by Mayor Steve Chadwick and attended by Mary Gordon.

The programme, which is offered at Mokoia Intermediate, Malfroy and Kaharoa Schools, was Government-funded from 2007-2014 but has relied on sponsorship to continue since then.

The Wright Family Foundation is one of those sponsors. Chief executive Chloe Wright says society is most at risk from those people who never learn compassion and empathy.

“Roots of Empathy teaches our children to understand and share the feelings of others, to view the perspective of another. In the classroom Roots of Empathy recognises if we teach empathy to the child today, that child will nurture a kinder society tomorrow.”

Roots of Empathy offers year-long classroom programmes for children in Years 1-8 which are currently offered in Rotorua, Auckland and Wellington.

Volunteer instructors are trained to deliver 27 classes over the school year, including nine with a parent and baby from the community. The instructor coaches the children to observe the baby’s feelings and intentions, and to take the perspective of the baby.

The children learn the names for the baby’s feelings and then discover their own feelings and the feelings of others. Over the school year the children gain the ability to take the perspective of their classmates, and to understand and care about how they feel – developing empathy.

Former teacher Ally Fulcher heads up the programme in New Zealand and says international research shows that Roots of Empathy children show increased levels of social and emotional competence and a decrease in aggression, including bullying.

“Our schools that offer the programme report fewer problems in the playground because the children have learned to relate to each other.

“The ripple effect of the programme is that the children and their instructors take their experience beyond the classroom, positively impacting their families, workplaces and communities.”

Kaharoa School principal Warwick Moyle was instrumental in bringing Roots of Empathy to Rotorua 10 years ago at a time when a youth prison was to be established just 1.3km from the school gate and three-year-old Nia Glassie was killed by her mother's boyfriend and his brothers.

“I believed there must be a way, which was proactive rather than reactive, where we could break the cycle of child abuse and neglect and youth incarceration in our Rotorua community.”

Moyle says the Roots of Empathy Programme is a fence at the top of the cliff rather than an ambulance at the bottom.

“I love the messages it gives children. It teaches them to be more caring and to communicate with each other. It teaches them feelings, and words to describe those feelings.”

The programme also brings parents into the school community. One of the first Roots of Empathy babies at the school is now a Year 3 student there.

Roots of Empathy is provided free to schools and has a waiting list of schools who want to be involved.

Watch this video to learn more or visit

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