An emotional health and wellbeing programme which has been enjoyed by over 20,000 primary school-aged children in Northern Ireland is this year celebrating its tenth anniversary.

The Roots of Empathy programme, which is funded by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and co-ordinated by local health trusts, has been delivered to 306 schools and 22,990 children over the last decade.

“Roots of Empathy has been very successful in Northern Ireland,” said Maurice Meehan, the PHA Head of Health and Social Wellbeing (Northern).

“It is an evidence-based school programme and Queen’s University research of Roots of Empathy in Northern Ireland has found that the programme was effective in increasing children’s positive behaviour and reducing difficult behaviour.

“We are very grateful to Roots of Empathy Canada, HSC Trusts and schools themselves for the commitment to deliver the programme to the highest standard, and have been very impressed with the consistently high value placed on the programme by those schools who host the programme.

“The need for focus on enabling emotional wellbeing for children within education is an increasingly important priority and all the more relevant as we support our children during and following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

At the heart of the programme are a baby and volunteer parent from the local community, who visit the classroom on a monthly basis. The programme is delivered by a trained instructor over 27 classes throughout the year. The instructor coaches the students to observe the baby’s development and label the baby’s feelings and reactions, to take the perspective of the baby. Students learn the names for the baby’s feelings and from this experiential learning they discover their own feelings and discover the feelings of others.

By experiencing this and feeling empathy, they are therefore less likely to physically, psychologically and emotionally hurt each other through bullying. Teachers hosting the programme have reported improvements in children’s emotional wellbeing as they were given opportunities to express how they were feeling in discussion, through their art and through letters that they wrote to the Roots of Empathy baby.

Fiona Meenan, Senior Manager Health Improvement, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust “Belfast Trust’s Health Improvement Team are delighted to partner with schools and the Public Health Agency to co-ordinate this innovative programme.

“The Roots of Empathy programme prioritises development of key emotional skills, which will provide children with a perceptive and caring basis on which to build positive relationships throughout life.”

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