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Roots of Empathy

The Intervention – Roots of Empathy

Developed in Canada in 1996, Roots of Empathy (ROE) is an evidence-based classroom delivered, social and emotional programme for children aged 5 to 13 years old. It aims to promote emotional competence and development of empathy in primary school children, to help decrease aggression, including bullying, and increases prosocial behaviours such as caring, sharing and inclusion. At the heart of the 27-session programme are a local parent and baby who visit a classroom over the course of a school year. The baby is key to the programme and is considered the ‘tiny teacher’. The curriculum is attuned to the development and interests of the children and divided into nine themes, with classroom visits by the baby and parent supporting each theme (a pre-family visit, family visit and post-family visit). Using an age-appropriate curriculum, a trained ROE Instructor coaches the pupils to observe the baby’s needs and development, temperament, to label the baby’s feelings, as well as the relationship with their parent and subsequent attachment. Children learn to identify these types of needs and emotions in themselves, and thereby improve their social and emotional competence and increase empathy. To access further information about Roots of Empathy click here.

The Service – Action for Children in Scotland

Action for Children conducts policy and campaign work to ensure every child and young person in Scotland has a safe and happy childhood. They use evidence-based approaches and draw on the experience of their staff, volunteers and partners including the national government, local authorities and other key bodies. In Scotland, ROE Instructors are trained, coordinated and mentored through Action for Children. Action for Children is the national licence holder and Lead agency for ROE in Scotland and has been successful in securing funding from the Scottish Government over the last 11 years.

Susan Robison, Action for Children Service Co-ordinator for Roots for Empathy, explained her role in the day to day service delivery of the programme, as well as being a ROE Mentor and Trainer. Jean Brodie, Service Manager of Action for Children, and Fiona Steele, Depute Director of Action for Children in Scotland shared their experiences of the initial implementation in 2010, ensuring strategy and funding to ensure the subsequent and sustainable delivery of ROE throughout Scotland.

NEED – Making the Decision about Roots of Empathy

Action for Children were aware that there was a gap in evidence based early intervention programmes being delivered in schools in Scotland. They were impressed with ROE as it was a universal programme that could improve outcomes for children in relation to increasing empathy. Jean explained that “ROE stood out from other programmes due to the ‘tiny teacher’ element of the baby being the key to children’s learning, through the support of community assets (parents willing to participate).”

ROE was initially delivered in 10 schools in North Lanarkshire Council in 2010. Research evaluation of ROE began in August 2011 with 795 participants including control groups. The evaluation sought to assess impact of the programme on: Empathy, Prosocial Behaviour, Anger management/ aggression, Wellbeing and Class climate.

Programme Selection: ROE was identified by Action for Children as a robustly evidenced based, accredited programme which fitted with the Scottish Government and COSLA’s policy statement, Early Years and Early Intervention Framework (2008). Fiona explained that around that time there was a growing consensus that early intervention was fundamental in helping Scotland tackle long standing social problems such as inequality. Action for Children were well positioned to rollout the programme across local authorities based on their pre-existing relationships with schools, as well as being known for delivering other services centred around the needs of children and families.

Intended outcome: Susan explained that the intended outcome of ROE is to achieve better outcomes for children by helping them to develop their emotional literacy, foster the development of empathy, and to reduce levels of bullying and aggression, and promote children’s pro-social behaviours and wellbeing. Jean reported that ROE is helpful in creating communities which are positive places to grow up by helping pupils to be responsible citizens, through increasing prosocial behaviour.

Class Teachers are actively encouraged to assist Instructors and help to manage the class during the visits. This allows for the class learning to be embedded across the curriculum and for the learning to be extended outside of the ROE sessions. Jean stated that she feels ROE differs from other programmes as it allows school children to understand their feelings and the feelings of others and reflect on their own experience of being parented through the 'tiny teacher' visits. Jean expressed her feeling that empathy can be taught experientially, and if we develop empathy in children, they will behave inclusively both in the classroom, playground and the wider community. Jean also reported feeling that this sense of inclusion and connection ROE gives to children, not just in schools, allows a shared language to be used at home with their families, which can improve outcomes for the wider community both in the short-term and long-term.

Susan shared “heart felt moments” feedback from Instructors:

“One pupil who has real difficulty regulating his emotions and behaviour has really engaged with Roots of Empathy.  Initially he was quite jealous of the baby and resented baby visits.  He now constantly asks “When will baby C be in?”  He is particularly responsive to the baby’s behaviour and emotions and often offers perceptive insights into the whats, whys and hows.  At the last visit he particularly connected with the baby’s anxiety around not seeing mum and was very open about his own worries and fears at school.”


When asked about the impact of the programme, teacher comments capture that ROE is well received by teachers and children, and raises levels of empathy amongst the children, creates more respectful relationships and results in reduced problem behaviour (including fighting and bullying) in the classroom. Teachers offered comments such as:

“Some learners used self-regulation techniques to respond to uncomfortable emotions.” and

“The children are more accepting and supportive of people's uniqueness. I have a number of children from different countries in my class and I have found Roots of Empathy to encourage an acceptance of this. I have also noticed that a majority of the children are more willing to sort out their own issues in the playground or in the classroom …”


Action for Children’s Annual Programme Evaluation Report of Season’s for Growth captured self-report data from approximately 200 pupils, teachers, Instructors and volunteer parents throughout Scotland for the 2018-2019 school year. Teachers, Instructors, and volunteer parents were asked to provide their perceptions of any changes in behaviour in pupils who participated in the ROE programme. Responses showed high percentage of pupils and teaches thought ROE had an impact and elicited changes in pupils on the 4 main goals of the programme; Foster the Development of Empathy, Develop Emotional Literacy, Reduce Levels of Bullying and Aggression & Promote Children's Prosocial Behaviours, and Increase Knowledge of Human Development, Learning, and Infant Safety.

Local Reach: In 2010, a pilot commenced with ten schools in North Lanarkshire, with Action for Children staff initially being the Instructors. Following funding of £1.2 million from the Scottish Government, ROE was made available to schools from the Western Isles to the Borders from 2011-2013. This scaling up involved recruiting various school staff within schools to become the Instructors which has helped to build capacity across schools and Local Authorities throughout the length and breadth of Scotland. Scotland’s Year 10 figures (from 2019-2020, pre-COVID) showed that 112 classes were delivering ROE, in 100 schools, across 22 Local Authorities. This involved 4 Action for Children Instructors, 73 Local Authority Instructors, with a total of 87 Instructors involved in delivery, and 17 new Local Authority Instructors were trained.

Instructors are trained to be able to deliver across the whole school. Although the programme is often delivered to Primary 3 classes in Scotland it also delivered to other classes such as P1s, P5s and P7s which ensures more children receive the programme during their primary school years.

FIT – How Does Roots of Empathy fit with Action for Children and the Community? 

Action for Children considered themselves key partners in helping both local and national Government to fulfil the early intervention framework by using a preventative, early intervention programme with young children and their families. As such, ROE not only fitted with Scotland’s Early Years Framework but also fit with several other policies and initiatives including Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC), the Curriculum for Excellence’s Health and Wellbeing curriculum, Scotland’s attainment challenge and Inclusion agenda.  Fiona explained that ROE fits with Action for Children’s mission statement, for children to have a safe and happy childhood.

Susan explained how the nine themes from ROE can be mapped to Curriculum for Excellence Health and Wellbeing indicators including experiences and outcomes related to mental and emotional, social and physical wellbeing. These include: Meeting The Baby, Crying, Planning For a Baby, Emotions, Sleep, Safety, Communicating, Who Am I?, Goodbye & Good Wishes. Each theme has a three-week cycle involving a pre-family visit, (Instructor, Teacher and Class), a family visit (Instructor, Teacher, class and family), and a post family visit (Instructor, Teacher and Class).

SUPPORTS – What Supports did Roots of Empathy Provide? 

Initial support from Canada involved face-to-face training, consultation to ensure the programme was delivered with fidelity, electronic access to ROE materials and online activity monitoring, outcome and acceptability evaluation. Although Action for Children continue to receive support, materials and annual evaluation data from Canada, ROE Instructor training and support can now be delivered by Action for Children staff, and no longer requires ROE staff to come from Canada. In Scotland there are now 4 Mentors who can provide support to Instructors throughout Scotland.

Training:  For the initial roll out of the programme, a core group of 10 Action for Children Staff were trained by ROE staff flown over from Canada over three days, and then a fourth follow up day once they had delivered. Up to 20 Instructors can attend the three day training. Instructors receive a fourth day of training once they have delivered the programme. Now training can be delivered by Susan and her Action for Children colleagues in Scotland. Materials including the manual (curriculum), blankets and toys come from Canada. Action for Children deliver up to 4 trainings a year. Susan is now a Mentor and Trainer, and spoke highly of how the programme itself and the training is received by all those involved.

Data collection: Action for Children collect data regarding the number of Instructors, Local Authorities and classes who are involved in delivery of the programme. An annual report is collated with feedback from all the Teachers, Instructors, and volunteer parents involved in ROE. These people are asked to provide their perceptions of any changes in behaviour in pupils who participated in the ROE programme that year. Pupils are also asked to reflect on what they learn in connection to the main goals of ROE such as improvements in understanding how other people feel and developing emotional literacy (in terms of recognising their own and other’s feelings); reducing levels of bullying and aggression and promoting children's prosocial behaviours (e.g. the children are asked if they saw a friend  or another child being bullied or treated meanly if they would help them); and increased knowledge of human development, learning, and infant safety; and preparing pupils for responsible citizenship and responsive parenting.

Financing: Action for Children received Scottish government funding as part of the initial pilot in North Lanarkshire in 2010 through the 0-8 Early Years Action fund. Action for Children then successfully secured money from the Scottish Government which originally covered the licence fee costs and initial training costs for the programme. Fiona explained that Action for Children have continued to work with the Scottish Government over the past 11 years to ensure the bulk of funding for the ongoing infrastructure of the running of the programme in Scotland is committed, and she was involved in the strategic planning for a sustainable model to deliver ROE beyond the period of the initial Scaling Programme. Funding continues to support the infrastructure rather than day to day delivery of the programme. Local Authorities and some schools pay a small fee (often through PEFF funding) for materials and resources their schools require for delivery and licence fees. 

Referral and recruitment:  Jean explained that since the initial planned role out with invitations to all Local Authorities in Scotland, there has been a natural and organic growth of schools involved, and it has been easier to recruit due to word of mouth. As Action for Children has good links with Local Authorities (Education departments), as well as individual schools, and as it is now a well established programme, then other schools hear about the programme which has helped to sustain the programmes’ growth throughout Scotland.

USABILITY - What was Action for Children’s experience of implementing Roots of Empathy? 

Susan reported that the programme itself is very well operationalised, and that the curriculum is clear and comprehensive. It is primarily delivered by Instructors who are teachers or education staff (such as Nurture teachers, Home link Partnership workers, peripatetic teachers and nursery workers, and pupil support staff) as well as some health staff who deliver the programme.

Modifiable components: Susan explained how Instructors stick to the fidelity of the programme with flexibility to respond to the children’s questions and needs. During the classroom visits, pupils take part in activities to help them form a close bond with 'their' baby - such as singing songs, playing and reading. The ROE Instructor delivers the curriculum and guides the class in labelling the baby's emotions and talking about topics such as crying, safety and communicating. As class teachers are involved and observe the delivery they are able to expand and extend the learning beyond the ROE sessions within their classes.

Fidelity: In Scotland there are 4 Mentors and around 80 current Instructors, thus Mentors support 20 Instructors each and meet 4 times a year, but are also available by phone, email or teams in between their meet ups. Instructors are also observed by their Mentors in the first year of delivery and are invited to professional development workshops. Whilst Susan and her Action for Children colleagues are available to respond to queries from individual Instructors, schools and Local Authorities, Canada are also available by email or telephone to answer queries for Action for Children. Mentors can also access additional support from Susan, or from Canada as required.

CAPACITY – What is Action for Children's capacity to deliver Roots of Empathy? 

Originally Action for Children staff were trained and in the first year (2010) there were 10 instructors trained. In 2011, 80 Instructors were trained, with 4 ROE trainings delivered by trainers from Canada. Over the next few years the Local Authorities requested more staff to be trained. In 2019-2020, this increased capacity has allowed Action for Children to now deliver the training and support to deliver ROE throughout Scotland across 22 Local Authorities, reaching 112 classes, in 100 schools. This means approximately 2,800 children received ROE in 2019-2020 from 80 Instructors, with the support from 4 Mentors. Retention of Instructors across Local Authorities is good.

Staff prerequisites/experience: Instructors come from various backgrounds (including health, education and the voluntary sector), often they are teachers within the school they are delivering in (but usually not to their own classes). Instructors must complete an online application form, which makes clear the expectations in relation to the role and responsibility. Instructors must be prepared to commit the time to the preparation, planning and delivery of the 27 lessons which are delivered weekly, and collect pre and post goal-based measures and feedback from all those involved.  

Time commitment: Susan reported that the time commitment for volunteer parents and their baby involves 9 visits over the year. They often have a link to the school by being part of that local community and are recruited through their local school. Instructors must commit around 2 hours a week for delivery as well as taking part in the initial 3 day training (with a 1 day follow up after delivery), mentoring and additional professional development.

Final Thoughts 

Susan reported that “Roots of Empathy is experiential learning at its best which has been proven to be impactful and long lasting.  The unique programme with a parent and baby at the heart of the learning, fosters the development of empathy, teaches children language for how they feel, how the baby feels and how others feel by actually feeling it (the experiential element) is a joy to be part of and observe.”

Susan noted that the programme fits with the curriculum for excellence. She highlighted that is has some hard-hitting subjects such as SIDS and dangers of second-hand smoke, however, it also focuses on the loving nurturing aspect of the attachment relationship and the unique way that we react to the environment we live in (temperament). 

ROE is a whole class approach where Susan thinks everyone benefits, she explained that:

“The class teacher has an opportunity to observe their children through a different lens. The ROE parent celebrates the first year of their baby’s life and shares all of their milestones with a class full of eager to learn children.  The children themselves benefit most even when they don’t know it!  It doesn’t feel like learning, it feels more like a nice experience which is freeing children up to be calmer and more focused in order to continue with the rest of their learning.  The instructor also benefits from a professional development perspective and the whole school benefits year on year with some schools having implemented the programme for a number of years now, having the whole school impacted by ‘their own class baby’.”