Can a baby in the classroom boost emotional literacy?

He’s certainly got the children’s attention… One of the Roots of Empathy classroom days

Julie Wrigley on the lessons learned from employing a very young teacher in primary schools.

Qa Research LogoThis is one of a monthly series of blogs exploring what we have learned from our research into helping improve services for people with mental health problems, children, young people and families, and those in later life

What can a baby bring to a primary school classroom? On the face of it, noise and disruption and not much else. But one innovative programme believes that a baby can act as a tiny teacher, giving subliminal lessons to primary school pupils in empathy and social behaviour.

It’s known as emotional literacy. And for the past year Qa Research has worked with partners at the University of Glasgow to find out whether the classroom babies can really boost this vital skill.

Roots of Empathy programme

Emotional wellbeing and literacy can play a huge part in supporting successful learning. The Scottish government is taking its own approach to ensuring that children are happy and confident in their relationships at school.

Since 2010, Scotland has funded Action for Children to deliver the ‘Roots of Empathy’ programme. Already, 15,000 Scottish children aged five to eight have taken part.

Does the programme work?

Mary Gordon, the founder of the programme, welcomes research. To date, there have been several international studies looking at its impact among older primary school children.

This past year, we at Qa have been asked to look at how well the programme works for younger children aged 5-8.

We worked with experts in education and psychology at University of Glasgow to thoroughly evaluate the programme in Scotland. To give us a full picture and be sure of reaching a robust result, we used several different methods:

How we met the schools challenge

Children engaging with the baby in a Roots Of Empathy session

Children engaging with the baby in a Roots Of Empathy session

  1. As we already knew, schools are busy places, so talking to researchers is not always their first priority!
    • we spoke to schools via email or phone (or both) to explain clearly and briefly the rationale for the research & what we wanted from them
    • we did not expect prompt replies and provided gentle reminders
    • we chose an online survey for the teachers to give their feedback, so they could choose when to do it
  1. Parental consent is needed, but it does give schools another admin job to do
    • No way round this one, but we helped out by preparing a letter for schools to send out about the research, so that all they had to do was print or click send
  1. It is difficult for schools to plan as most have complicated timetables, special events and visitors booked in well in advance
    • When visiting schools, we stayed flexible, waiting until ‘special’ subjects like PE or music were over and the teacher was happy for their pupils to be interviewed
    • When asked, we stood up in front of whole classes to explain our visit.

In spite of these challenges, we found all the schools incredibly generous and welcoming in allowing us into school to carry out the research.

Research with young children

  1. We wanted to interview pupils aged between 5 and 10, so needed to find a tool that would work with this wide age range – and be realistic for the youngest. We chose a picture-based tool, KEDS (Kids Empathic Development Scale), showing different scenarios then asking questions to find out about different aspects of empathy.
  1. We tried to apply the principle of informed consent to the pupils taking part. Their parents had already agreed, but then we explained simply why we were visiting their school to chat to them. Some weren’t too interested, but others – older or more verbal – were intrigued enough to quiz us about research methods, empathy and what we were hoping to find out

How did the children react to having a baby in the classroom?

  1. As the kids were in a school environment, they seemed primed to co-operate with what any adult asked them. To make sure that they were taking part in the interview willingly, we reminded them they could stop if they wanted to. For those too young, or shy to do this, we looked out for signs of restlessness or boredom and asked if they would like to continue, or not


  1. To make the pupils feel comfortable at the start of the interview, we had prepared some icebreaker questions. We had under-estimated pupils’ enthusiasm for the research and they weren’t needed. As a warm-up, and to check they could identify basic emotions of ‘sad, happy, angry’, we showed them these cartoon faces.


  1. To discover and score different aspects of the pupil’s empathy, the main part of the interview involved showing a series of 13 picture scenarios, like this… and asking about the emotions of the character in the picture, reasons for different emotions and what the likely actions would be of the pupil if they were involved in that scenario.A feature of the task was that different children gave widely different interpretations of the picture scenario. So, a strict and consistent questioning format was followed to make sure that all responses were scored fairly.

Four things we found out

1. Empathy improved as pupils – particularly boys – increased in their ability to feel the emotions of others.

2. Aggression decreased, such as incidences of bullying or acting ‘mean’ to other children.

3. Prosocial behaviour, such as being kind and supportive to others, increased more so than for pupils not taking part in ‘Roots of Empathy’. Again, this was particularly marked for boys.

4. Pupils who tended to benefit the most from ‘Roots of Empathy’ were those who perhaps needed it the most: those low in empathy, low in prosocial behaviour or high in aggression.

Julie Wrigley is Research Manager at Qa Research: