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Teaching Empathy:

A Lucrative Business

When we think of people we admire, like Dr. Spock, Mother Theresa and Albert Schweitzer, the word “empathy” comes to mind. If you do a search for positive human traits on-line or in psychology textbooks, empathy is always near the top of the list. So if you wanted to start a human service business that would immediately appeal to a wide array of people, you might very well put “empathy” in the title, such as
“Roots of Empathy.” This article is about a woman who did just that.

Parents and teachers of children with autism are understandably very concerned about their children learning how to experience and express empathy, which is a common deficit in autism spectrum disorders. One of the reasons I was interested in participating in the
White Earth Reservation Community Collaborative Conference on Child Development and Brain Development Aug 6-8, 2012, in Northern Minnesota, was that it featured Mary Gordon, a “social entrepreneur” from Toronto, CA (that is her self-description) who presents herself as an expert on teaching empathy to children.  Ms. Gordon created a program called Roots of Empathy, which is claimed to increase empathy among elementary school children who are at risk for aggression, bullying and other anti-social behavior.  I thought perhaps some of the same methods could be applied to children with autism. When she spoke at the conference, her message was full of expressions hope and warmth. She is very positive and likable, and like other motivational speakers, Deepak Chopra and Stephen Covey, overflowing with “positive energy.

Her presentation lacked much specific information about how school-based her procedure actually works on the ground (except in very broadest brush strokes). Most importantly, she presented no real objective evidence of its effectiveness. There was no theoretical rationale for her proposed approach other than the very common sense idea that it’s difficult to be mean to people and have empathy for them at the same time. Makes sense, though one would have thought that for most young children that had been tried many times in the past by parents, teachers, grand parents and members of the clergy. Like other motivational speakers Ms.Gordon made a few broad points and did lots of empathetic cheer leading; yes, we know empathy is good, you don't need to convince us.


Ms. Gordon reported improvements in empathy but did not tell the audience where they could find the studies that were the basis for those claims. That didn’t seem to bother the audience that was composed of childcare workers, agency supervisors and administrators, with a smattering of college and university staff members. Her presentation seemed to be a smashing success judging by the audience reception. She also distributed a free DVD advertisement about her program..

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After her presentation, I began wondering who this woman is, her credentials and what research she has done on her intervention approach. I also couldn't help wonder why she was widely seen as a expert on this topic. I assumed she must have received training with a leading clinical expert on children's emotional development, and done years of clinical work with young children with mental health problems and research on empathy. Not so, not at all.

Actually Ms. Gordon is a former kindergarten teacher who wrote a popular book titled,
“Roots of Empathy: Changing the World Child by Child“ that she has parlayed into a speaking and consulting business. I searched for her resume’ or curriculum vitae on her web site and on line, but have been unable to find one. Most people who presents themselves to the world as an expert on something make their professional qualifications known, such as where they did their training, such as McGill or UCLA, and their post-doctoral work at another well known university or clinic and their fellowships, and so on. Ms. Gordon was apparently born in Newfoundland and moved to Toronto, which is about all she makes known about her background. She taught kindergarten and was involved in a project teaching literacy. She has few if any academic credentials in psychology, psychiatry or mental health, clinical social work as far as I can tell. She has done no research at all on empathy. She is a business woman. She has no other basis for claiming to be an “expert.” Her appearance of expertise appears to have been created through self-promotion.

Despite her lack of they typical professional qualifications for a person claiming such expertise, she has managed to convince news outlets like CNN to feature her, and
Huffington Post to allow her to promote her own books via their on-line Books Blog. She is represented by a professional speakers’ agency that promotes her speaking engagements. She has been recommended for educational and mental health prizes and awards in Canada, and has met with a variety of high profile people like the Dali Lama, for reasons that are not clear. Naturally, each such event was recorded for later publicity and marketing. Public school programs all over Canada and in other British Commonwealth countries have adopted her approach for reasons that are unclear.  One might assume she has gathered compelling data indicating the approach is highly effective. Not so, at least I have found none.

I have done a search for publications she has authored, and other than her first widely read book, and two follow up books, I have found no empirical articles of which she is an author. She has authored promotional articles for magazines about
Roots of Empathy, but not a scholarly discussion of her approach.

On her website, Ms. Gordon refers to other studies and includes graphic data from articles to which she refers in support of her approach, but I have been unable to find the actual original articles on which the graphs were based. It would be important to know actually what was done and how the data were collected.  For example, she includes graphs from a paper, “
Rolheiser, C., and Wallace, D. (2005) The Roots of Empathy Program as a Strategy for Increasing Social and Emotional Learning,” but no actual citation of where the article was published is to be found.

The casual reader is led to assume the graphs are based on a properly conducted empirical study that has been published in a professional journal, but the fact that no source of the data is available raises doubts.
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I've done a literature search in several professional publication data bases for studies testing Ms. Gordon’s “Roots of Empathy” classroom method and found only two articles over the past seven years since her book was published. Here is a summary of the two published studies on the Roots of Empathy program:

1. Santos R. G., Chartier M. J., Whalen, J. C., Chateau D., & Boyd L. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based violence prevention for children and youth: Cluster randomized controlled field trial of the Roots of Empathy program with replication and three-year follow-up. Healthcare Quarterly, 14, 80-91.

This study examined effects of the Roots of Empathy (ROE) program on children’s “social-emotional competence.” ROE is a theoretically derived universal preventive program that focuses on decreasing children’s aggression and facilitating the development of their social-emotional understanding and prosocial behaviors. The program has as its cornerstone monthly visits by an infant and his/her parent(s) that serve as a springboard for lessons on emotion understanding, perspective taking, caring for others, and infant development. The study included a quasi-experimental control-group pretest–post-test, multi-informant design with 585 4th- to 7th-grade children from 28 classrooms. Students in ROE participate in a structured, age-appropriate,
27-session curriculum (Gordon 2005) that is delivered to entire classrooms by trained, certified instructors. ROE centers on classroom visits by a family – a parent and his or her newborn infant. (There are nine pre-family sessions, nine family sessions and nine post-family sessions.) That is the intervention. [that comes to 18 not 27 sessions]

Outcome measures included child self-reports of understanding of infant distress, empathy, and perspective taking, and peer and teacher reports of prosocial and aggressive behavior of the target children.
Neither students nor teachers were blinded to group assignment at pretest or post-test. There were no independent measures of student behavior at home or in school.

The authors used a very complex statistical method for analyzing the data.
It is noteworthy that on most measures the control children not receiving the ROE intervention were scored as having much lower measures of aggression than the target subjects who received the intervention. In other words, the groups were different at baseline. While teacher ratings were reported to indicate improvement, the students own self ratings did not. Moreoever, when the control group children were later subjected to the same empathy intervention as in the initial group's intervention, very small or no improvements were obtained. Child self-reported empathy and perspective taking showed no significant improvements.

There were no actual measures of children’s behavioral adjustment or child behavior at school or at home or in the community. In other words, there were no evaluations of the practical consequences of the intervention.

Inexplicably, the authors nonetheless concluded, "These findings support and extend recent research examining the positive impacts of classroom-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs on children’s social development and behavioral adjustment,” when as far as I could tell the data did not show that.

The first author,
Robert G. Santos, PhD, is the scientific director for the Healthy Child Manitoba Office (HCMO), in Winnipeg, Manitoba; senior policy advisor to the Healthy Child Committee of Cabinet (HCCC); and senior advisor to the deputy minister of healthy living, youth and seniors, in the government of Manitoba, where he has served since 1998. He is a research scientist at the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy (MCHP)

2. Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Veronica Smith, Anat Zaidman-Zait and Clyde Hertzman (2012) Promoting Children’s Prosocial Behaviors in School: Impact of the “Roots of Empathy” Program on the Social and Emotional Competence of School-Aged Children. School Mental Health, 4 (1) 1-21.

In October 2002, Healthy Child Manitoba Office collected socio-demographic data (student gender and grade level) and rated ROE1 and control groups on three child mental health outcomes: physical aggression (6 items: e.g., threatening people, bullying others, kicking or hitting other children), indirect aggression (5 items: e.g., trying to get others to dislike a person, telling a person's secrets to a third person) and pro-social behavior (10 items: e.g., comforting a child who is crying or upset, offering to help other children who are having difficulty, inviting others to join a game).

These were rated by teachers (kindergarten, grade four, grade eight) and self-rated by students (grade four, grade eight).

Using the same three measures, rated by teachers and students, the authors post-tested ROE1 and control groups at the end of the 2002–2003 school year and annually for three years thereafter.
Neither students nor teachers making ratings were blinded to group assignment at pretest or post-test. There were no independent measures of student behavior at home or in school.

The authors found that while the teachers who had administered the intervention reported improvements in child behavior, the students themselves did not. Nonetheless, the authors concluded the interventions were effective.

The author, Dr, Schonert-Reichl received a PhD in Educational Psychology from University of Iowa and is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia. On her academic website she highlights coverage of her work in the popular press, including several magazines and newspapers across Canada, the US, and beyond, including Canadian Living Magazine, Reader’s Digest-Canada, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun, The Georgia Strait, 24 Hours, The National Post, Today’s Parent Magazine, Westcoast Families, BC Parent, The Greater Good Magazine, and The Wall Street Journal.
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Concluding Comments

No one questions the value of teaching children to feel empathy for others and more effectively express empathy. It's critically important. No disagreement there. Very good research has been done on the development of empathy
by such experts at Martin L. Hoffman and Jean Decety who has been studying underlying neural mechanisms.

But it appears that “
Roots of Empathy” is largely ineffective in accomplishing this goal. There is no evidence from actual measures of instances of empathic behavioral outcomes, or actual records of child aggression or bullying instances (as opposed to teacher ratings) that there were fewer instances of measured aggression or anti-social behavior as a result of exposure to this program. In both of these studies Ms. Gordon cites as evidence of her program’s effectiveness, the teachers rating the children as improved were the same people who conducted the intervention, which is to say their ratings could not help but be biased. Without independent evaluations of child outcomes we have no idea whether there were any improvements. What improvements were reported were indirect teacher impressions, not actual measures of children’s behavior.

Bottom line:

In the only two studies I could find, when the students rated their own empathy and aggression, they reported no improvements. Neither the schools nor parents were asked to keep independent records of actual aggressive episodes, or threats, or instances of bullying, nor records of actual empathic events. The only data were impressions by the teachers who obviously wanted to believe they hadn’t wasted their time and that their efforts paid off.

• It is unsettling that government agencies throughout Canada and Commonwealth countries have bought into this untested and as nearly as I can tell, ineffective intervention.

• Even more remarkable is that so many people look to Ms. Gordon as an expert. She is an entrepreneur selling empathy as a product.
I’m reminded of "Professor" Irwin Corey an American comic, film actor and activist from the 1960s often billed as "The World's Foremost Authority.” “Professor” Corey seasoned his speech with many long and florid words, pontificating all the while, but seldom actually making sense. While some of Ms. Gordon's ideas make common sense, namely that its a good idea to encourage children's empathy, there seems to be little substance behind her self-promotion as an expert on children's emotional development.

• Ms. Gordon is an effective businesswoman who is represented by a professional speakers bureau,
All American Speakers, an agency that represents motivational speakers. It appears she must also have a publicist who promotes her to news outlets and organizations associated with prominent people with whom she can be associated. She is selling empathy, much as if she were selling sneakers or a political candidate, and she is apparently well paid for her efforts.

• Ms. Gordon has created a booming business by promoting herself and this apparently ineffective program, which is testimony to the power of marketing.

Forthcoming discussion of evidence-based methods of promoting empathy among children with autism