A five-month-old baby girl from south Belfast is making waves at a local primary school in her new role as teacher.
Little Tess Gillen from the Rosetta area is “thoroughly enjoying” teaching primary five school children at St Mark’s PS in Twinbrook the valuable life lesson of empathy, in a pilot scheme that is currently under way in 28 schools across the Belfast Health Trust and South Eastern Health Trust areas.
Tess’s mother Susan, who accompanies her child to the Roots of Empathy lessons, said: “It will be Tess’s third visit to the school this Friday, she goes every third week and she absolutely loves it — as do the children in the class.
“I feel I’m Cheryl Cole’s mother when I walk into the classroom with her, the children in the class treat Tess like a celebrity, there’s a really nice |atmosphere.”
Once in the classroom, a trained instructor coaches the pupils to observe Tess's development and asks them to label the baby's feelings. In this experiential learning, the baby is the “teacher” and a lever that the instructor uses to help children to identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.
The scheme has proven to reduce aggression among primary school children, while raising social and emotional competence — endorsed by the World Health Organisation, the programme has already been rolled out across Canada, New Zealand and the USA.
Susan adds: “The children are very responsive to Tess and it gives them an idea of what it is like to be a parent. They measure how much she has grown from class to class, ask what she eats, ask why she cries, ask all kinds of things about how a baby develops.
“They also learn about Tess’s temperament and learn to look out for signs when she is not happy or needs something.
“They all sing a song to Tess at the beginning and at the end of the lesson and stroke her feet to say goodbye. It’s a really positive thing to be part of — unfortunately, for whatever reasons, some children don’t learn how to empathise at home, so it’s good for them to get this opportunity at school. Also, as a mother, it’s a memory I will share with Tess — it’s a lovely way for us to volunteer and help the community.”
Health Minister Michael McGimsey, who backed this pilot scheme, agrees. He said: “Positive mental health and wellbeing in childhood is crucial to the development of social and emotional skills, and for successful learning. High self-esteem, strong emotional resilience, and the ability to experience empathy and trust are essential for children to form strong and supportive bonds with others.
“There is overwhelming evidence to indicate that if the ability to empathise is not developed in childhood, it becomes much more difficult to develop later in life. This leads to greater risk of aggression and relationship problems. Schools-based programmes to reduce aggression and increase empathy therefore have important long-term as well as short-term outcomes.