By Rita Hibbard
He describes his journey to Seeds of Compassion as a happy accident. He had the gift of time, the interest and a friend who knew the right people. It just jelled.
“It was an extraordinarily wonderful series of accidents that got me involved,” he says, adding, “Seeds of Compassion is one of the most amazing things that has happened to me in my life.”
But perhaps John Sabol underestimates himself a bit.
And certainly, thousands of Seattle area school children, their parents, teachers and larger community, have benefited from one very committed volunteer’s energy and resources.
After retiring as an executive from Microsoft, a company he joined in 1984, Sabol became actively involved in granddaughter Sophia’s life and interested in childhood development. Friend Yaffa Maritz, co-founder of Listening Mothers and then on the steering committee of Seeds of Compassion, introduced Sabol to two people who made him excited about learning more: Dr. Dan Siegal, a psychiatrist whose work examines how interpersonal relations impact the development of the brain, and Dan Kranzler, co-founder of Seeds of Compassion who at the time was deep into plans for bringing the Dalai Lama andDesmond Tutu to Seattle for a five-day gathering on empathy and understanding.
When they first met at a party, Kranzler explained how empathy could become contagious, and how the Canadians “had it all figured out.” The next day, Sabol says, all he could remember was Canada, empathy and schools. He googled the terms, and found “Roots of Empathy,” an organization based in Canada and led by Mary Gordon. The program brings a mother and baby into a classroom every month over the course of a school year for three 40-minute visits per month . An instructor preps the class before the event, guides the students to discuss the baby’s evolving needs and emotional development, and comes back the next day to allow the students to talk about what they observed.
“The curriculum builds a vocabulary for kids to about the baby’s emotional needs,” Sabol said. “Then they talk about their needs. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.”
On its web site, the program puts it this way:
“Over the school year, a trained Roots of Empathy Instructor guides the children as they observe the relationship between baby and parent, understanding the baby’s intentions and emotions. Through this model of experiential learning, the baby is the ‘Teacher”’and a catalyst, helping children identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others.”
Research shows teachers report a significant decrease in aggressive behavior among participants compared to a control group, and that children who have completed the program were much more likely to recognize acts of kindness such as sharing, helping and understanding. The program has grown from a few kindergarten classes in Toronto to a program that has reached 450,000 children worldwide.
“Empathy can’t be taught, but it can be caught,” founder Mary Gordon often says.
Sabol joined the steering committee of Seeds of Compassion and made it his mission to bring the Roots of Empathy program to Seattle area schools before the five-day Seeds of Compassion event in April of 2008. It began that year with 10 classrooms, and now is in its fifth year with 96 classrooms and 2,500 students.
For that to happen, Sabol had to overcome initial doubts that the program could be launched that quickly. But the right people came together and made it happen, he said.
While at Microsoft, Sabol had spent some of his time focused on the classroom, but in a very different way. “My experience prior to this had been infusing technology into the classroom,” he said. “Teaching empathy is about as far from that as possible… From hard computers to soft warm babies…”
Today, thanks to Sabol’s and others’ early and onging work, a major foundation has decided to support the program’s rapid expansion in the U.S., using Seattle as a showcase. Programs will launch soon in five or six San Francisco schools and in a similar number of New York schools. Research studies assessing the Seattle area programs have been funded at the University of Washington.
“But I don’t need those studies,”Sabol adds. “I’m a grandfather. I know babies make wonderful things happen.”
There are many other, less quantifiable impacts. He tells the story of a 16-year-old boy, from a dysfunctional family, a loner, held back in grade advancement because of learning problems. One day, the boy asked if he could hold the baby. While that is not generally encouraged, the mother recognized the boy’s need and allowed him to sit in a quiet corner with the baby. The boy then went to the program instructor and asked, in front of the class, “If someone has never been loved, can he be a good father?” That moment of sharing allowed the other students to have empathy for the boy’s struggles in a way that almost certainly would not have otherwise occurred, and allowed the boy and his classmates to consider a complex emotional question.
Five faculty members from granddaughter Sophia’s school in Los Angelos a came to the Seeds of Compassion event. They were so inspired that they decided to eliminate one day of homework and replace it with a day of heartwork. That is a loosely defined exercise in which students are asked to sit down with family members and work on a project of their own choosing that involves empathy – it could be a get well card to a classmate or a note to the teacher about what the student likes about the class. Periodically, Sophia rings up her grandparents on Skype to work on the project with them, which Sabol notes, “is like totally cool.”
One story in particular shows how the Roots of Empathy program can shift a child’s outlook. When helping Sophia learn the multiplication tables, he made a spreadsheet of numbers and asked her to do the math. When he returned to check her work, he found Sophia had completely changed the rules of the game. Instead of numbers, Sophia had written the words “love, community, care, helping, empathy, and fun” on the grid. She had drawn a picture of two people holding a beating heart.
“Needless to say, this just blew me away,” he said. “She was saying, ‘Grandpa, you think math is important, but what really is important is this stuff.’”