Roots of Empathy / Racines de l'empathie

Roots of Empathy is an evidence-based classroom program that has shown significant effect in reducing levels of aggression - including bullying - among school children while raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. Our mission is to build caring, peaceful, and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.

Roots of Empathy, social and emotional learning, bullying prevention, classroom programOur Impact Why We Exist


Roots of Empathy's mission is to build peaceful, caring and civil societies through the development of empathy in children and adults.


Our vision is to change the world, child by child.

Roots of Empathy, classroom, tiny teacher, social emotional learning, bullying preventionOur Story What We Do

Toronto is the birthplace, home and international headquarters of Roots of Empathy. The Roots of Empathy program was founded in 1996 by social entrepreneur and author, educator, parenting expert and child advocate Mary Gordon, with a pilot reaching 150 children in the Toronto District School Board (TDSB). To date, Roots of Empathy has brought the power of empathy to 48,000 children in Toronto.

In 2000, Roots of Empathy became a charitable not-for-profit organization and initiated a formalized research program. In 2005, Mary Gordon created Seeds of Empathy, Roots of Empathy’s “younger sibling,” a program for children ages three to five in childcare settings.

Today, Toronto is also home to the Roots of Empathy Centre of Excellence, hosted by and in partnership with the TDSB, which acts as a beacon for visitors from around the world, showcasing best practice, and providing a laboratory for testing new concepts and measuring impact.

Accolades and Accomplishments

To date, Roots of Empathy has reached over half a million children in Canada, and has been called “Canada’s olive branch to the world,” by the World Health Organization. The program currently heads the list of evidence-based social emotional learning programs on

Offered in Aboriginal Communities across Canada, both the Roots of Empathy and Seeds of Empathy programs have been endorsed by the Assembly of First Nations as "compatible with traditional First Nations teachings and worldviews."

Roots of Empathy Founder/President Mary Gordon has been awarded a Public Education Advocacy Award from the Canadian Teachers Federation and the Order of Canada. In 2002 Gordon was named one of Canada’s first two Ashoka Fellows, recognizing her as a member of an international circle of social entrepreneurs with system-changing ideas for the world’s most pressing social problems. In 2011, Gordon was named Canada's Top Social Innovator by the national Manning Innovation Awards.

Our Programs How We Do It

Roots of Empathy is considered a model of social innovation and has two evidence-based programs: a flagship program of the same name for children in elementary school (Roots of Empathy) and Seeds of Empathy, its "younger sibling" - a program for children in childcare settings. Both programs have shown signficant effect in reducing levels of aggression - including bullying - among children while raising their social and emotional competence and increasing empathy.

Roots of Empathy is delivered to schoolchildren from Kindergarten to Grade 8 (ages 4 to 13) across Toronto, in English, French, and French immersion classrooms, in classrooms with highly diverse and high-Aboriginal student populations, and in Toronto’s Priority neighbourhoods.

Seeds of Empathy is delivered in early childhood settings to foster social and emotional competence and early literacy skills and attitudes in children three to five years of age while providing professional development for their educators.

Roots of Empathy

The innovation behind the success of this program is in harnessing the power in the attachment relationship between an infant and his/her parent(s). A trained Instructor guides students in observing this relationship over the course of a school year: how the baby sees/discovers his world, how the parent learns to read the baby’s cues, and how the parent helps the baby learn to deal with (regulate) his own feelings and emotions. This experiential learning leads the children to first identify emotions in the baby, then in themselves, and finally to recognize emotions in each other, and learn to respond empathically.

Funding and Program Partners

The Maytree Foundation, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), and The Atkinson Charitable Foundation generously supported the inception of Roots of Empathy (1996-2000) in Toronto. Since then, Roots of Empathy has also been generously assisted with strategic grants from the Toronto Community Foundation (Vital Ideas Recipient), Toronto Department of Public Health, TDSB, Merrill Lynch, The Lawson Foundation, and the Government of Ontario. In addition, Roots of Empathy in Toronto has received in-kind support from Blake, Cassels and Graydon LLP and Hill & Knowlton. The program is delivered in partnership with all four public school boards in Toronto.

Participant Vignette

Through guided observations of the Roots of Empathy baby, followed by discussion, students identify the humanity in the baby and then their shared humanity – they discover that we all share the same feelings. As they come to understand the injustice of being left out, they become advocates for the inclusion of others. They learn to challenge cruelty when they witness it. Here is just one of thousands of examples we see every year in Roots of Empathy:

“A group of children were playing in the schoolyard at lunch. The children were grade 3 students. One of the students was bullying another student and attempting to exclude him from the game. One of my grade 1 students went over and said to the person bullying, ‘You are hurting his feelings.’ Those words of empathy solved a potential problem and everyone learned from a small child’s words.” — Beth Walker, Root of Empathy Instructor in a Grade 1 classroom, Toronto.

Seeds of Empathy

Seeds of Empathy is designed for early childhood settings to foster social and emotional competency and early literacy skills and attitudes in children three-to-five years of age while providing professional development for their educators.

We teach a series of themes, each on a three-week cycle. During the first and second weeks of each cycle, Literacy Coaches (specially-trained staff from the childcare centre) read and discuss books with small groups of children. In Seeds of Empathy, we use stories to help children explore their own feelings and take the perspective of others. Attitudes to reading are formed early through trusting relationships, which is what makes early childhood educators powerful role models.

In the third week of each cycle, a Family Guide (another trained staff member) hosts a Family Visit with a baby and parent. The Family Guide encourages the children to observe the baby's development, to label the baby's feelings, and to talk about their own feelings and the feelings of others (empathy).

Funding and Program Partners

The Government of Ontario through the Ministry of Education is generously supporting Seeds of Empathy in Toronto.

Program Impact

Social and emotional literacy, including empathy, is the basis of compassionate behaviour and a key ingredient of responsible citizenship and responsive parenting. But if children do not learn to be empathetic, they cannot grow up to create a better world. Recent breakthroughs in neuroscience have shown that children’s early experiences sculpt their brains, affecting their capacity for empathy.

The Seeds of Empathy program invests wisely and powerfully in the next generation, because children cannot learn – or grow to become contributing members of society – when their emotional and social lives are in turmoil.

Participant Vignette

“I see the excitement of the children, staff, and parents when it comes time for the Seeds of Empathy family visits. We are able to connect more with the children on a different level, and as they become more emotionally literate, they understand more when others are hurting and how they might help. They are so sensitive to the needs of others and seem to even understand their own feelings. They are able to express more easily what they are feeling in more effective ways.”  – Lynette Braun, Childcare Centre Administrator

“There is not much bullying compared to before. I feel proud to have Seeds of Empathy in our centre. Thank you.”  – Denise LeBlanc, Childcare Centre Administrator

“Children are more understanding of others from other cultures and languages. Creates a recognition of the universality of emotions. Not all cultures promote discussion or sharing of emotion within relationships in public. It is very important for all children to learn about and help normalize their own feelings.”  – Mara Hawkins, Childcare Centre Administrator

“Children now have more words to describe emotions and understand them - that it’s okay to feel and talk about feelings - that others feel too and babies do also. They learn to understand and share with family and community.” – Janie Gunther, Early Childhood Educator and Seeds of Empathy Family Guide

What You Can Do

Roots of Empathy

Activities a donation will support

Your donation supports our programs across the Greater Toronto Area, where we have reached close to 50,000 children.  Our program is offered in classrooms where trained instructors guide the children, and by observation, the classroom teacher, as they identify and reflect on their own feelings and the feelings of others. Both the emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy are addressed.  Research across three continents has consistently shown that the program leads to a reduction of bullying and aggression and an increase in prosocial behaviours.

Your donation allows us to:

  • provide the program
  • provide mentoring, professional development and curriculum updates to the Roots of Empathy instructor.
  • gather feedback from the children, volunteer parent, and classroom teacher

Donation impact

Since 1996, Roots of Empathy has had a powerful effect on learning and civic engagement for 35,000 children in Toronto.

Learning: Our education system addresses children’s academic needs, but pays little attention to social and emotional learning; however, social and emotional competency in childhood is a much greater predictor of success in life than academic scores.

Civic engagement: In Roots of Empathy, children learn to find their voice and build consensus. They are the children challenging injustice in the classrooms and playgrounds of Toronto, and in the future they will be the adults working for peace in the boardrooms and war rooms of the world.

Seeds of Empathy

Activities a donation will support

Your donation allows us to provide Seeds of Empathy programs in the Greater Toronto Area. This includes:

  • supporting mentoring and ongoing accreditation for childcare centre staff, so we can ensure that child’s program meets the highest standards.
  • providing training and professional development to early childhood educators, so that they can deliver Seeds of Empathy as a Literacy Coach or Family Guide.

Donation impact

Since 2005, Seeds of Empathy has had a powerful effect on learning and civic engagement for thousands of children.

Learning: The program provides a significant boost in learning readiness. Toronto’s children are often falling behind in school, an outcome often determined in the years before Kindergarten. Social, emotional and early literacy competency are the best ways to prepare young children for learning.

Civic engagement: In Seeds of Empathy, children learn to be more caring, inclusive and cooperative. They are challenging injustice in the playgrounds of Toronto, and in the future they will be the adults working for peace in the boardrooms and war rooms of the world.


Annie Rawlings
Senior Manager, President's Office
Charitable Number: 896434818RR0001

Finance & Governance


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