Dec. 12, 2018 — “Love grows brains,” says Teresa LaNasa to a class full of eager first- and second-graders in Mapleton Elementary School.
LaNasa, an instructor for the Roots of Empathy program, is prepping students for their third visit from Baby Walter, a monthly visitor and their own unique window into infant development.
The class begins snapping their fingers at LaNasa’s prompting to remind them of the word “synapses.” Brain development is a common topic in Roots of Empathy sessions and LaNasa elicits class predictions about Walter’s motor skills.
“Do you think he can ride a bike?” she asks.
The students reply in chorus, “No!”
Mother Beth Smith then walks in with Walter in her arms and a girl exclaims, “He’s so big!”
LaNasa seizes on the opportunity to ask the children, “Do you think his brain is growing, too?”
The Roots of Empathy program seeks to enhance childhood “emotional literacy” by tracking infant physical and psychological development over a nine-month period in monthly classroom sessions. The program is being implemented in both Siuslaw and Mapleton school districts through 90by30, a Lane County-wide program administered by the Center for the Prevention of Abuse and Neglect out of the University of Oregon.
The initiative aims to reduce child abuse in Lane County 90 percent by the year 2030 and Roots of Empathy is one of their newest efforts on this front – a program which has been receiving glowing reviews in both Siuslaw and Mapleton schools.
“The kids are talking about feelings more,” said Mapleton Elementary teacher Nancy Reade, who hosts sessions in her classroom. She anticipates a profound impact on the students when the program completes its nine-month course.
“I’m really excited,” she said.
The enthusiasm surrounding the baby visits has brightened the hallways each month for both districts, but Mapleton’s embrace of the program comes with its own troubling context.
By their nature, small communities can be heavily impacted by single events. It’s a small-town rule of thumb that cuts both ways — for better and for worse. For those upriver, the last four years have made this fact poignantly clear in a string of shocking tragedies.
A Community Wounded
“It started with a car accident, and that was students on their way to breakfast before school,” said Mapleton School District Superintendent Jodi O’Mara.
On Nov. 6, 2014, a car full of five students skidded off an embankment on Highway 126, turning over in the process. All were students of the Mapleton district. Three suffered injuries and two died in the accident. The sudden loss shook the community deeply.
LaNasa recalled her acquaintance with one of the victims.
“I knew the family really well,” she said. “It was very tragic.”
Two years passed and, while wounds never fully healed, life continued in the quiet community. Then, on the night of Dec. 1, 2016, a Mapleton High School freshman committed suicide at home. A well-known student who played on the football team and had even been the school’s 2016 homecoming prince, his death took the community by surprise. Once again, a grief-stricken community grappled with the untimely death of one of their young.
The following July, a Mapleton 7-year-old tipped over on his ATV. Despite wearing protective gear, he immediately succumbed to his injuries. Though he had started attending school in Triangle Lake, the impact of the loss was no less devastating to the area.
“Everybody knew him,” O’Mara said.
Then, barely a month later, with the community still reeling from the child’s death, tragedy struck again in the form of cruel coincidence when a 16-year-old Mapleton High School girl passed away in another ATV accident.
For many, the emotional strain of losing such young lives in quick succession was almost too much to bear. Students in the area were not only affected by the loss of their classmates and friends, but also the loss of parents. At least two fathers of children in Mapleton schools died over this time period, one in a logging accident and another involving a motorcycle.
“It hits home any time there’s an accident or a death that involves any of our students. It just brings up those emotions again,” O’Mara said. “It’s been pretty traumatic for such a small community.”
Through the traumas, though, the tightly-knit fabric of the community emerged.
“It starts with the shock factor of, ‘Oh my gosh, this tragedy really just happened again,’” said O’Mara. “And then it’s a rallying point.”
Community support for the families and others affected by the tragedies came through in many forms such as food donations, fundraising and grief counseling.
“It’s amazing how people fill in the roles that need to be filled when that happens,” O’Mara said. “It’s sad that it has to happen in a community, but when it happens in a community like this, it takes your breath away.”
In a community emotionally drained, the recent welcoming of a program which increases children’s base level of emotional literacy provides some respite from the sadness. Not only a boost for morale, O’Mara sees it as an opportunity to strengthen communal coping mechanisms.
“While many of the events that happened were not preventable, I think Roots of Empathy gives our kids — and hopefully eventually our community — the skills to help work through those and have conversations face to face and have a little deeper understanding and caring,” she said. “I think that’s the key: how people — students, and then from students it goes up to adults — cope with the grief and the loss and the tragedy.”
In their Roots of Empathy session, students monitor Walter’s reactions to various objects placed before him. Walter’s eyes widen with curiosity and amusement with each new toy and LaNasa turns the conversation to the different emotions a baby may have.
She asks Smith, “When does he cry?”
Walter’s mother explains that he’s teething and sometimes needs consoling.
A chance to think about others’ feelings presents itself. “What can you do if a friend is upset?” LaNasa asks the class.
A boy chimes up, “Make them laugh and cheer them up.”
“Right,” says LaNasa. “You can ask someone if they need a hug … or some people just want to be left alone. Do any of you sometimes want to be left alone?”
Several raise their hands. Others express the desire to be with someone.
“So,” continues LaNasa, “when someone cries or is upset, sometimes they just need someone to make them feel better.”
Accurately recognizing the intentions and desires in others is a skill not all have developed. For many, the first step in improving this skill is to peer inward.
In recent years, flavors of mediation practices such as mindfulness have achieved some popularity among those seeking earthly and transcendent tranquility. The practice received a bump in scientific credibility in 2014 when researchers at John Hopkins University published findings from a systematic review and meta-analysis suggesting that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression and pain.
Even as research continues, though, many psychologists and cognitive scientists have been quick to point out that data is still woefully lacking in clinical trials. Still, a growing body of evidence has many pointing to the benefits of being cognizant of one’s own headspace, which includes monitoring the ebb and tide of emotions.
Some key concepts in this vein are emotional awareness, or the ability to identify and name one’s own emotions; self-management, or the ability to reduce the catastrophizing of situations and marshal positive emotions toward tasks like problem solving; and empathy, or the ability to recognize these emotions in others and act accordingly. As a set, these skills are touted in many circles as a pathway to social cohesion and personal happiness.
Notwithstanding criticism that the model lacks predictive power, proponents have pointed to research indicating strong correlations between increased so-called “emotional intelligence” and reductions in deleterious behavior, such as bullying and drug addiction, with the simultaneous rise of positives, such as better self-esteem and psychological health.
The Roots of Empathy program itself boasts decreases in aggression and increases in prosocial behavior among results in its key research findings.
For Mapleton, the hope is that such effects take root at an early age.
“I think it’s going to strengthen our community,” said O’Mara about the program. “We’re already pretty strong as a community in supporting each other, but I think it will help to bring us even closer together.”
Funding and Future
Suzanne Mann-Heintz, co-chair of 90by30’s West Lane district, said the Roots of Empathy program has been on 90by30’s radar for about 18 years, and this year marks a culmination of efforts.
“Actually, we’re the first school district in Oregon to implement Roots of Empathy,” she said of the organization’s West Lane district.
Countywide, a total of 19 Roots of Empathy instructors were trained in three-day courses at a cost of $5,000 a head. 90by30’s West Lane district, which includes Mapleton and Siuslaw school districts, has put five instructors through training and made a goal to come up with 10 percent of this training cost on its own.
Though the Mapleton Community Foundation donated $1,000 and private donations amounted to around $600, even these and other fundraising efforts fell short of the $2,500 goal. Regardless, 90by30 ate the cost and went ahead with the program.
Because the program asks instructors to make a two-year commitment, 90by30 will look to West Lane for 10 percent of training costs again next year, however with a much smaller price tag. Second-year instructors cost only $1,000 per person, bringing the district’s fundraising goal to an achievable $500 if all the instructors stay on board.
Riding on such a positive response, though, many are hoping to expand the program in the coming years, meaning a need for more funding.
“We’re presently working on ideas of how to raise the money,” said LaNasa, who is also co-chair of 90by30’s West Lane team. “We do need help with the education funds.”
“I would love to see it in every classroom,” said O’Mara, who would like to take full advantage of this program, which offers differently-leveled curricula up to eighth-grade.
“That’s what I would like to see and that’s kind of our goal,” she said.
To achieve that goal, supporters of the program hope to not only receive financial backing, but also a degree of community participation.
“Especially if they’re going to have a baby next year,” said O’Mara.
When the school districts’ second year of Roots of Empathy starts up next fall, the program will be in search of 2- to 4-month-old infants to participate in the nine-month project.
“That’s the tricky part, is finding a family that’s willing to make the commitment,” O’Mara said.
Though Mapleton struggled at first to find a family to participate and had to look as far as Waldport for Smith, instructors like LaNasa express confidence that the program will produce results and grow in popularity.
“Hopefully it will bring up this group of children that are more empathetic and more caring about their peers. There’ll be less bullying and that is what I’m projecting to see in the future,” she said. “Right now, it’s just baby steps.”