Baby Aisha Teaches Empathy 

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Baby Aisha Teaches Empathy 
Dina ElBoghdady

To the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down,” about two dozen kindergarteners sing softly as their guest of honor enters the classroom: “Hello, baby Aisha. How are you? How are you? How are you?” Cradled face forward from her mom’s belly, Aisha wiggles her toes and smiles as she passes each student lined up along the edges of a massive lime green blanket, eager to touch her tiny feet in greeting.

It’s May, and the class knows Aisha well, for she’s been stopping in with her parents–Carrie and Mamadou Barry–once a month during the 2022-23 school year. Her 30-minute visits are part of a program called Roots of Empathy, which uses the infant-parent relationship to model social and emotional competencies for children. 

Aisha gets up close and personal with (from left) Benji Fox, Josephine Biswese, and Sage Harrison

Lower School Assistant Principal Denise Jones underwent the Canada-based program’s rigorous training in Washington, DC and then Toronto before bringing the curriculum to the kindergarten class taught by Michelle Levy and Bianca Santos Channell.

“By building a bond with an infant and observing how that infant interacts with a parent, the students don’t just learn how to care for a baby,” Denise said. “They begin to learn how to name emotions, how to express their own needs, and how to think about the emotions that they, their classmates, and their parents feel.”

Aisha came to the class for the first time as a four-month-old baby, and the students have tracked her physical milestones ever since. But it’s the study of Aisha’s vulnerability, feelings, and intentions that has generated some of the program’s most powerful moments, said Carrie. 

THEN:  Aisha during her first visit to GDS in October 2022

THEN: Aisha during her first visit to GDS in October 2022

Carrie remembers the time Aisha started crying because she was not allowed to crawl off her lime green mat. “That turned into a lesson about sadness and discontent and not having control over a situation,” Carrie said. “Some kids talked about how it made them sad that their parents are not living in the same home, or about losing someone they cared about. The kids spoke their truth, and we just sat in those moments.”

From that talk came yet another lesson: “We learned that just as we would not judge a baby for what she’s feeling, maybe it’s a good idea not to judge each other when we feel the various emotions that all human beings feel,” said Carrie, whose children Maimouna '27, Kadiatou '31, and Adam '35 attend GDS.  

A key aspect of the program is to work on “perspective-taking” as a means of developing sympathy and empathy, an approach that’s been shown in studies to significantly lower aggression and bullying in children. Denise is trained to weave questions into the lesson plan that relate the baby’s experience back to the student’s world.

During this May session, the kids let out silent cheers (shaking their hands) when they see Aisha take a few steps, a trick she’s learned since her last visit. “When we first met Aisha, could she stand, or crawl, or sit up by herself?” Denise asks the class. “Now look at her, she’s walking. Is falling down part of learning to walk? … You know what’s interesting about babies? They keep trying again and again. That’s called persistence.” 

NOW: Aisha during her May 2023 visit to GDS

NOW: Aisha during her May 2023 visit to GDS

Carrie said she can feel the energy level change every time she and Mamadou enter the room with their baby girl. The kids have become so enthralled with her, she added, that they sent her handmade get-well cards when she had to skip a lesson due to illness.

As the visit wraps up, and before the class presents Aisha with a photo album and certificate to thank her for sharing her first year of life with them, Denise prompts the students with a question:  “What are some of the things you hope for Aisha?” she says. 

Savannah hopes she grows a lot of teeth. Clark hopes she can remember stuff, the way he remembers how to make pancakes because his dad taught him how to do it. Zoe hopes she grows up to be a good person. And then Lucas expresses a hope that elicits more silent cheers all around: “I want her to come to GDS,” he says.

LS Assistant Principal Denise measures Aisha using blocks

LS Assistant Principal Denise measures Aisha using blocks

Aisha shares a laugh with the kindergarteners

Aisha shares a laugh with the kindergarteners

Baby Aisha Teaches Empathy