Findings from Roots of Empathy Trial Launched



The findings from the Centre for Evidence and Social Innovation’s major five-year evaluation of the Roots of Empathy programme have been launched.

The cluster randomised controlled trial evaluation of the Roots of Empathy programme involved 76 primary schools and tracked nearly 1,200 8-9 year olds. Funded through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Public Health Programme, the trial assessed the effectiveness and cost effectiveness of the schools-based social and emotional learning programme.

The evaluation found that Roots of Empathy was well-received by schools, children and parents and did have a measurable and positive impact in increasing children’s prosocial behaviour and reducing their aggressive and difficult behaviour. There was also some evidence that the effects in relation to reducing difficult behaviour may have been sustained for three years beyond the end of the programme. The programme was also found to be cost-effective.

Pictured at the launch of the event at Queen’s are Elen and Michael, pupils at St Peter’s Primary School, Cloughreagh, and also (left-to-right) Mrs Geoghegan-White (Roots of Empathy Instructor) and Mr McParland (P5 Class Teacher) from St Peter’s Primary School, Mary Gordon (Founder and President, Roots of Empathy), Professor Paul Connolly (leader of the evaluation team), Mary Black (Assistant Director, Public Health Agency) and Dr Sarah Miller (trial manager of the evaluation team).

At the launch event Mary Black placed the Roots of Empathy programme within the wider context of the regional strategy for early intervention and prevention in Northern Ireland. Mary Gordon spoke at the launch of the thinking behind the Roots of Empathy programme whilst Elen, Michael and Mr McParland shared their experiences of being involved in the programme at St Peter’s Primary School. A blog of their experiences of the launch can be found here.

The full report of the evaluation will be available free to download in due course from the NIHR’s Public Health Research journal. Also, further dissemination events regionally are being planned and will be announced on this website in due course.

For further information on the evaluation please contact Dr Sarah Miller

Executive Summary of the Evaluation Report

Title: A cluster randomised controlled trial evaluation and cost-effectiveness analysis of the Roots of Empathy schools-based programme for improving social and emotional wellbeing outcomes among 8-9 year olds in Northern Ireland

Authors: Paul Connolly, Sarah Miller, FRank Kee, Seaneen Sloan, Aidenn Gildea, Emma McIntosh, Nicole Boyer and Martin Bland

Background: There is a growing consensus regarding the importance of attending to children’s social and emotional wellbeing. There is now a substantial evidence base demonstrating the links between a child’s early social and emotional development and a range of key education, social and health longer-term outcomes. Universal school-based interventions provide a significant opportunity for early intervention and prevention in this area and yet the existing evidence base, particularly in relation to their long-term effects, is limited.

Objectives: To determine the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of Roots of Empathy (ROE), a universal school-based programme that seeks to improve prosocial behaviour and reduce difficult behaviour through enhancing children’s levels of empathy.

Design: A cluster-randomised controlled trial and economic evaluation. 74 primary schools were randomly assigned to deliver ROE or to join a wait-list control group. Children were measured at pre-test and immediate post-test and then for three years following the end of the programme. Data were also collected from teachers and parents.

Participants: The intervention schools delivered ROE to their Year 5 children (aged 8-9).

Intervention: ROE is delivered on a whole-class basis for one academic year (October to June). It consists of 27 lessons, based around the monthly visit by an infant and parent, typically recruited from the local community. Children learn about the baby’s growth and development and are encouraged to generalize from this to develop empathy towards others.

Results: Whilst developed in Canada, the present study found that the programme was very well received by schools, parents and children and was delivered effectively to a high level of fidelity. ROE was also found to be effective in achieving modest improvements in children’s prosocial behaviour (g=+.20, p=0.045) and reductions in their difficult behaviour (g=-.16, p=.060) at immediate post-test. Whilst the gains in prosocial behaviour were not sustained after immediate post-test, there was some tentative evidence that those associated with reductions in difficult behaviour may have remained up to 36 months from the end of the programme. These positive effects of ROE on children’s behaviour were not found to be associated with improvements in empathy or other social and emotional skills (such as emotional recognition and emotional regulation) where the trial found no evidence of ROE having an effect. The study also found that ROE was likely to be cost-effective in line with national guidelines.

Conclusions: These findings are consistent with those of other evaluations of ROE and suggest that it is an effective and cost-effective programme that can be delivered appropriately and effectively in regions like Northern Ireland. A number of issues for further consideration are raised regarding: opportunities to enhance the role of parents; how a time-limited programme such as ROE can form part of a wider and progressive curriculum in schools to build upon and sustain children’s social and emotional development; and the need to develop a better theory of change for how ROE works.

Trial registration: Current Controlled Trials ISRCTN07540423.

Funding: This trial was funded through the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research Programme. 


Back to the Top

Latest News