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Roots of Empathy teaches Ferndale students social skills using babies

Lindsay McDougal’s third grade class at Custer Elementary School was buzzing with excitement on May 6 as their VIP guest came through the door: a 10-month-old baby, Cash (and his parents). Megan List, Cash’s mother, picked up the baby and slowly walked him around the circle of third graders, who all waved hello or gave him a high five while the baby grinned, clearly loving the attention.  

The students sing him a song as he goes around the room, to a tune similar to “London Bridge”: “Hello baby Cash, how are you? How are you? How are you?” 

This was Cash’s final monthly visit to McDougal’s class this school year. Since his first arrival in October, the third graders have seen him grow from a near-infant to a crawling, happy little guy who’s almost able to walk. He wasn’t able to talk quite yet, but he loved to babble – after one exclamation, a third grader jokingly responded, “Very interesting, Cash!” 

“They are so invested in this little boy’s life; They are his biggest cheerleaders,” said Woodley. “Every time I walk in the room, they go, ‘Is baby Cash here today?’” 

Cash is one of many local babies participating in the Roots of Empathy program in Ferndale. The nonprofit group uses infants and volunteer instructors to teach students around the world about social-emotional skills and empathy. 

“It’s really being emotionally in-tune, and then you can transfer that to each other,” said Sara Airoldi, the Whatcom Program Manager for Roots of Empathy. “If you see a baby crying, you wonder, ‘What can I do to help?’ And you bridge that to how you treat others.” 

According to Roots of Empathy, 89% of Washington students who participated in their sessions last school year said that the program helped them to learn that everybody has feelings, and 81% of teachers agreed or strongly believed students showed more pro-social behaviors (sharing, helping, cooperation, kindness) after the program. 

Roots of Empathy began in Toronto 27 years ago and has had a branch in Washington since 2007. The program’s expansion to Whatcom County is very recent: In 2022, it started in Bellingham Public Schools, and grew to Ferndale, Blaine and Mount Baker school districts last fall. Third grade classes in four Ferndale elementary schools – Custer, Central, Eagleridge, and Skyline – had their own baby that they learn from nine times during the school year. Airoldi said Ferndale School District hopes to expand the program to Cascadia and Beach elementaries next school year as well. 

Each baby is paired with a volunteer instructor, who are a mix of school staff and community members. They are trained on how to use the student-baby interactions to teach students about themselves and human nature, said Airoldi. The volunteer instructor paired with McDougal’s class was Dani Woodley, a Custer alumnus and parent who worked as a pediatric nurse for eight years. She said she loves seeing the third graders learn from the baby. 

“The more we’ve introduced different concepts to them, and development, and milestones, and traits of babies, we’ve watched their investment grow and grow,” Woodley said. “They realize, ‘Oh, I used to do this.’ It’s so interesting watching them put it all together.” 

During a session, Woodley lays down a big green blanket, and the students all observe Cash as he roams around and plays with toys. The program is a prime example of “show, not tell” – at one point, Cash started teething on a toy, and Woodley used the opportunity to explain why babies do that. 

“Remember how I talked about, when the pressure of the teeth start coming through, and it bulges on the gums?” Woodley told the third graders. “Babies like to chew really hard, that pressure on the sore spots really feels good.” 

Beyond the academic side of Roots of Empathy, the third graders have a lot of fun with these sessions. During the 30-minute-session, Cash was grinning ear-to-ear, playing with his toys and babbling as the third graders made silly faces at him. The students were amused by Cash exploring the world – at one point, when Cash was confused by a tape measure, a student said “He’s just like, ‘What sorcery is this?!’” and the class giggled. 

“I really like getting to see baby Cash, he’s so cute,” third grader Aarca Singh said after the session. 

For his part, Cash also loved spending time with his new friends once a month. 

“Cash likes it, he loves being the center of attention,” said his mother (and Custer alumnus) Megan List. “I think we have as much fun as the kids!” 

For more information about the Roots of Empathy organization, or how to volunteer as a family or as an instructor, visit their website at