Growing a Tree of Empathy


Ever wondered how to take a positive parenting experiences and, like a seed, nurture and grow it? Research suggests that focusing on the positive...results in more positive behaviours[1]. We can also add new behaviours into our “garden” by learning from other people’s strong experiences and stories.

South Vancouver Family Place is committed to celebrating the strength and resilience[2] of families in order to foster Heart-Mind well-being. Their angle?[3] A visual arts and storytelling project to promote Heart-Mind Well-being: Growing a Tree of Empathy.

The project, that lasted over a number of weeks, became a tree of Heart-Mind well-being strategies! Staff and parents worked together to create five paper cut outs, each representing a positive human quality; gets along with others, compassionate and kind, solves problems peacefully, secure and calm, and alert and engaged. Families personalized each cut out by gluing one side with a photo or picture, and, on the flip side, capturing a caption or story about how they practiced this quality in their family. The cut-outs, once complete, were hung from the branches of a huge tree mural in the Family Place.

“What I enjoyed most about the project was giving our families an opportunity to share with us what they are already doing to educate both the hearts & minds of their children.”  Staff Member

Want to do your own Heart-Mind Project? Be intentional and explicit in a number of ways:

  1. Identify the Heart-Mind qualities your project will promote.

  2. Talk to all participants about which elements of your project will enhance Heart-Mind well-being.

  3. Identify how you will know whether or not these Heart-Mind qualities are enhanced?

  4. Over time, continue talking about what evidence you are seeing that your project is having a positive impact on Heart- Mind well-being.

  5. Celebrate your success! Share your discoveries with others.

The idea that focusing on the positive increases the probability of more positive behaviours is rooted in the "broaden and build" theory of positive emotions.

The theory suggests that positive emotions including joy, interest, contentment and love spark actions. "Joy sparks the urge to play, interest sparks the urge to explore, contentment sparks the urge to savour and integrate, and love sparks a recurring cycle of each of thise urges within safe, close relationships." (Fredrickson, 2004)

According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the combination of supportive relationships, self-help skills and positive experiences creates a resilient foundation for children.

Dr. Mark Greenberg, developmental psychologist, suggests helping a child understand and express their emotions using words. Language and emotional awareness are linked.

  • Secure and Calm

    Secure and calm describes the ability to take part in daily activities and approach new situations without being overwhelmed with worries, sadness or anxiety. To be secure and calm also means being able to cope with stress and pressure, and to bounce back from difficulties.
  • Gets Along with Others

    Getting along with others is the ability to form positive and healthy relationships with peers and adults. Children with better abilities to regulate their emotions and behaviours have more friends and experience more positive playtime with their peers.
  • Alert and Engaged

    Being alert and engaged is the ability to manage and direct one's own feelings, thoughts and emotions. In general, the ability to be 'present' and to exercise self-control.
  • Compassionate and Kind

    Being compassionate and kind is closely related to empathy. While empathy refers more generally to the ability to take the perspective of and to feel the emotions of another person, compassion goes one step further.
  • Solves Problems Peacefully

    Managing conflict effectively is about creating an atmosphere where violence and aggression are not likely. To resolve conflict means using empathy, problem-solving skills, understanding other points of view and coming up with ways to make things right in a fair way.