SIBLEY, Iowa — There are no age requirements to teach at Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary School.

S-O Elementary school counselor Laurel Klaassen has “hired” three infants on special assignment for the year in kindergarten and first-grade classrooms. Although they can’t speak, the babies are teaching the school’s youngest learners a special lesson — empathy.

“We call our babies our teachers,” Klaassen said. “We have to go with what they are doing that day. They teach us about our feelings and empathy and how to think about how someone else feels.”

Nine-month old Joanna Lucas, 6-month-old Joy Ducket and 5-month-old Lawrynn Travaille will visit their respective kindergarten and first-grade classrooms on a monthly basis from November through May as part of Klaassen’s unique emotional literacy unit.

“The kids understand when we say literacy, because we have our literacy time when they’re trying to read,” Klaassen said. “I tell them (emotional literacy) is when we’re trying to read their emotional feelings.”

Klaassen prepared the students for the babies’ arrival by discussing appropriate boundaries (a blanket is the baby’s space, and students are expected to stay off of it) and examining pictures of various ages of people and guessing how that person feels, what may have happened before the photo was snapped and what they might need.

Lathered in hand sanitizer, first-graders in Hannah Ferguson’s classroom sat in a square around a blanket Thursday afternoon and welcomed Joanna with a song.

Joanna Lucas is captivated by a first grade Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary School student and crawls toward him during her Thursday visit to the class. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)
Joanna Lucas is captivated by a first grade Sibley-Ocheyedan Elementary School student and crawls toward him during her Thursday visit to the class. (Tim Middagh/The Globe)

The first-graders discussed how Joanna might be feeling that day based on her facial expressions and demeanor.

What happens when you stop giving Joanna attention? Klaassen asked her students if their friends might have a similar reaction if they stopped giving them attention.

What could Joanna do different during her visit Thursday that she couldn’t last month? The first-graders pondered the infant's milestones, and came to the conclusion that she’s now starting to show signs of attempting to stand.

Joanna was impressed with a girl’s barrette. “Don’t let her grab that!” one student explained.

Klaassen fed off the cue, and told students that babies less than 2 years old should never be given an object small enough to fit inside a toilet paper tube.

Thursday’s visit was the first Ferguson got to witness.

Initially nervous about how her students might react to the excitement, Ferguson was impressed with some of the comments she heard her first-graders making.

“One student said that (Joanna) looked really content,” Ferguson said. “That’s a pretty big word for a first-grader.”

Some of the other topics that come up as part of the empathy unit, like boundaries, are also teachable moments that Ferguson is able to incorporate further during regular class time.

Students sang goodbye to Joanna and were sad to see her leave until next time.

Klaassen will update her blog, Mrs. K’s Good Stuff, as the unit continues through the school year.