The 4-year-old boys constructing towering structures at the Lego table here at the JCC of Harrison’s nursery school behaved pretty much the way one would expect — boisterous comments about exactly what they were building, comparisons to what other children were doing — until one of them, frustrated by perceived slights, yelled loudly at his tablemates.
For Ellen Weisberg, who was sitting quietly observing the boys, the outburst was one of the reasons she was in the classroom.
As a mental health consultant for Project SEED, a collaboration between The Board of Jewish Education of Greater New York in Westchester and Westchester Jewish Community Services, she is “hired to look at children and help them function optimally in the situation they’re in,” said Weisberg, a social worker with a master’s degree in child development. “I try to stay out of the way. I’m here to help the teachers work better with the kids.”
The daily dramas of the nursery school set — conflict over blocks, arguments in the housekeeping corner, frustration when an art project doesn’t live up to expectations, a child who sets herself apart from her peers — may not seem like a big deal in the scheme of things, but loom large for the children involved and the teachers who are responsible for guiding their young charges.
“Teachers were struggling with how to work with these kids,” said Karen Blumenthal, a member of the Westchester UJA Program Services Cabinet. “Classes are different today than when the teachers started out. The behaviors are much more extreme. One of the things that’s key about this project is that it helps teachers address problems that affect the entire class. The focus is on strengthening teacher skills.”
Now in its fourth year, Project SEED (Supporting Early Emotional Development) recently received a three-year grant from UJA-Federation for $50,000 each year. It was developed in response to the desire of local nursery school directors eager to have additional professional help managing children’s challenging behaviors. The project was initially funded by a $25,000 grant through the Westchester United Jewish Appeal-Federation Program Services Cabinet, as well as additional funds from private donors, fees from the participating schools, and in-kind contributions from the BJE and WJCS. By the end of its third year, the program, which sends both a mental health consultant and educational consultant to the early childhood centers, served about 917 students and 173 head and assistant teachers.
The program focuses on providing specific strategies and suggestions to classroom teachers. There are also workshops for parents on topics ranging from sleep problems and limit-setting to how to help their children make easier transitions to kindergarten.
Still, Project SEED “is not early intervention,” said Jo Kellman, an early childhood educator and coordinator of Project SEED. “This is not for children with special needs. It’s about children with challenging behaviors who have difficulties in the classroom.”
As Weisberg explained, the program focuses on challenging behaviors that can be disruptive to an entire group and detrimental to the child involved.
“It can be a problem with how they socialize that’s best dealt with early on,” said Weisberg “There can be a child who doesn’t participate because she hasn’t acclimated to the routine, or kids who have trouble acclimating to the group and don’t know how to cooperate. Lots of kids may be overwhelmed by lots of sensory input.”
The nursery schools and early childhood centers participating in the program are Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry, Temple Israel of New Rochelle, Beth El Synagogue Center of New Rochelle, the JCC of Pleasantville/Northern Westchester, the Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, the Jewish Community Center of Harrison, Community Synagogue of Rye, Bet Torah in Mount Kisco and the Jewish Family Congregation of South Salem.
“This has been a godsend,” said Nancy Isaacs, director of the early childhood center at the JCC of Harrison. “It’s great to have another set of eyes and ears.”
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