Tiny hands shoot up as Leslie Maizel selects two volunteers for a role-play exercise at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El's preschool in Wynnewood.
She positions the pretend "Randy" and "Suzy" in the center of their circle with a pile of blocks. They'd be happy to play together, Maizel tells her class of 5-year- olds, but Randy wants to build a castle and Suzy wants to build a zoo. What could they do?
Once again, fingers wiggle in the air.
"They could build a castle and then they could build a zoo," volunteers a little girl named Izzy.
"They can connect it together," suggests Matt.
"They could get some more blocks," another child pipes up.
At first glance, there's nothing unusual about this scene. Teachers have long employed games to teach children social graces. In fact, "character education" has become standard practice in many grade schools in recent years, with some public and private systems even investing in packaged curriculum to serve that purpose.
Staff at Beth Hillel-Beth El have taken it upon themselves to get started even earlier. This past fall, they formally adopted a model developed by one of their own veteran preschool teachers for all 130 children between the ages of 18 months and 6 years.
Annalee Cohen didn't set out to be a curriculum specialist. After graduating from Boston University, she briefly taught high school before moving to Beth Hillel-Beth El's preschool. For more than 37 years there, her classes often stood out, said the school's director, Ann Altus. Her students acted more compassionate and mature than others their age.
"There was a feeling where everyone cared about everyone else, not only in the classroom but they cared about the community and about the world," Altus said.
Instead of telling the children that they shouldn't have done something or simply solving conflicts for them, Cohen would "give them the language to do it themselves," said Wendy Ross, a developmental pediatrician whose son Jacob, now 7, used to be in her class. Even Lower Merion Township recognized Cohen's class last year for "going green" with "no-trash" lunches.
Cohen began writing down her philosophies about a decade ago and shared them with her fellow teachers to use if they wished. Then, last year Altus solicited the synagogue board for permission to formally adopt the curriculum — not an easy feat considering she needed funding to keep Cohen on staff, but not in a classroom, for a year past her planned retirement.
They argued that social development was more important now than ever as children adapt to changing family structures and new technologies.
"We see such moral corruption in our society, and starting very young, there's bullying, there's children growing older quicker," Cohen said, adding that she's noticed more kids using foul language and acting violently or manipulatively over the past five years.
With board approval secured, Cohen has spent the past academic year putting together a handbook, visiting classrooms and giving monthly workshops to explain her techniques to the teachers — 45 altogether, including assistants.
At its essence, the program aims to help children build relationships by being safe, fair, kind, flexible, respectful, helpful, inclusive, polite and responsible. Cohen has also developed breathing and guided imagery exercises that she teaches the children to use when they need to calm themselves down. But unlike a packaged curriculum with proscribed activities, Cohen encourages the teachers to impart the lessons however they like, as long as they work within a "common school language."
For example, if children are fighting, instead of an amorphous "that's not nice" reprimand, the teachers ask them to discuss why their behavior isn't safe. Or, "when they inevitably say, 'You can't play,' or 'You're not coming to my party,' 'You can't be in our group,' 'I don't want to sit next to you,' instead of saying, 'You don't say that,' we say, 'You are all friends,' " explained Gina Epstein, who oversees a class of 3-year-olds.
Epstein said most preschool teachers instinctively try to impart character education, but it's nice to have formal guidelines that she can even illustrate on a laminated chart. It was amazing how readily the children understood and adopted them, she said. One boy who pushed another child one day told her that he'd "forgotten No. 4," which states that "hands are for helping."
"The children internalize the rules and they think of them as something that is desirable and something to strive for," Epstein said. "When somebody pushes or is excluding, the other children, they are not quiet about it. They stick up and say, 'But that's not what we're supposed to do, that's not nice.' Whereas before they would complain or cry or get very quiet."
Because the entire school committed to the program, Cohen said, teachers can make a lasting impact because they have more than just nine months to really "reach into the souls of the children." At 18 months old, she said, the kids don't necessarily understand what it means to be fair, but they hear about that all the time. By 3 years old, the teachers challenge them to make their own judgments of what's fair, or safe, and so forth. "We live these principles every single day in our classroom," Cohen said. "It's not just, meet every Tuesday and talk about what's kind and nice. The program permeates everything we do."
It also fits in with the Jewish morals the children learn. "In their hearts, they are kind, generous contributors to the Jewish community," Cohen said.
Though it hasn't even been a full year since all the teachers bought into the program, director Altus said it's already "done so much for the entire atmosphere of our school."
"It's something that you cannot measure in a document, in forms, in tests, but you measure it in feeling," Altus said, referring to how a parent recently commented that she'd never been in such a calm, relaxing preschool.
The staff also grew closer and more supportive of each other as they went through training, Altus said, and they were "pretty terrific" to begin with.
Ross, the mother of a former student, praised Beth Hillel-Beth El for making a point of teaching preschoolers how to treat others and interact in meaningful ways before their education "gets crowded with other things." Too often, Ross said, schools focus on measurable benchmarks like literacy, sometimes at the expense of social skills.
"In a culture where kids are spending more time in front of screens of all varieties, it's important that this ability is not neglected and just assumed that they're going to get it on their own," said Ross of Wynnewood.
"When we grow up that's what we need, because no matter what you do, you need social skills."