Preschoolers at the Iris Family Center for Early Childhood Education at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange learn to achieve mindfulness, resilience, and emotional affirmation and regulation, thanks to their resident social-emotional learning consultant, teacher Bela Barbosa of Bloomfield.
We tend to think of these practices in terms of our harried adult lives. But children are no less in need of the self-calming skills that Ms. Barbosa calls “a social-emotional toolkit to build self-esteem, confidence, and the ability to adapt to stress or change.”
To bring her toolkit to a wider audience, Ms. Barbosa wrote “I Am! Affirmations for Resilience,” a 22-page board book for young children, published by RISE x Penguin Workshop, a new line of board books and early picture books for children up to 5 years old.
Illustrated by Edel Rodriguez, “I Am! Affirmations for Resilience” features 10 emotions that children commonly experience, with a centering exercise and positive affirmation to be recited as a practice in mindfulness.
“When children are having a hard time with their feelings, they can open to the relevant page, do grounding or breathing exercises, and read the affirmation aloud,” Ms. Barbosa said. “By addressing their emotions in this way, this helps them access their inner strength, and instills self-confidence and empowerment.
“My hope is to change the children’s narrative to ‘I can do it, I am great, I am amazing.’ I believe if we encourage children to think positively from a young age, they will be happier grownups, more confident and more resilient. I want to empower youngsters through these little love notes,” she added.
The RISE imprint was created by publishing director Cecily Kaiser, whose child was in Ms. Barbosa’s classes at TSTI, to publish books geared to “empowering children to feel smart, capable, safe, and important. It is upon this foundation that children are then able to develop empathy, resilience, and compassion — an infusion of which our society so desperately needs.”
A Portuguese émigré, Ms. Barbosa began teaching at the Reform synagogue’s preschool in 2011. Last fall, she completed certification from Breathe for Change, a yoga, mindfulness, and social-emotional learning program for educators. But she already had a reputation for working her calming magic on young pupils.
“Over the years, Bela’s mindfulness practice with the children has helped them self-regulate and self-soothe, allowing them to understand their feelings and control their impulsive reactions,” the synagogue’s early childhood director, Carol Paster, said.
The school uses the Reggio Emilia concept of student-centered, self-directed, experiential learning for children in its classes for 2 years old through pre-kindergarten.
This year, Ms. Barbosa created an “affirmation wall” in her classroom; that’s where her 3-year-old students post affirmations from the book as well as their own. “We change the affirmations every week,” she said.
“Bela is teaching children rather than teaching subjects,” Ms. Paster said. The simple act of naming their feelings and having an adult validate their feelings “gives them the ability to express things that others may not have asked them to talk about.”
Ms. Paster said that two years ago, Ms. Barbosa’s 3-year-old group happened to be particularly rambunctious and challenging. So she put the curriculum aside and took time to check in with their feelings.
“She helped them connect with their inner core to understand what was making them act the way they did,” Ms. Paster said. “She started doing quiet mindfulness exercises to help them make that difficult transition after the playground to the classroom.
“She even set up an essential oils corner where they could put a little scented lavender or other oil on a cosmetic pad and sniff it. You could feel the room calm itself.
“Fast forward two years, and I had some of these same children in my kindergarten religious school class. And they were still rambunctious. So I asked Bela to come in, and she did some of the techniques she had taught them when they were 3. In all of a minute or two, most of them had centered themselves.”
One of Ms. Barbosa’s techniques is the “singing bowl.” It’s little metal bowl the teacher holds in her palm and strikes with a tiny mallet to get the children’s attention instead of yelling. At the first “ding,” everyone closes their eyes until the sound has completely waned. On the second “ding,” they hold their breath until the sound stops, and the third time they roar like lions when the “ding” fades.
“I went ‘ding’ the first time, and the kids who had been in Bela’s class two years before closed their eyes and immediately went right back to what they’d learned with her,” Ms. Paster said.
“Some kids took pots and pans and a spoon and made their own singing bowl at home to calm their family or make a transition from playing to paying attention.”
Ms. Barbosa, who also runs TSTI’s summer camp program, can provide guidance to parents and teachers if children are having difficulties; the school has professional social workers available part-time.
Have such difficulties increased due to the changes in routine and the uncertainties caused by the covid pandemic?
“Kids are more resilient than we think they are,” Ms. Barbosa said. “I was nervous about how they would enter school after being home for six months, and they were amazing. They were ready to be there, happy and willing to follow the rules and protocols in place to keep everyone healthy and safe. Some children had a bit more anxiety, but it took very little to get them adjusted.”
The synagogue has invited Ms. Barbosa, who is not Jewish, to lead a mindfulness practice for adults as part of its online Sabbath services. “As we go into cold weather and people are in isolation, we want to give them a way to find a center so they’re not as anxious, to find a peaceful place in their minds,” Ms. Paster said.
She stressed that Ms. Barbosa’s board book, although geared to toddlers and preschoolers, “translates to all ages. Everyone, no matter what age, can benefit from its teachings.”
Ms. Barbosa said she has led a few online events, including readings for other schools, and is open to additional engagements.
“I Am! Affirmations for Resilience” is available online and in bookstores where young children’s books are sold.
TSTI’s Early Childhood Center’s website is www.tsti.org/early-childhood-center