Getting a jump on life skills

The next generation of leaders in Sandy Springs is getting a jump on skills needed to meet life’s responsibilities head on. And they’re not waiting for high school or college to learn them.

At The Epstein School, a new curriculum of life skills introduces students as young as kindergartners to the benefits of meditation, mindfulness, social skills, coding and executive functioning.

Yes, executive functioning.

“A lot of it is about having the ability to self-monitor and regulate emotions,” said David Welsher, Epstein’s elementary principal. “That art is almost going away because we have so many things to distract us, but this reminds us that process is important, and it starts and ends in the mind.”

Realizing that, the school opted to expand on a short program offered last year to teach mindfulness and meditation to kindergartners. The broader life skills sessions are now held for 45 minutes every Friday and, depending on the grade level, include variations on yoga, emotional intelligence, coding and the aforementioned executive functioning.

To support the program, the school trained a dozen teachers in mindfulness techniques, and another 22 are learning those strategies now.

“Our students have the ability to think at high levels, so why not push them to a higher level?” said Welsher. “When people say, ‘You’re doing this in kindergarten?’ my answer is, ‘Heck yeah, they can handle it.’”

Emotional intelligence sessions help students identify feelings and promote self-awareness and empathy, said Welsher. “If my body is feeling tense or I have a weight on my chest, what is that emotion? When you recognize it, you can do something about it, and that’s where it connects to mindfulness.”

Social skills revolve around developing ways to connect with others in face-to-face interactions.

“When you’re in a room full of strangers, how will you navigate?” said Welsher. “Having students view and observe another person and understand what that person is telling me through body language helps me connect with that person.”

Yoga sessions ease anxiety levels in both social and school settings.

“We have seen a huge influx of anxiety in our young kids and society as well,” said Welsher. “We want our students to know what to do when they feel that anxiety, be it around testing, grades pressure or whatever.”

The coding component was included because it’s a key skill students will need as they progress.

“It hits on many of the things we’re focusing on, such as high-level, critical thinking skills and executive functioning,” said Welsher. “Even the youngest kids can learn it step by step.”

The impact of the program has been measured largely by feedback from parents, who are reporting major changes in their kids.

Sara Kogon has four students from pre-K through sixth grade at Epstein, and she’s noted a shift in their attitudes.

“Even as babies, they’re being taught to hang up their coats, put things in their right places,” said Kogon. “My elementary school boys learned how to organize their backpacks. They’re learning how to read and relate to people, and to interact respectfully. This is what school needs to be.”

Taking those skills beyond school is the ultimate goal, said Welsher. “We want our students to have them when they leave us and are in college or have jobs, not just for tomorrow or next year.”

Information about The Epstein School is online at epsteinatlanta.org.

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