Mountain Connections featuring Beginning School Principal Emma Wellman
Rowland Hall parents/caregivers are our partners in education. The more tools we can give adults to help their students, the better the outcome for all of us.
When we use the phrase "community of learners" to describe our school, we truly mean it. We strive to offer adults at Rowland Hall—teachers, administrators, trustees, and parents and caregivers—opportunities for growth and development, just as we do for our students.
Mountain Connections featuring Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus
Mix Morning Fix featuring Middle School Social-Emotional Support Counselor Leslie Czerwinski
Featuring fifth-grade teacher Jen Bourque
Parenting is hard. Teaching is hard. But both are a little bit easier when done in partnership. Join princiPALS Emma Wellman and Brittney Hansen ’02 as they examine some of the most common questions and concerns about the preschool and elementary school years, and share methods on how to raise children who thrive.
When you enroll your student at Rowland Hall, your family joins a caring community that values your participation—at the classroom level, in our parent-school organization, in parent/caregiver education opportunities, supporting the arts and sports, and in helping to make the “extras” in “extraordinary” possible for every student.
Behavior and discipline: no matter what kind of parent you are, they’re two topics you think about often. And chances are, you’re often wondering, “Am I doing this right?”
That’s why in the newest episode of princiPALS, early childhood and elementary school experts Emma Wellman and Brittney Hansen ’02, along with Rowland Hall alum host Conor Bentley ’01, are focusing on behavior and discipline. What do undesirable or challenging behaviors in children mean? And what are the best ways parents and caregivers can guide those behaviors?
By learning to recognize patterns in your own children’s behaviors, you’ll be better equipped to help your children correct, problem-solve, and learn from those experiences.
In this episode, listeners will learn to recognize the why behind children’s actions. “Children are not their behaviors,” explained Emma, so by learning to recognize patterns in your own children’s behaviors, you’ll be better equipped to help your children correct, problem-solve, and learn from those experiences (not to mention you’ll feel more calm in the moment).
And in true princiPALS fashion, Emma and Brittney remind viewers they are not alone in this work. The pals share their own stories of growth, as well as identify resources—from books to your children’s teachers—you can use to help build your knowledge of relationship-first strategies. They also leave you with helpful homework that will assist you in better understanding your children’s behaviors and your responses to them.
Close your eyes and visualize a third-grade class. Now, describe what the students are doing.
Chances are, you’re picturing a lot of activity: kids running around a playground, perhaps, or enthusiastically waving their hands in their air, hoping to be the next to contribute to a class discussion. But if you happen to visit Katie Schwab’s classroom on the McCarthey Campus right after lunchtime recess, you may just be surprised by what you find.
On this particular January day, as the third graders made their way back to their room, they began to do some unusual things. First, someone turned off the overhead lights. Then the group began to spread out around the darkened room. Some students took cushions from the window seat to put under their heads, while others chose to lie flat on the floor without support; one lucky person grabbed a spot on the classroom couch. Any quiet chatter trickled to silence as a class member began to lightly play a tongue drum, its chimes a calm ocean wave softly rolling across the room.
Katie's aim is to equip students with a variety of centering techniques they can use to identify emotions and how they’re manifesting in their bodies, and then reset and regulate their nervous systems.
“I would like everyone to start to find your rest,” said Katie. “Maybe close your eyes. If you’re sitting up, be still and grounded to earth.”
As each student settled into their position of choice, a soft voice came over the sound system: the narrator of the day’s Mind Yeti meditation exercise, “More Love, Not Less.” As they made their way through the meditation, the students repeated affirmations such as “Whatever is going on inside you, you are worthy of your life” and “When I am sad, I deserve more love, not less.” After being led through a range of emotions, students were asked to insert whatever feeling they were experiencing in that moment.
While meditation isn’t something you often see in elementary school classrooms, for Katie, it’s become an important tool in her teaching quiver. Over the past few years, she’s noticed how factors including the pandemic, overwhelming world events, and a constant exposure to technology have put kids in a heightened state of anxiety—one that can be hard to come down from. “Just being present is a challenge,” she said.
So this year, Katie decided to bake a mindfulness routine into her class schedule, inserting purposeful time for meditation or relaxation in the space between the class’ midday recess and a period of quiet individual work time. Her aim is to equip students with a variety of centering techniques they can use to identify emotions and how they’re manifesting in their bodies, and then reset and regulate their nervous systems. It’s been a new experience for most of the children, and while many admit it was hard at first, as the months have passed, they’ve gotten good at it and started to recognize how it’s making a difference in their lives.
“After we do mindfulness, I feel calmer,” said Nina E., “and it’s easier to do some stuff.” Classmate Will W. agreed, adding that the practice has helped him better focus after recess. He’s even started meditating at home with his mom before bed. “It helps me fall asleep faster,” he said.
Katie’s class has also had the chance to build on their skills thanks to bestselling author Dr. Pedram Shojai, a Rowland Hall parent of two (his son is in Katie’s class) who shares the benefits of mindfulness with people around the world. Like Katie, he knows that young minds are being overwhelmed today, and that technology—designed to trigger a dopamine release in young brains, particularly boys’, to make money off their attention—is a major culprit. “The attention economy has really gotten all the way down to children as young as three,” he explained, so it’s imperative that kids growing up today learn how to center themselves amid tech noise that isn’t going away. “You need to learn how to hold that line, and have control over your own mind and your own consciousness and your own attention.”
Meditation and other mindfulness exercises can teach kids how to do just that. During his visit, Dr. Shojai continued to help build the kids’ toolbox of mindfulness techniques by introducing them to Jedi skills (Jedis meditate too!) and mindful movements such as peripheral vision training, which coordinates the eyes, mind, body, and breath to activate a state of relaxation. He also had them practice a tried-and-true technique to calm the fight-or-flight instinct they feel when wound up: bend your knees to relax your calf muscles, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth, and breathe from your lower diaphragm.
By building mindfulness into our children’s everyday routines, said Dr. Shojai, we’re normalizing the practice, making it more likely that the skills will become second nature to them—“the gift that keeps on giving in every facet of their lives,” he said. This is especially true if children begin practicing the skills between the ages of six and eight. Plus, there is now solid science behind the ancient practice of meditation. “After six weeks of just 10 minutes a day of basic meditation, fMRI scans show 10 to 15 percent greater density of the cortical neurons in the prefrontal cortex. That means you’re actually growing a part of your brain by meditating,” Dr. Shojai explained. “The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive function—higher-order thinking, negation of impulses, and higher moral reasoning.”
Meditation can actually grow the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher-order thinking, negation of impulses, and higher moral reasoning.
Those are the kind of outcomes that any parent or caregiver can get behind. But don’t worry if your kid is older than the recommended age, or even if you're an adult who wants to jump into meditation, said Dr. Shojai; it’s never too late to start building those skills and reaping their benefits. (Check out his tips below.) Katie can certainly attest to this. While she introduced meditation into her classroom to benefit her students, she can’t help but notice how the practice has helped her as a teacher. “The nature of my work is multitasking,” she said,” but this practice helps me slow down every day so I can be present with my students.” After all, she added, “They look to me however I’m showing up on a given day.”
Mindfulness at Home
Interested in bringing the benefits of meditation into your home? Here are Dr. Shojai’s top tips:
- First, understand what meditation actually is. There’s a lot of misunderstanding around meditation, and as a result, it can be hard for people to try it or to stick with it. Meditation doesn’t just look like sitting quietly in a room by yourself with your eyes closed. There are numerous techniques you can use, depending on what works best for you (that’s why Katie’s students have been trying so many options). “I meditate when I’m skiing through the trees or on a chair between runs,” said Dr. Shojai. “There are a thousand ways to climb the mountain. Find what works for you.”
- If you want to add meditation into your family’s routine, add small moments of mindfulness—and keep them fun. Don’t worry about doing too much. “Keep it easy and keep it gamified,” said Dr. Shojai. For instance, defuse a moment of tension by suggesting that everyone put a hand on their lower belly and take 10 deep breaths, or ask everyone to take five deep breaths together before starting dinner. “The key is intercepting things we’re already doing with behavior that can be modeled,” he said.
- Model the kind of behavior you want for your kids. Remember that your kids are watching you for clues on how to behave. “If mom’s a nervous wreck and she’s like, ‘You should meditate,’ and she‘s no good at it, it’s not going to happen,” said Dr. Shojai.
- As with any other positive behavior, praise kids when they’re successfully applying their new skills. The aim of mindfulness is to activate the prefrontal cortex to override a natural instinct to react (say, by hitting a sibling who’s teasing them). When your child is consciously stopping a negative reaction, show them you noticed that choice. “It’s all about positive reinforcement,” said Dr. Shojai. “The important part is to acknowledge that a child’s agency did it.”
- Remember that it’s going to take practice. “As parents, we’re also pulled into the instant gratification attention economy, where we expect things to happen faster than they do in nature, but kids’ little nervous systems need time to absorb these skills,” said Dr. Shojai. It’s okay if your child (or you!) makes mistakes while building these skills. Remember that another chance to practice them will come up.
Good things are worth the wait. After a hiatus during the 2021–2022 school year, Rowland Hall’s princiPALS are back in office, ready to help families understand the preschool and elementary years and offer tips on how to raise children who thrive.
In addition to a new season, princiPALS is proud to present a new pal: Beginning School and Lower School Assistant Principal Brittney Hansen ’02 has joined Emma Wellman in the role first held by former Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus. (Jij is now Rowland Hall’s director of capital giving.)
“I’m very excited to join the podcast and help members of our community, and beyond, understand that they have support when it comes to raising young children,” said Brittney, who, in addition working as an educator, is a parent of three preschool- and elementary-aged children. “I truly understand the challenges of parenthood and believe we’re all in this together.”
For me as a parent, it’s time to recommit to giving my kids opportunities to struggle productively—to giving them chances to take risks, to get messy, to feel disappointment, because I know that that’s what they need. We couldn’t give our kids many of these things during the pandemic years, but we owe it to them to get back to this. They really deserve it.—Brittney Hansen ’02, Beginning School and Lower School assistant principal
In the first episode of season three, Emma and Brittney, along with host Conor Bentley ’01, revisit the topic covered in the podcast’s very first episode: resilience. Recorded in fall 2019, princiPALS’ inaugural episode was designed to help parents and caregivers learn what resilience is and how to build the skill in their children. But not long after the episode was recorded, the world changed. As COVID-19 quickly spread, parenting began to look completely different, and our overall tolerance for risk—a necessary component of building resilience—was dropped to make room for safety measures.
Thankfully, we’re now living in a different phase of the pandemic—one that’s ideal for caregivers who want to recalibrate their parenting strategies, including introducing the kind of risks that help build resilience in children.
“During the height of the pandemic, we forgot that it’s actually really good and important for kids to do things that may feel unsafe, like walking to a friend’s house, or going into a store alone, or, for really young children, even navigating something like a tall staircase by themselves,” explained Emma. “This is an important part of childhood.”
Join the princiPALS as they revisit what resilience is, discuss how it’s built in children (and how adults can keep their fears in check while building it), and remind listeners of the many benefits of this life skill—like tenacity, endurance, adaptability, and purposefulness—that make the work worthwhile.
“For me as a parent, it’s time to recommit to giving my kids opportunities to struggle productively—to giving them chances to take risks, to get messy, to feel disappointment, because I know that that’s what they need,” said Brittney. “We couldn’t give our kids many of these things during the pandemic years, but we owe it to them to get back to this. They really deserve it.”
Research is clear: Investing in early childhood education is a smart move. Not only is it one of the surest ways to set students on paths of lifelong curiosity and well-being, but it’s also been proven to enhance both individual lives and society at large. At Rowland Hall, thanks to a focus on evidence-based education, we have long been crafting a top-tier early childhood program centered around best practices for young learners during crucial years of their development. As a result, students leave the Beginning School viewing themselves as capable knowledge-makers, ready to thrive in the next stage of their joyful educational journeys.
In Melanie Robbins and Mary Grace Ellison’s kindergarten classroom, a small sign hangs over a row of student cubbies. It’s inconspicuous, but, once noticed, seems to summarize the day-to-day happenings of the energetic and vibrant room.
“Play,” it states, “is the work of childhood.”
This Jean Piaget quote, beautifully succinct, is a reminder that the activities that take place in Melanie and Mary Grace’s room, and in all Rowland Hall Beginning School classrooms, are not just fun—they’re incredibly meaningful, and essential to children’s development. By tapping into the most natural and essential of early childhood activities—play—educators are building crucial connections in young brains and setting a joyful foundation for discovering, exploring, embracing, and creating knowledge.
On a Thursday morning in February, the Piaget quote kept watch over a bustle of activity among the kindergartners. Walking by, a casual observer may have thought the activity was free play, but there was a thoughtful academic purpose behind the fun: the five- and six-year-olds were busy making their way through an array of learning centers designed for their Animals in Winter unit, a study of how animals hibernate, migrate, and adapt during the coldest months.
It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface.
At one table, two girls bent over the covers of the animal reports they were creating for the unit; using library books as guides, they illustrated their chosen animals, a chipmunk and a fox, on the report covers. Nearby, a group of students, sprawled across cushions, worked on core literacy skills on iPads, while another, more rowdy, group rolled an oversized die and moved animal figurines across a homemade playing board. On the far side of the room, students looked through a pile of materials—empty oatmeal canisters, bits of cardboard, string—to be crafted into an animal habitat. In between these stations, children sorted animal pictures into groups or practiced writing letters, some with crayons on paper, others with fingers in sand. For an hour, the students enjoyed the freedom to sample whatever most appealed to them at any given moment, and to take from the group what they needed—for a few, it was a time to step back to reflect and quietly work on activities alone; for others, to engage with peers.
It was a time of play—and yet it was about so much more than the play. Like taking a cursory glance at a frozen winter landscape, which doesn’t reveal the rabbit blending into the snow or the entry to an animal den, just glancing at the fun would have limited the viewer’s understanding of what was occurring in the classroom. The longer the class was observed, the more apparent it became that a trove of educational and developmental benefits were taking shape just below the surface: Students cutting materials for the animal habitat or practicing writing the letter S with stumpy crayons were honing fine-motor skills. Those at the game board were mastering math by matching the number of dots on the die to the number of spaces they had to move. And all around the room, students were building social skills, whether while waiting for a turn or while navigating a disagreement.
“This is the power of early childhood,” said Melanie.
A Solid Foundation
At Rowland Hall’s Beginning School, an emphasis on well-grounded early childhood research, such as that around the benefits of purposeful play, is at the heart of the student experience—and for good reason. Between the ages of three and six, the time during which they begin to attend school, children’s brains are in the midst of a tremendous evolution that educators need to understand to fully support.
“The three-to-six age range is marked by huge transformation in the architecture of the brain, and the structures that get laid down during that time will persist,” said Principal Emma Wellman, who has led the Beginning School since 2018, and, in the 2021–2022 school year, took on the expanded role of Beginning School and Lower School principal. During the preschool and kindergarten years, Emma explained, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.
“Early childhood teachers are laying the foundation for lifelong learning in terms of how students relate to school and to one another, and to themselves as learners and workers,” said Emma.
During the preschool and kindergarten years, foundational behaviors, aptitudes, skills, and values are ingrained in the brain, so it’s essential that children’s first teachers know how to positively impact this development.
Through thoughtful play and other proven early education tactics, educators can boost brain-building in ways that last: studies show that students who attend early childhood programs are more likely to later demonstrate high-functioning skills, such as strong emotional and social intelligence, curiosity, and discipline, and more likely to report high rates of fulfilling relationships and fulfilling careers. And it’s not just individual lives that benefit; there are also economic advantages to investing in early childhood education. Dr. James J. Heckman, professor of economics at the University of Chicago and an expert in the economics of human development, has found that investments in early childhood education result in the highest rates of economic returns, both for individuals and society at large. Simply put: investing in early childhood education is one of the best ways to greatly impact lives.
“You’re giving extra support in a time when it matters most,” said Emma.
An Emphasis on Relationship
When it comes to how children relate to school, teachers are often the key factor, and this is especially true in early childhood classrooms, where the trust educators build with young students sets them on paths of learning, curiosity, and self-discovery. In fact, said Emma, because warm, trusting relationships are strongly shown to be vital to early learning, they’re the first thing she recommends people look for when exploring preschool and kindergarten programs.
“The most important thing is the teacher-student relationship, because learning happens in the context of relationship,” she explained. “Everything is built on that.”
In the Beginning School, a focus on relationship, alongside an emphasis on reciprocal respect between teachers and students, guides everything from class sizes to division specialties; as a result, students remain at the center of decision-making. A focus on relationships also encourages more natural student participation in classroom happenings, an essential component to building brain connections in young learners.
“We want to make sure that kids remain in charge of big chunks of their own learning so that they don’t become dependent on the grown-ups to drive it for them,” said Emma.
This ownership over learning expands during children’s time in the Beginning School. As they build strong relationships with their students, teachers can encourage them to work on mastering both early academic skills and self-care activities. Through a process known as scaffolding, teachers support students as they make their way through the zone of proximal development—that is, the difference between what a child can do without help and what they can do with guidance and encouragement from a teacher. It’s a way to meet each learner where they are their own individual development, and it can be applied to both academic subjects, like building foundational skills in number sense and phonological awareness, or life skills, like putting on a coat or a mask.
“School is the perfect place for that practice to happen and to develop those skills, which are critical in other learning,” said Beginning School Assistant Principal Brittney Hansen ’02. “We take our time to let everyone learn that they can do an activity all by themselves and feel that confidence, that sense of pride, and carry themselves a little bit taller because of it.”
A Child-Sized Experience
It’s not difficult to find students owning their learning in the Beginning School: the process can be observed in the 3PreK student working to zip her coat, the kindergartner choosing a quiet-time book from the classroom library, and the 4PreK student sorting a pile of twigs, pine cones, and leaves gathered during outdoor classroom. Active learning is around every corner.
“All of our learning is entirely exploratory and we foster kids’ natural curiosity,” said Kelley Journey, the Beginning School’s experiential learning specialist. “We give kids a lot of authentic opportunities to learn in real-world situations.”
The design of the building even encourages this exploration; you don’t need to walk far into the Beginning School to realize that the place is built for young learners. Bulletin boards, supplies, and books are set at the children’s eye level. Easy-to-access cubbies provide space for each person’s belongings. Child-sized restrooms are attached to classrooms, encouraging independence (while also providing reassurance that trusted adults are nearby, if needed). Simple decor and minimal reference material leave room for imagination. All of these choices, explained Brittney, are based on sound research and made mindfully and intentionally to encourage natural curiosity and to empower students to move effortlessly among spaces as they follow their interests or learn to manage their personal needs.
“A key function of early childhood education is for students to learn, to be able to take care of themselves and their belongings, to feel ownership over their space and learning environment, and to feel confident navigating the school,” said Brittney.
Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children.—Brittney Hansen ’02, Beginning School assistant principal
Beginning School days are also set up to harness the ways in which children learn best: there are moments of active play as well as quiet time, and educators stretch young brains with both structured lessons and space for choice and self-exploration—what Rowland Hall often refers to as choice and voice. This inclusion of choice, explained Kelley, is important for all students, but especially significant to young learners who often don’t feel they have a lot of control over their lives: when much of your day includes being told what to do, and when to do it, by adults, having choice in how you want to learn—alongside access to child-sized structures and materials that allow you to work without a grown-up’s help—you begin to view yourself as a capable knowledge-maker. Students given choice can see themselves as scientists, engineers, or artists, and they believe in their ability to find solutions, improve processes, or add beauty to the world.
And because Rowland Hall is an independent school, Beginning School teachers (like teachers across all of the school’s divisions) have the flexibility to explore the topics that spark their students’ interests. They’re naturals when it comes to identifying subjects that light up students’ eyes, and they enjoy the flexibility to adjust lesson plans in order to follow these paths, weaving foundational academic knowledge into the areas their individual classes wish to explore.
“Educators in the Beginning School are very intentional about integrating areas of learning in meaningful, authentic ways for children,” said Brittney. “We are less about saying, for instance, ‘Now is our time for science.’ Instead, we think of something that’s captivating and interesting for the child and then say, ‘It’s my job to figure out how to weave science into this.’”
A Community of Learners
There is a common refrain about Rowland Hall’s Beginning School: “This is a happy place.” Visitors frequently comment on the division’s warm atmosphere and often report feeling a sense of joy during their time there. For Emma and her leadership team, these reactions to the school aren't a coincidence; they’re confirmation that Rowland Hall is providing support exactly where it’s needed—for young learners, as well as for the adults who make their education possible.
Rowland Hall is so special. All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.—Kelley Journey, experiential learning specialist
“One way we show respect to teachers is by giving them opportunities and responsibility to be learners in their own right, to continue their own professional lives,” explained Emma. And this is important because early childhood programs that prioritize the well-being of their educators see numerous benefits—for instance, teachers with supportive administrators spend more of their time focused on students, and they’re more likely to stay with a school for the long haul. Professional development opportunities at Rowland Hall range from growing personal passions or areas of growth, like when kindergarten teacher Melanie Robbins helped incorporate outdoor classroom into the division’s curriculum, to exploring ways teachers can support Rowland Hall’s mission and strategic priorities, such as when 4PreK lead teacher Isabelle Buhler studied equity and inclusion in the early childhood programs.
“Rowland Hall is so special,” said Kelley. “All faculty members are complete lifelong learners and continually challenge themselves to practice the best theories and pedagogies for children.”
They challenge each other too: faculty are encouraged to share takeaways from their professional development experiences, a practice that supports one another’s engagement with, and investment in, their essential roles. It’s a practice that also ensures everything they do comes back to students: by staying current with early childhood research findings, the Beginning School team can provide the school’s youngest learners with what they most need, creating a solid educational foundation for those students and, at the same time, illustrating for them the value of learning.
And it’s perhaps this practice that best explains why the Beginning School is such a happy place: it’s a place that highlights the thrill of learning, where students see in teachers the lifelong benefits of staying curious, and where, through the eyes of children, adults are continuously reminded of the pure joy of discovery, of allowing curiosity to take you to new places, and of understanding just what you’re capable of.
It’s the magic of early childhood.
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