It's chaos, but everyone is having a good time. That's what happens when 18 preschoolers who come from a dozen countries and speak limited English are helping their teacher pick up crayons, construction paper, plastic scissors and jars of paste. Happy chaos.

Jonathan, 2, speaks French. Dressed in pastel blue shorts with suspenders, he is the newest and most active member of the class. He spends part of cleanup picking up crayons, most of it chasing Juan Daniel, 5, and Sergio, 3. The two brothers are Bolivian.

"All right, children, today we're going to talk about boy and girl," said Beatrice Tierney, the group's teacher. "Raise your hand if you're a boy."

About 10 hands shoot up. Most belong to boys, a few belong to girls.

This ordinary preschool exercise is more difficult here because most of the children knew no English when they entered the preschool program and some still struggle to recall the meaning of everyday English words.

Tierney has been operating Children's International Preschool since the fall as a half-day program for foreign children. Located in the Bethel United Church of Christ at the corner of Rte. 50 and George Mason Drive in Arlington, the school currently enrolls 23 children from about 15 different countries.

According to Tierney, about half the 2- to 5-year-olds were born in foreign countries, while the rest were born here but have grown up in foreign-speaking households.

Tierney, 33, was born in Italy, moved to Northern Virginia when she was 2 and has spent her life in the Washington area. She can speak Italian and French, but she speaks only English to her students.

The goal of her program is to expose preschool-age foreign children to the English language and American culture before they enter kindergarten. Tierney came up with the idea for the preschool after teaching English as a second language in the Prince George's County public schools for five years and seeing how isolated and discouraged some of her foreign students with limited English could become.

According to figures released last fall by the Arlington public school system , the county student population is about 54 percent white, 16 percent black, 15 percent Hispanic and 15 percent Asian. Most of Tierney's students are from Arlington, with some from Alexandria and Falls Church.

"I am a firm believer in preschool, especially for children with limited English proficiency," said Emma Violand de Hainer, who heads the English for Speakers of Other Languages/High Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT) program in the Arlington school system. She said approximately 2,100 of Arlington's 14,500 public school students participate in the program.

Hainer said half of the ESOL/HILT program participants are elementary school students (K-6) and that about half of those are in kindergarten or first grade. Had they entered kindergarten with a better knowledge of English, she said, they would be more independent and better prepared academically.

Elizabeth Hazel, who coordinates licensing of child care facilities in Arlington, said Tierney's program is unique.

Tierney believes that early and strong exposure to the English language and a familiarity with American culture makes young foreign children far more secure when they get to public school. "Children when they're young pick up languages easily," she said. "Then they develop a self-confidence in themselves which is so necessary."

Tierney's program runs from 9 a.m. to noon. Children may come two, three, four or five times a week. The cost ranges from $50 a month for twice a week to $95 a month for five times a week.

Each day, Tierney introduces a special project. "We really emphasize the American culture," she said.

She has had her students dress up at Halloween, make and exchange Valentine cards and dye Easter eggs. "Mother's Day is coming up," she said. "I'm trying to find something pretty for them to make their mothers."

When she teaches students a word, she discusses its meaning and often introduces an art project that involves painting or cutting out pictures of the object denoted by the word.

"I believe they have to understand an idea -- then they'll learn a word," she said. "They have to understand the concept."

Tierney has put about $15,000 of her own money and borrowed funds into her program's first year, which will end in June. Costs include rent, insurance, salaries for two assistants, books, tables, chairs, toys, art equipment and food for morning snacks.

"The first day of class last fall was a nightmare," she said. "Three kids were signed up and eight kids arrived. They wouldn't do anything -- they wouldn't talk. There were only two children who weren't crying."

Tierney plans to expand the school and is trying to get more space in the church in order to have a separate program for 2-year-olds next fall.

She is also trying to get a bus to transport children whose parents are unable to drive them to the program.

"It takes a lot of hard work and patience," said Tierney, who has three children of her own.

But the effort, she said, is worth it. Her students will be ready for public school. "They'll be a step ahead," she said, "instead of a step behind."