Even at the best of times, children are little cauldrons of emotion, tiny crucibles of feelings that can ping-pong between giddy happiness one moment and distraught sadness the next.
Things can get even more complicated when a kid is growing up in a family that’s experiencing the dislocation of homelessness, such as the students at Bright Beginnings, a partner in The Washington Post Helping Hand.
“We might have a child who has behaviors that are fairly typical,” said Yasmin Shaffi, education director at the District preschool. And then something happens over the weekend, and on Monday the child “looks very different in terms of their emotions and behaviors because there’s a traumatic experience that just took place.”
The strength of Bright Beginnings is that teachers are on the lookout for this and ready to help with what Shaffi calls a child’s “social-emotional development.”
That means defusing the tensions that can come with an uncertain living situation.
“We want children to recognize their emotions and be able to process that, to be able to express their emotions and then come up with solutions,” she said.
Although many of the children face adversity, they have amazing coping skills.
“The children are able to do a lot,” Shaffi said. “Some have more responsibility than a child their age. . . . They’re very independent.”
Many know how to tie their own shoes, put on their own coats or assist with younger siblings.
“They like responsibility,” Shaffi said.
That fits well with the approach Bright Beginnings takes, using a curriculum developed by an organization called HighScope.
Recently, I visited Room 6, where Ana Moya, the lead teacher, and Linda Harrison, the assistant teacher, were working with 3- and 4-year-olds.
The kids were studying winter by dipping thermometers into small metal buckets ice and checking the temperature.
When they were done with that, they brainstormed what to do next. Ms. Ana spread out on a table laminated cards printed with colorful drawings and labels such as “Block Area,” “Toy Area” or “Book Area.”
Students picked the areas they wanted to spend time with, then headed off to the various corners of the classroom.
“After the child goes to the area, he returns and talks with the teacher about what he did,” Shaffi said. “It goes full circle.”
At one end of the room was a barnyard diorama, complete with straw and tiny plastic farm animals. (There was also a plastic tiger, which a boy was using to attack a horse.)
Another two boys played with Magna-Tiles, snapping them together — one to build a tower, the other, a house.
At the block area, a girl assembled a house while a boy used a little hammer to pound golf tees into an empty cereal box.
Things were busy in the mock kitchen area, too, where it seemed a restaurant had just opened.
“Keep the food off the floor,” Ms. Linda said. “Remember about the health inspector.”
“You want to eat some food?” a little girl inquired.
“Do you take credit cards?” Ms. Linda asked.
There are nine classrooms at Bright Beginnings: three Head Start classrooms for kids 3 to 5 and six Early Head Start rooms for the littler ones. Just outside the front entrance to the Perry School Community Services Center on M Street NW, where Bright Beginnings is housed, are two compact playgrounds.
“A lot of our families might not be able to take their children outside, depending on their environment,” Shaffi said. “We make sure they have outside time — fresh air — twice a day.”
And the classes go on field trips. When I was in Room 6, the kids were still buzzing about a recent trip to the National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.
“I don’t think our children are any different from other children,” Shaffi said. “Our children have great ideas. They’re very perceptive. They have the same curiosity and wonder as any other child.”
Keeping that wonder alive is what Bright Beginnings tries so hard to do.
What we’re trying so hard to do is raise money for Bright Beginnings. Your tax-deductible donation can help those teachers reach more kids who need their sort of attentive approach. To give, visit posthelpinghand.com and click “Donate.”
To contribute by mail, make a check payable to “Bright Beginnings” and send it to: Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 128 M St. NW, Suite 150, Washington, D.C. 20001.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.