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The human brain undergoes most of its development during the first few years of life, as more than 1 million new neural connections are formed in the brain every second. Given the high rate of brain development between birth and age five, early childhood programs are vital for helping children establish a solid foundation for learning as they enter school—and, later, enter their professional lives.

According to a White House report on this subject, early childhood education programs can increase participants’ earnings in adulthood by between 1.3% and 3.5%.

However, while early exposure to mathematics, reading, writing, and other basic skills is important, it is just as vital to teach children to develop emotional intelligence: self-awareness of their emotions, and the ability to feel empathy for others. High emotional intelligence enables us to effectively control and express our emotions, as well as maintain healthy interpersonal relationships.

Learning how to manage and express emotion and how to sense what others are feeling are crucial life skills that children need to learn as early as possible. For both children and adults, emotional wellbeing is just as crucial a component to overall health and happiness as academic and professional success.

Some of today’s early childhood educators understand the value of helping small children develop emotional intelligence and social skills along with a love of reading, writing, and math. One early childhood education program which incorporates emotional intelligence into the curriculum is the Gan Preschool, established and run by Rabbi Alex and Chani Kaller of the Chabad Russian Center of South Florida.

The Gan (“Garden” in Hebrew), the first and only preschool in the Miami area for Russian-Jewish children, was started by the Kallers to help the next generation of Russian Jews learn about, and love, their Jewish heritage. But the content of the curriculum is not the only aspect of the program that makes it unique—the teaching methods deployed in the classrooms are designed to help children develop emotional intelligence.

Chani Kaller has had extensive training with programs focusing on the emotional and social aspects of childcare, and she brings this background to her leadership role at the Gan Preschool. She makes an effort to forge a personal connection with every child and works closely with the teachers to create lesson plans which meet the needs of every student in the class.

Chani strongly believes that it is vital to help children develop into healthy, self-confident adults. She trains the Gan Preschool’s teachers to observe the students and ask them questions about their questions. This approach enables children to better understand their thoughts and emotions, and how to self-regulate the latter.

The Gan Preschool’s methods have attracted the attention of educators throughout Miami. Teachers from other schools frequently visit Gan classrooms to observe what Chani calls a “childhood learning program.”

Stepping in to Prevent a Temporary Closure

Last year, the Chabad Russian Center of South Florida was faced with the prospect of temporarily closing the Gan Preschool and its regular Hebrew school for older students. My husband Lazar and our family were determined not to let this happen. As Lazar recounted on his blog:

For the past few years, the Gan’s classes have been at full capacity. With plans underway for the organization to build a new Jewish Community Center in Sunny Isles Beach, FL the old school building was sold with the expectation that the JCC complex would soon be complete. They continued to operate the school out of the building as a tenant, however, the school building’s new owner had plans to construct a new project on the current school site well before the new JCC could be finished. The Kallers were faced with a choice: Either close the school until the JCC opened its doors, or find another space to rent in the interim.

The Chabad Russian Center of South Florida and the Gan Preschool had become second homes for students and their families. Even a temporary closure would significantly disrupt the early learning progress of the preschool students—and would be a serious blow to the close-knit Russian-Jewish community the Kallers had worked so hard to build.

Through the Finker-Frenkel Family Foundation, we were able to provide the Chabad Russian Center of South Florida with the necessary funds to both rent a new space to house their classes until the JCC complex is complete and pay for required renovations to the building.

It indeed takes a village to raise a child. We are proud to have been able to ensure the continuation—and eventual expansion—of an early childhood education program which emphasizes emotional wellbeing and awareness in addition to reading, writing and math.