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SEW program knits wellness with academics

Nov. 23, 2015   

The students sit in class, eyes forward staring at a large hand-drawn clock on the board. As the teacher calls out, “One! Seven! One! Seven!” their eyes dart from number to number.

They’re not anxiously watching the clock and waiting for the class period to end. Rather, these students are in the middle of a session with Joseph Prestianni, one of Monticello Central School District’s Social and Emotional Wellness (SEW) facilitators. The program initially began last year at Rutherford Elementary School, and became so successful that the district decided to expand it to each elementary school.

“OK, rub your hands for five seconds,” Prestianni calls. The students rub their hands together furiously as he counts down, “Five, four, three, two, one. Now that your hands are warmed up, place them over your eyes.”

Joseph Prestianni reads to classIt’s all part of an exercise to stimulate students’ brain function before delving into this week’s activity. With a SEW facilitator in each Monticello elementary school, each class receives a visit once during each six-day cycle. Visits can include writing projects, field trips, technology activities or physical exercises. This week, Prestianni reads a book called “Enemy Pie,” where the protagonist of the story learns that with kindness and cooperation, even enemies can turn into best friends.

“The goal of this program is to equip all of our students with emotional and social skills,” said Prestianni, who has taught in the Monticello School District for 14 years. “When students learn the social skills necessary to work together and treat one another with respect and kindness, they learn the skills that are critical to succeed at life.”

Aside from the social skills, students learn how to calm themselves and focus through techniques such as deep breathing, yoga poses, and even hand-eye activities such as the clock and hand-rubbing activity. Incorporating physical motion into the lesson helps students gain a sense of mindfulness and awareness that may help them succeed in and out of the classroom. Students do yoga poses to learn mindfulness

“I love [the SEW program],” said Chase Elementary 4th grade teacher Maryann Swenson. “It teaches the students how to deal with each other and any issues they may have at school. And the lesson carries over throughout the day. If there ever is an issue, we draw from these lessons to deal with it.”

The lesson doesn’t just extend throughout school day, it can extend throughout the child’s life. Parents of elementary students can help emphasize the importance of having these skills at home.

“I think that parents can reinforce what we're doing in school by helping their children to learn to slow down (breathe), and think about the best way to approach a situation before acting,” said Elisa Mendels, SEW Facilitator at Cooke Elementary. “They can encourage their children to label and express their feelings. They can also encourage positive peer relationships by helping their children to find positive attributes in others.”

“If students are not comfortable with their surroundings, they’re not going to learn,” said Lynn Selkirk, who is the SEW facilitator at Kenneth L. Rutherford School. “When they’re open-minded and happy, they can learn more. Wellness is about giving students the tools to keep themselves happy and therefore more receptive to learning.”

“I like when Mr. Prestianni comes into our class,” said C.J. Poitras, a 4th grade student at Chase. “Sometimes, people work hard in school and struggle and then they get stressed out. But, when Mr. Prestianni comes, he helps us learn how to relax.”