Classroom conflicts are ironed out before they get out of hand

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In one East Bay preschool classroom, a 4-year-old girl was taking out her aggressions by hitting other kids.

So Rachel Biale, senior clinician at the Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay, stepped in to observe.

The girl had explained that when she hit other children, a dinosaur was taking over her brain and making her do it.

So Biale told her that dinosaurs, while big, were not very smart. Together they made Play-Doh dinosaurs, which Biale and the girl placed in plastic eggs.

Everytime the girl wanted to hit someone, she took out a dinosaur and smashed it instead, said Biale. "I go right to the site where that child goes to school and intervene when problems are small."

Biale conducts such interventions through JFCS' Clinical Consultation Program, in which she personally tackles classroom conflicts from preschools to high schools.

What makes this program different others is that the intervention takes place within the classroom, and Biale talks not only to students but to their parents and teachers.

"JFCS has always been supportive of us," said Rachel Zeimer, director of the Contra Costra Jewish Community Center preschool in Walnut Creek.

"It's often tough on parents who think their child is simply rambunctious. We teachers may think there is more to it. We act as partners with JFCS and parents to further evaluate the child in a very supportive environment."

Now in its third year, the program is providing vital assistance for children, parents, and teachers at Jewish preschools, religious schools, and camps.

Originally funded as a pilot program through the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay and now funded by a grant from the S.F.-based Morris Stulsaft Foundation, the program targets children from age 3 through adolescence.

It unites the strengths of teachers, camp counselors, parents, and JFCS clinicians to aid Jewish children having problems at school, camp or home.

The program also offers parent education workshops. Topics on preschoolers cover such popular subjects as setting limits, temper tantrums, separation anxiety, and readiness for kindergarten. This year the program also enabled Biale to lead a communication workshop for teens and parents.

"During our workshop for parents and eighth-graders, kids were matched up with other kids' parents for role-playing exercises," says Diane Bernbaum, director of Midrasha, an East Bay multisynagogue program for post-bar mitzvah teens.

The program, also sponsored by the East Bay federation's Center for Jewish Living and Learning, provides staff training. "JFCS came to conduct a workshop on sexual harassment in the workplace and boundaries between campers and counselors," says Steve Chabon, director of Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley. "It really opened up the group for discussion."

Other in-service trainings have included an attention deficit disorder workshop for Camp Young Judaea and a variety of instructional meetings for East Bay preschool teachers.

The clinician program also does more than resolve day-to-day classroom conflicts.

"During the Gulf War, many of our smallest children were scared," said Biale. "We held workshops for parents on how to talk to their children about what they were seeing on television."

Other crisis interventions have included workshops after the Berkeley-Oakland fire and Loma Prieta earthquake.

"We always know that JFCS is only a phone call away," said Zeimer.