That first day – in Dr. Tsu-Ming Chiang’s social emotional classroom at Baldwin County’s Early Learning Center (ELC) – senior Stephen Carroll knew he’d been right about kids. They scared him.
Carroll's one of more than 600 psychology students that have trained with Chiang over the years and changed the lives of about 1,000 children. But, initially, he wanted no part of it.
“The first session was hectic,” Carroll said. “It made me almost not want to go back. It was shell shock, to be honest. Everything that could go wrong went wrong that day. Kids were running around, grabbing stuff.
“I don’t do kids,” he said. “I walked in there and it was like, yup, worst nightmare.”
But on the playground, a little boy – who had never uttered a word in his life – immediately ran to Carroll and wrapped his arms around Carroll’s leg.
Now that boy sits quietly for lessons and does tasks he’s given. His face is no longer “blank,” and he makes verbal noises. He even attempts to say words – which Carroll said is “huge.”
“And now? I love kids,” he said. “I want to keep doing this. It brings me so much joy to be there with them. When you walk into the room, and you see their faces light up, and they run to you? It brings tears to your eyes, because it’s just so beautiful. It’s really cool.”
Chiang’s empathy-training sessions have been held in various locations for more than 15 years. Now students provide services at ELC for children who display a range of behavioral or emotional issues. Some are isolated, withdrawn and give little eye contact. Others struggle with behavioral issues and aggressiveness.
After working one year with Georgia College students, about 75 to 80 percent can function in inclusive classrooms without pull-out services.
“This is the hidden part of the university,” said Chiang, a psychology professor. “I’ve been doing community outreach for many, many years with students. We see dramatic improvements.
“The students emotionally and completely invest in these kids. They’re giving them special attention teachers usually don’t have time to give,” she said. “Students are learning beyond the classroom and giving back to the community in need. That’s what makes Georgia College preeminent.”
Thirteen students currently work two sessions, two mornings a week in what they call the “Happy Room” at ELC. It’s a fast-paced, active environment where each child is paired with the same student, week after week.
Chiang calls her students e-coaches (emotional coaches) and children, e-children.
Having a unique relationship with college students – especially male students – makes a huge difference, she said. Many children come from single-parent homes, where fathers are absent, or lives where one or both parents are in jail.
Students ask, “What can we do?” Chiang tells them, “You will be that child’s stability.”
In order to maintain interpersonal relationships in life, Chiang said children must learn how to deal with strong emotions and empathize with others.
A 4-year-old girl with autism spectrum disorder arrived, holding the hands of two students on either side. Her face lit up, and she announced, “Hh-pee woom!” She pointed to a student’s guitar and said, “tar.”
The child used to be disengaged, wandering around, lying on the floor or kicking on the playground. She never spoke, said senior Adria Freshley of Snellville, who has worked two years with the girl.
“Now she’s talking,” Freshley said. “She still doesn’t interact with her peers, but she’s come a long, long way. It’s just really cool to see that progress.”
Sessions begin by everyone singing “If you’re happy and you know it” – with students lifting giggling children off the ground. Emotions are taught with photographs of facial expressions: happiness, fear, sadness, anger. Children cuddle with students, who prompt them to raise their hands and answer questions.
Each lesson has a puppet show, where furry animals model behavior in tough situations, like fear of the dark or being bullied.
Next, children choose an activity – reading, coloring or puzzles. Sometimes they make crafts. There’s clean up time and a final song.
Routine helps students access behavior and chart changes, said senior Emily Hane of Augusta. Collecting data and analyzing behavior are important skills that will help when she becomes an outdoor therapist for children.
This is Hane’s second semester in the Happy Room. One of her boys used to be “super, super shy” and only preferred interacting with adults.
The other day, he hugged one of his peers.
“I was like, wow! That’s amazing!” Hane said. “Now he’s thriving with his own speech, and he counts to me and tells me all the colors he’s seeing. I definitely have seen big growth.
“It’s so much fun to watch,” she said. “That’s the best part of my day.”
It’s fun for children too. One boy asks his teacher over and over during the day: When will his college friend come? Today?
The one-on-one service students provide is something most families could not afford, said Julie Parmley, curriculum and education manager at ELC. Chiang’s program is the community’s “best kept secret” and “icing on the cake,” she said.
“When children can’t read or they can’t write or they have a language issue – we know how to address those things,” Parmley said. “But behavioral issues will isolate a kid in a classroom faster than anything. That’s going to impact their learning.
“So, if we can help them cope and think through their emotions, there’s going to be a lot more kids who are successful in elementary school,” she said.
Children are paying attention longer, responding verbally, giving better eye contact and transitioning into activities more smoothly.
But sessions go by quickly, and parting can be difficult.
When asked how he’ll say goodbye to his e-child, when the program ends in April – Carroll looks as if he might cry.
College students feel they’ve gained as much – maybe more – than the children.
“I feel like these kids are helping me so much,” Hane said. “They all have so much potential. If I could – I would go everyday. I just love hanging out with them.”