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In one first-grade classroom, puppets teach children to 'shake out the yuck'

Ryan T. Conaty for NPR
Ryan T. Conaty for NPR
First-grader Rylee plays with a puppet during class.

Teacher Leticia Denoya stands at the front of her classroom, at Natchaug Elementary in Windham, Conn. Her first-graders sit criss-cross applesauce on the reading rug.

"Do you remember last week, we worked with our puppets and we learned a new strategy?"

One little girl raises her hand: "Belly-breathing."

That's right, Denoya responds, to help with "heavy" feelings. She asks the students to name a few.

One child offers "angry." Another: "sad, because someone took something away from you."

For many children, it was the pandemic that took something away. Most at Natchaug come from working-class families and qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Some lost loved ones to COVID. Many saw parents lose work. And, in schools across the country last year, that kind of stress followed kids back to class and has led to all kinds of disruptive behaviors.

That's the bad news. The good news is kids can be incredibly resilient, especially when they've got help – like the kind Denoya's first-graders are about to get from a research-backed group of puppeteers.

"Today, we are gonna learn how to change our feelings when you might be feeling heavy," Denoya says, "and we want to make ourselves feel lighter."

The children are quiet. They love this part, when they get to watch a video — with puppets.

Last week, it was about belly-breathing, and today's strategy sounds even more fun:

Something about trying to "shake out the yuck." The reading rug thrums with excitement.

"Yuck is all those heavy feelings. Like when I'm nervous or scared or both, I imagine those feelings are stuck all over me," one puppet says. "And then I shake them off, like this..."

She playfully shakes her body like a wet dog, spluttering nonsense words.

The kids can barely contain their excitement. Denoya invites them to shake it out.

Do they ever.

There's science behind teaching kids to 'Push The Clouds' of heavy feelings

The five-minute video Denoya's students watch is part of a series produced through a new pilot program called Feel Your Best Self, or FYBS. Each video is built around a simple strategy to help kids recognize and manage their feelings – or to help friends who are struggling.

"It's taking what we know works," says Emily Iovino, a trained school psychologist who is part of the FYBS team.

What works, Iovino says, is something called cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves all sorts of practical skill-building, including learning to change negative thinking patterns, better understand others' motivations and face fears that may fuel unhealthy avoidance behaviors.

For example, in one video, called "Push The Clouds," children are encouraged to visualize their sad, heavy feelings as dark storm clouds and to imagine pushing those clouds away.

It may sound simple, but Iovino says, it's a strategy known as "cognitive restructuring, which is teaching someone how to recognize an emotion, name that emotion, and then be able to work to shift thoughts – to feel something different."

While the videos may be steeped in research, they sport kid-friendly names like "Float Your Boat" and "Chillax In My Head," and spotlight puppet heroes CJ, Mena and Nico, who are rendered in warm purples and reds, with emotive smiles and saucer eyes reminiscent of "Sesame Street."

"The puppets took hours and hours to create," laughs Emily Wicks, a co-creator of Feel Your Best Self and interim co-director at the University of Connecticut's Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry.

After the pandemic, a group of puppeteers saw an opportunity to help

During the pandemic, Wicks sent emails to researchers at the University of Connecticut's Neag School of Education, fishing for collaborators. She'd been wanting to put more of their work online.

Her pitch: You want to help kids right now, and we have puppets.

One of those emails went to Sandy Chafouleas, a UConn professor and trained school psychologist. Chafouleas was worried about all that extra stress on kids returning from the pandemic and that schools wouldn't be able to help them.

"Teachers were stressed. Systems were stressed. Nobody had time to do professional learning to do something complex. That's just ridiculous to think that they could've," Chafouleas says.

Denoya, the first-grade teacher at Natchaug Elementary, has seen it firsthand: Kids returned from the pandemic with missing or rusty social and emotional skills. They had trouble sharing, learning how to take turns and dealing with disappointment.

"There's just things that they missed out on with not having that socialization, and so we need to find a place to teach it at school too," Denoya says.

Anticipating this need, Chafouleas and Wicks cooked up Feel Your Best Self.

The idea was, these scripted puppet videos would be easy — and free — for schools to use, even if they don't have a trained mental health specialist on-hand. Which many don't. Or they have one, spread across hundreds and hundreds of kids.

That includes Natchaug, where Principal Eben Jones has been unable to fill a vacant school psychologist position for the past two years. Jones says that hasn't stopped him and his staff from prioritizing this kind of emotional and social skill-building.

"It is embedded daily," Jones says. "Every teacher has time in the morning to have a morning meeting. And in that morning meeting they build community, share a morning message, you know, play a team-building game and make sure kids are connected to each other."

This school year, Denoya and her students are doing one FYBS lesson each week.

The FYBS program has exploded over the past year, thanks in part to a flood of grant funding. What began last year at Natchaug with a small team performing virtually – and live, not recorded – in one classroom at a time, became a Herculean effort to script, cast and shoot not one but 12 unique videos, with multiple puppets and performers, that teachers and caregivers can access anytime online, at no cost – in both English and Spanish.

"Emily and I often feel like we're hanging on to the end of the caboose right now. This has scaled in ways that are unimaginable," says Chafouleas.

Teaching students to manage their emotions can have a school-wide impact

For this current pilot at Natchaug, Denoya's first-graders also get to make their own puppets.

The FYBS team has given every child a brown paper sack, with a brightly-colored sock and all kinds of add-ons, including bug-eyes, sticker stars and yarn hair.

The kit, like the videos themselves, has been a work in progress, says Wicks.

"The hardest thing for me has been how to make this bag as self-contained as possible so that teachers do not have to provide any material. This kit, right now, it doesn't need scissors, doesn't need glue, doesn't need markers."

What's more, each sock comes with a cardboard mouth that, early on, Wicks and her collaborators were hand-cutting and gluing themselves. Wicks says they've worked with UConn's Proof of Concept Center to make the effort more scalable: The cardboard is now laser cut in bulk with adhesive already applied, the eyeballs now styrofoam instead of Ping-Pong balls.

Denoya invites the children to slide their puppets onto their hands and asks how the puppets are feeling. One little girl exclaims, "Excited!"

A boy, sitting nearby, adds: "My puppet's feeling calm."

One little girl — Navayah — raises her hand and tells Denoya that, when she showed up to school this morning, "I was sad and nervous." It turns out, this was Navayah's first day at Natchaug. Good thing it started with learning how to shake out the yuck.

"And are you feeling a little bit better now?" Denoya asks.

"Yeah!" Navayah says she's already made two friends and, back at her desk, one of them, Galilea, is helping her apply hair to her new puppet.

This kind of harmony is showing up schoolwide, says Jones, the principal. As of late October, teachers here had yet to write up even one serious behavior problem, he said.

Chafouleas says she and Wicks have been getting incredible thank you cards from kids and teachers, "just saying, 'This is exactly what we needed. This was so much fun. We had indoor recess today, and so the kids decided to put their desks together in makeshift puppet theaters and do their own skits. It's just been such a lifesaver.'"

Still, Chafouleas is adamant: She doesn't see this work as a pandemic fix-all. Far from it.

What it is, Chafouleas says, is one little thing schools can do to help kids manage in a world that, even to grown-ups, can sometimes feel so unmanageable.
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