UConn's Sandra Chafouleas and Feel Your Best Self -- using puppets to support children's social-emotional well-beingNovember 15, 20223 min read
The COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on America's children -- parents lost jobs, kids weren't able to go to school, and they were told it was dangerous to see their friends.
From a child's point of view, they seemed to have a lot, if not nearly everything, taken away, and many are still struggling today.
Recently, NPR took a deeper look at the challenges kids are facing and found one creative solution that's helping elementary school children to change negative thinking patterns, better understand others' motivations, and face fears that may fuel unhealthy avoidance behaviors.
UConn expert Sandra Chafouleas, a professor and school psychologist, is a co-creator of the new program -- called Feel Your Best Self -- which uses puppets to help children develop their social-emotional skills and well-being.
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.
Sandra Chafouleas is a UConn Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology and an expert on social-emotional well-being. She's available to speak with the media today -- just click her icon to arrange an interview.
Sandra M. Chafouleas Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology
Professor Chafouleas is an expert on whole child, school mental health, behavioral assessment, and K12 tiered systems of support.