A new school program uses puppets to help students manage their emotions A new program being piloted in a handful of Connecticut classrooms, called Feel Your Best Self, is using the joy of puppetry to teach children how to manage their feelings and empathize with others.

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

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A MART├ŹNEZ, HOST:

Like so much else, education news has been consistently downbeat, with many students still reeling from the academic and emotional toll of the pandemic. Today, though, a bit of hope and joy from a classroom in Connecticut, where a bunch of first-graders are playing with puppets, moving their bodies and learning how to do something called shake out the yuck.

LETICIA DENOYA: Look at your faces - how they've changed. How are you feeling now that you just shook it?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Happy.

DENOYA: Yeah, I see lots of happy faces. Absolutely.

MART├ŹNEZ: There, alongside all those happy faces, was NPR's Cory Turner with the rest of the story.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Leticia Denoya stands at the front of her classroom at Natchaug Elementary in Windham, Conn.

DENOYA: Do you remember last week? We worked with our puppets, right?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Yeah.

DENOYA: And we learned a new strategy.

TURNER: The first-graders sit crisscross applesauce on the reading rug.

DENOYA: Do you remember what that strategy was called? Rylee?

RYLEE: Belly breathing.

TURNER: Belly breathing - for when you've got really heavy feelings, like...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Angry and sad.

DENOYA: Angry and sad.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Or you could probably feel sad because someone took something away from you.

DENOYA: That's definitely a reason...

TURNER: For many of these kids, 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. In thousands of schools across the country last year, that kind of stress followed kids back to class and led to all kinds of disruptive behavior. But with help, kids can be incredibly resilient. And that is what this new program, Feel Your Best Self, is all about.

DENOYA: So today, we are going to learn how to change your feelings when you might be feeling heavy, and we want to make ourselves feel lighter.

TURNER: The kids get quiet. They love this part - when they get to watch a video with puppets. Last time, it was about belly breathing. And today's strategy sounds even more fun.

DENOYA: It's called "Shake Out The Yuck." Can you say that?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Shake out the yuck.

TURNER: In the video, a whimsical, blue puppet with tufts of purple hair - named CJ - starts to panic before performing in a school talent show.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "SHAKE OUT THE YUCK")

STOPH SCHEER: (As CJ) Now everyone's grown-ups are here - watching. Oh. Uh-oh.

TURNER: One little boy cringes and winces for poor CJ.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: He was feeling nervous because he - there's a lot of people, and he didn't want to go on stage.

TURNER: Then CJ's friend, Mena, in red glasses and a hoodie, tries to help. She remembers a basketball game and having to take a free throw with everyone watching.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "SHAKE OUT THE YUCK")

JIMMICA COLLINS: (As Mena) I felt like I couldn't catch my breath. It was kind of scary.

SCHEER: (As CJ) That happens to you, too? Well, what do you do?

COLLINS: (As Mena) I shake out the yuck.

TURNER: At this point, Denoya's first-graders hang on every word.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO, "SHAKE OUT THE YUCK")

COLLINS: (As Mena) When I'm nervous or scared - or both - I imagine those feelings are stuck all over me, and then I shake them off like this (vocalizing).

TURNER: Denoya invites the kids to shake it out with Mena.

DENOYA: Make some noise. Shake them off.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Screaming).

TURNER: Feel Your Best Self has 12 short videos in all, each built around a simple strategy with a kid-friendly name, like "Shake Out The Yuck," "Float Your Boat" and "Chillax In My Head." Some are about understanding and managing your own feelings - others about helping friends. And all of them hinge on the magic of puppetry.

EMILY WICKS: The puppets took hours and hours to create.

TURNER: Emily Wicks is co-interim director at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at the University of Connecticut. During the pandemic, Wicks sent out emails to researchers at UConn's Neag School of Education, fishing for collaborators. 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 a trained school psychologist.

SANDY CHAFOULEAS: It was very small scale, right? It was, like, this little idea about - how could we maybe partner together and try something out?

TURNER: Chafouleas was worried about all that extra stress on kids and that schools wouldn't be able to help them.

CHAFOULEAS: Teachers were stressed. Systems were stressed. Nobody had time to do professional learning - to do something complex. I mean, it was - that's just ridiculous to think that we could have.

TURNER: First grade teacher Leticia Denoya has seen it firsthand. Kids returned from the pandemic with really rusty social and emotional skills.

DENOYA: Sharing and learning how to take turns and learning how to deal with disappointment - and 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.

TURNER: So Chafouleas and Wicks at UConn 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.

For this pilot program, the first graders also got to make their own puppets.

DENOYA: Say good morning to your puppet.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Good morning.

TURNER: The Feel Your Best Self team has given every child a brightly colored sock and all kinds of add-ons, like bug eyes, sticker stars and yarn hair. I've been in a lot of classrooms as an education reporter, but I cannot remember seeing kids more joyful.

DENOYA: How is our puppet feeling?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: My puppet's feeling excited.

DENOYA: Excited.

TURNER: With the puppets on their hands, a shy girl becomes bold, while a boy, normally bold, becomes gentle and loving.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: My puppet's feeling calm.

DENOYA: It's feeling calm. I love it.

Rylee, how are you feeling?

RYLEE: Happy.

TURNER: One little girl, Navayah, raises her hand.

NAVAYAH: When I went here, I was shy (ph) and nervous.

TURNER: Sad and nervous because, it turns out, today was Navayah's first day at this school.

DENOYA: And are you feeling a little bit better now?

NAVAYAH: Yes.

DENOYA: Awesome.

TURNER: Back at her desk, Navayah tells me she's already made two friends. And one of them, Galilea, helps her with her new puppet.

GALILEA: Then you just stick it on.

NAVAYAH: Oh.

GALILEA: Take this thingy off, and then - you can make a beard if you want. Like...

NAVAYAH: Oh.

TURNER: This kind of harmony is showing up schoolwide. When I visited in late October, teachers here had yet to write up even one serious behavior problem. Now, the Feel Your Best Self team are adamant they do not see their work as a pandemic fix-all. What it is, they say, is one little thing that schools can do to help kids manage in a world that - even to grown-ups - can sometimes feel so unmanageable.

Cory Turner, NPR News, Windham, Conn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEEL YOUR BEST SELF THEME SONG")

ETHAN HANZLIK: (Singing) Feel your best self every single day - every day.

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