Nekia Riley, a pre-kindergarten teacher, reaches into a rainbow-colored box and pulls out a large dinosaur puppet, to the delight of the 18 4-year-olds on the carpet in front of her at Hillandale Elementary School.
Riley’s voice lifts an octave higher as she takes on the role of the puppet Dina, who has a knack for helping children figure out solutions to everyday issues. “Everyone put your listening ears on,” she said, “because we’re going to be great problem-solvers today.”
Today’s problem: Sebastian, a life-sized puppet of a schoolboy, is feeling sad. He celebrates Kwanzaa. His friends, who celebrate Christmas, aren’t very accepting of his family’s traditions. He feels left out.
The children, led by Riley and Dina, start brainstorming ways to help Sebastian. They raise their hands quietly and put forth ideas when called upon.
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Among the suggestions: give him a smiley face; offer him candy or ice cream; listen to him and help him celebrate. The classroom’s instructional assistant, holding the Sebastian puppet, tells the children his Kwanzaa traditions. In his little puppet backpack, there’s a book on the holiday, and Riley reads it to the children, stopping to ask them questions.
In about 20 minutes, the children have gotten more than an entertaining puppet show. They’re learning about empathy and inclusiveness. And they’ve done it while following the rules of the classroom: keeping their hands to themselves; fixing their eyes on the teacher; listening; raising their hands; and using inside voices.
The Duke University experiment, playing out in about two dozen pre-K classrooms in Durham and Chatham counties, is testing new approaches to instilling social, emotional and behavioral skills in young children. Using a curriculum called “The Incredible Years,” teachers are learning how to maintain an orderly classroom, while the children are practicing habits necessary for good learners.
Researchers with the Duke Center for Child and Family Policy received a four-year grant of $3.4 million from the federal Institute of Education Sciences. Their study eventually will include 120 schools with at-risk children across several counties in North Carolina. Half the classrooms will use the curriculum along with the puppets, and half won’t use puppets – and along the way, researchers will measure children’s skills and academic progress. After the research, all the pre-K teachers will be trained on the methods.
Building skills early
Researcher Christina Christopoulos said the aim is to help teachers create a positive environment in the classroom. The children, meanwhile, are captivated by the puppets and learning specific skills.
“Our goal is to teach young children social, emotional and self-regulation skills,” Christopoulos said. “The reason we want to do that is because there is a lot of research that shows that those are foundational skills for everything, not just academics, but also for later in life.”
At the end of the study, Duke researchers will look at the outcomes for the students who were taught the skills. Can they sit still and pay attention? Can they solve conflicts with their classmates? Has their academic performance improved?
‘A really great time’
For Durham Public Schools, the study provides free teacher training, curriculum, $500 stipends for teachers, and the puppets.
“We definitely needed some type of social, emotional program because our kids come to us sometimes without the coping skills that they need,” said Suzanne Cotterman, director of Durham schools’ office of early education.
Teacher education programs don’t focus much on classroom management beyond a course or two, Cotterman said, but it’s a key part of a teacher’s ability to be successful. The study’s approach is proactive, she said, promoting good habits instead of correcting misbehavior.
“What I’ve heard from a lot of our teachers is they’re very surprised at the difference in the culture of their classroom, based on just using some real basic techniques, but specifically teaching those techniques,” Cotterman said. “I think that’s what we were missing before. You know, we always wanted kids to follow the rules, we wanted them to raise their hand, but we weren’t teaching them how to do it and explaining to them why it was important.”
The best part? The students light up when they see the puppets. They high-five them, laugh at them and wave goodbye to them.
“We know preschoolers learn best through play,” Cotterman said. “They don’t know they’re learning. They just think they’re interacting and having a really great time.”