Inside one second-grade class, students are about to bring some new characters to life through a crash course in puppet-making. But this puppet workshop isn't just about kids showing off their creativity. It's also about getting them to open up about their feelings.
"I definitely see a huge change in kids' attitudes and just their overall social-emotional well-being since the pandemic," said Erin Trudeau, who teaches the class.
New data released this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is providing a closer look at the mental health of children in America. The National Health Interview Survey analyzed data collected in 2021 — during the COVID-19 pandemic — and found that nearly 15% of kids between the ages of 5 and 17 received treatment for their mental health.
The data shows that more than 11% of children sought counseling and just over 8% were taking medication for their mental health. Boys were also more likely than girls (9% and 7.3% respectively) to be taking medication.
How children are faring since the pandemic has prompted soul-searching among mental health professionals at the University of Connecticut.
"Think about the lost social skills, opportunities to practice using big emotions and understanding and naming emotions," said Sandy Chafouleas, professor of educational psychology at UConn's Neag School of Education. "So, all those things were going to come in the door — in a door that's already stressed. Schools were already stressed."
With that, they came up with an idea: partnering with UConn's Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry to create "Feel Your Best Self" — a series of free, online YouTube videos hosted by a trio of puppets.
In the videos, the puppets help kids develop simple strategies for navigating big feelings.
"Whatever we wanted to do needed to be something that could be taught in three steps — three simple steps could be taught in less than five minutes, accessible to kids, appropriate for adults as well, and then could be packaged into something fun," Chafouleas said.
The videos are available in both English and Spanish and come with curriculum that teachers can use in the classroom.
Teachers have reached out to use the curriculum in states around the U.S., and the videos are gaining a following in the United Kingdom, Australia and Mexico.
"We have fun names for them now, like 'Shake Out the Yuck' and 'Turning the Dial,' but these are strategies and things that we can do throughout our life," said Emily Iovino, implementation coordinator of the initiative. "They're really important life skills to be able to help us when we are out in the world."
In the classroom, those strategies come to life, with puppet-making workshops like the recent one at North Windham Elementary School in Connecticut.
"You can feel the energy in the room and the joy from the kids, and that's something that's just so rewarding," Iovino said.
Second-grader Kei Morales adores the "Feel Your Best Self" puppets and created her own handmade book about them.
"At home, I've been going to my mom's room and searching it up so I can go find more information about it," she said, adding, "Sometimes when I get angry or frustrated, I use those, so they can help me when to calm down."
But it's not just kids who get into it.
"Honestly, I was wicked excited about getting to make my puppet," said Trudeau, their teacher. "It just makes you smile because it's kind of goofy — but just like with stuffed animals or with pets, I think that people feel connected to being able to talk to something other than themselves."
Emily Wicks, who helped lead the puppet workshop and co-created "Feel Your Best Self," said she hoped the children will share with others what they learned in class.
"We want the kids to take it home, show their siblings, show their caregivers, demonstrate these strategies and hopefully kind of keep them in their back pocket," Wicks said.
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