Wally is a celebrity among kindergartners at Ben Franklin Elementary School. When he shows his tan-fabric face and brown, curly, yarn hair, kids call out to him and come running to give him a hug or a high five.
Yes, Wally is a puppet, but a beloved puppet, who, with the help of Patti Miller from Olmsted County Child and Family Services, helps teach kids social/emotional behavior skills.
Using Wally, other puppets, music and pictures, Miller and DeeDee Weidman, of Zumbro Valley Mental Health Center, are teaching Franklin kindergartners the Incredible Years curriculum. Through the curriculum, the kids learn how to deal with their emotions and find solutions to problems, said Susanne Griffin-Ziebart, the school’s principal.
In Stephanie Sirek’s class on Friday, 19 5- and-6-year-olds sat cross-legged in a circle on a rug, with their eyes on Miller and Wally. Miller had just asked the students to “show me five,” which, basically, means quiet down and pay attention. /p>
Miller sat on the rug with the kids, holding the puppet and making his mouth and left arm move. She’s not a ventriloquist, but no matter — the kids intently watched Wally, not her.
“They think he’s real, but they think he’s a real puppet,” Miller said with a smile.
Wally talked to the kids about what to do when they have a conflict with another child. Some of the many solutions included: Use your words, share, and ask a parent or teacher to help.
Griffin-Ziebart hopes to expand the program through grade three if funding can be found.
“It really gives kids very consistent messages about how they can use their social/emotional behavior skills in the best way possible,” she said.
Why is it important? For one, 57 percent of Franklin’s kindergartners assessed last fall were considered academically at-risk, Griffin-Ziebart said, and Incredible Years helps them get ready to learn.
Sirek said she and the other Franklin teachers love Incredible Years.
“It’s totally changed the way we teach kindergarten,” Sirek said. “We’ve always been on the same page when it comes to curriculum, and now we’re on the same page for social skills. We have the same language.”
Sirek is spending a lot less time dealing with misbehavior and a lot more time focusing on positive reinforcement — that’s “catching them being good,” she said.
Incredible Years came to Franklin by way of a $38,000 grant from the Rochester Area Foundation’s First Steps program. The county and school district also have pitched in for staffing and training.
More than 20 Franklin staff members are now trained in Incredible Years, and 15 students’ families are participating in a 12-week class so they can reinforce the skills at home, Griffin-Ziebart said.