Teachers try toys to teach behavior

Laura English's first grade class at Holmes School studying the Kimochis, a new tool to help students learn how to express their feelings.

Laura English’s first grade class at Holmes School studying the Kimochis, a new tool to help students learn how to express their feelings.

With all of the talk about good and bad choices around town, Darien teachers are using a simple tool — a toy, in fact — to teach children positive behavior.

Kimochis, plush toys with distinct personalities and emotions, have been at several first grade classrooms and nursery schools since September. The Kimochi family includes Cat, Huggs, Bug, Lovey and Cloud. Each comes with a background, such as Cloud’s favorite things: The number 9, butterscotch pudding and green tea, and a behavioral problem, like its indecision and volatility. Cat on the other hand is a leader, “but can sometimes be a bit bossy,” according to Kimochis.com.

The Kimochi program was developed in reaction to the Columbine shooting by a woman who was trying to understand how children could go back to school with so many difficult emotions, according to Ward.

Wendy Ward, a parent of a four and six year old, noticed that her children were so fond of their Christmas presents last year that they wanted to bring them to class.

In addition to the larger plush toys, there is also a set of 33 “feelings” with the word on one side and the facial expression on the other. This complete set has a built-in behavioral program, Ward said.

“It was such an easy way to have a conversation with kids about their feelings,” she said.

Her youngest daughter brought the Kimochis to Noroton Presbyterian nursery school, which led to a presentation for all of the church-based nurseries in Darien and the YMCA. At Holmes school, where Ward’s older daughter attends first grade, Principal Paula Bleakley has introduced the Kimochis to every grade level.

“It’s not the normal way things would take place,” said Martha Duff, director of Noroton Presbyterian Nursery School, about program implementation. “With things that are so meaningful, it’s almost like a grassroots effort.”

Nursery school children “flocked” to the Kimochis’ emotions, she said. The toys, with their expressions, are beneficial for the children who are “pre-reading and letter recognition.”

“What an amazing tool it is to use it as a lesson in emotional intelligence,” Duff said. “It’s so important in the years that their brains are the most malleable.”

Ward’s young girls are an example of what parents can expect from Kimochis. “My children can handle adversity better than any other kid in the classroom,” Ward said. “When they can’t take care of themselves – they walk away and get help.”

“Now we have these kids with this feelingless, digital world that they’re going to be involved in,” she said.

“We have to teach them how to understand that things hurt and people are real — there’s someone on the other side of their Facebook post.”

The district’s elementary schools use “Second Step” as the main program for social and behavioral skills, with lessons on staying focused, listening and self-regulation, said Laura English, a first grade teacher at Holmes. “Second Step covers those topics and what’s great about the Kimochis is that they really hone in on the feelings,” English said. “They’re tangible – the kids can hold them and they easily help to resolve conflicts.”

Kimochis are a “simple concept” and an “inexpensive tool” for families to use at home, said Maud Purcell, executive director of The Life Solutions Center in Darien, and a psychotherapist.

If children start to understand emotions very early on, they will have a jump-start on understanding others and their own preferences, Purcell said.

“Our feelings are there as an internal GPS. If we know what our feelings are, and we pay attention to our feelings,  we know how to react to situations.”

Purcell uses the Kimochis in one-on-one sessions and other therapists at Life Solutions Center are fond of them as well. Teenagers in therapy for  emotional or social difficulties also benefit from the Kimochis, she said.

Healthy teens and adults are a product of their development, and their choices could be better as demonstrated by the 2011 survey of student resources and assets conducted by the public schools. Darien parents are less involved in a child’s life as they reach high school and that teens show significantly less restraint in their actions than students in middle school, according to the survey.

The behavioral programs taught at school do not always transfer to the home, Ward said. The Kimochis are an easy and cheap way for students to learn their own value, and the best way to communicate their thoughts, she said.

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