by Emily Shoots, LMFT
Palomar Family Counseling Service, Inc.
North Coastal Prevention and Early Intervention
When schools abruptly closed down on March 13, 2020, we had to adapt quickly as it was clear that children’s social-emotional needs would be greater than ever. We reached out to partner teachers (Kindergarten through 3rd grade) and joined in their virtual learning time in late March to do the Incredible Years® (IY) small Dinosaur School circle time, but it didn’t feel like enough. As a parent of two young children, I was worried about the decline of socioemotional skills for them, as well as for the students we’d worked so hard with all year. Parents that we spoke with were also asking how they could better support their children. I wanted to do something more, and I longed to find a way to reach my students that I have been serving for almost four years. Not just to help them feel connected, but for myself as well. I missed them. I wanted a way for them to access IY Dinosaur School whenever they were able to, whether that was in the middle of the day, or at night right before bed. I decided to utilize something that I knew most of my students were already familiar with, YouTube.
We knew our YouTube lessons would need to look different than what our usual Incredible Years® Dinosaur School classroom circle time entailed, so my coworkers and I had to do some brainstorming. I have been providing Dinosaur School small groups and classroom circle times for over 5 years, and our agency has been using the Incredible Years® model for 14 years. We love the way the Incredible Years® model utilizes the puppets to normalize behaviors and feelings for our students. The curriculum allows for facilitators to be creative, flexible, and socially relevant to their students’ unique experiences. So we looked at our Dinosaur School topics of doing your personal best, detecting and understanding feelings, problem solving, and friendly skills and tried to figure out how to address these and present them without the normal interaction of the classroom. What does it mean to do your personal best while virtually learning? How can we talk about friendly skills when students are away from their friends? What new feelings and problems are our students struggling with because of COVID-19? My coworkers and I, but mostly our puppet friends, discussed how to solve these problems, such as how we miss our friends and school. We talked about ways to stay connected to each other, like playing games over FaceTime or Zoom, but took it one step further by having Principal Dina and Wally play a game of virtual Uno. We addressed the many different feelings that students and parents might be having during the pandemic, and we helped to normalize them. We stressed the importance of mindfulness. We found supplemental books outside of our usual Dinosaur School curriculum to read to students so they could feel a sense of normalcy. We did creative lessons with more than one facilitator and puppet to help keep the students engaged. Many of our teachers utilized these videos in their virtual classrooms, and asked students to comment on what they learned, or what solution they might like to try. Some students emailed our Dinosaur School email to express their feelings.
Our YouTube channel has over 900 views (and counting), and although it has been quite a learning curve, it has been well worth it. We love the idea that our students can watch us whenever they want. And parents can watch with their children, something that they weren’t able to do in the past, and then reinforce the concepts and lessons at home. With this format, my coworkers and I can watch each other’s videos and give feedback on content and puppeting skills. My own children have thoroughly enjoyed watching (and helping make) our videos, and have asked me multiple times to start doing them again. It was definitely daunting at first; we didn’t know how students or parents would respond, or how we, as facilitators, were going to do it without the classroom interaction. Don’t let those thoughts be discouraging! Our videos aren’t perfect, but they are authentic and responsive to the very real challenges that arrived with the pandemic. Students are struggling with many different and complex feelings, so continued social-emotional support is critical during this time. I love that we have been able to provide some of this support through our virtual Dinosaur School circle time. My coworkers and I never anticipated being on YouTube but we all agree that it’s been an excellent way to reach students and families in the world of virtual learning.
Emily Shoots is the Lead Facilitator for the North Coastal Prevention & Early Intervention program at Palomar Family Counseling Service, funded by Behavioral Health Services in the County of San Diego. Her program uses the Incredible Years® model in six elementary schools and a typical week included 41 Dinosaur School classroom circle times, and 48 Dinosaur School small groups.