A child's behavior problems can be a daily struggle for parents, but many kids are learning important lessons and finding unlikely heroes in a group of puppets and a program called Dinosaur School.
The program, first invented and tested in Seattle, uses puppets, videos, pictures and practice to teach young kids how to behave in school, how to make friends and how to problem solve.
It has been widely tested and approved and now a new clinic in Ahwatukee Foothills is bringing the program to kids in a small group setting.
Linda Wiskerchen has been running the program in public schools for about nine years. She first began teaching the program school-wide in a central Phoenix school district.
When the first grant ended, they began another but decided to do the program in small, pull-out groups of kids who were behaving badly or who maybe just needed help socializing more. The results in that school district were impressive.
Teachers were surveyed before and after and reported significant improvement in social competence as well as decreases in anti-social behavior.
From there Wiskerchen moved on and began teaching the program to students at Kyrene de las Lomas Elementary School. This year she decided to take the program to private practice.
"This is a great thing for the community," Wiskerchen said. "That age group really takes to it. It's been done in this way, in a clinic, in Seattle for years."
The star of the program is a puppet named Wally. Wally is a kid who has made some mistakes in the past and has learned through dinosaur school how to identify his feelings, control them and do better in school.
"I love him. He's the magic," Wiskerchen said. "The kids just absolutely take to him. The thing about Wally is he's the perfect kid. He's not going to demand anything and he's going to show emotion. If somebody takes something from him he's going to tell them it hurt his feelings right way. He's not going to challenge them too much and he's going to help them. They know that. He tells them about his mistakes but he doesn't act it out because we don't want kids to copy the bad behaviors."
Wally takes the kids through six units, with help from his friends Dina-Dinosaur, Tiny Turtle, Oscar the ostrich and his little sister Molly.
It begins with how to do your best in school, then feelings, problem solving, how to be friendly, how to talk to friends, problem sharing and celebration.
Kids learn to identify and express feelings, identify problems and solutions, control their anger and be kind to others. Each unit takes weeks and is accompanied with pictures to take home and lots of practice.
The program is best suited for kids ages 4 to 9 but Wiskerchen says in the schools she has had kids fall in love with the program so much that they want to come back and help the younger kids when they get a little older.
"The lessons are timeless. Some adults could use a lesson or two," Wiskerchen said. "I truly believe that the kids who are the most successful and have the best relationships with parents and teachers are the ones that are most insulated when they're teenagers. They do the best. They find the people who are choosing the right things and it goes on to where they can be very successful people who know how to interact."
Though the program has a curriculum that was carefully designed, Wiskerchen says it's not a one-size-fits-all program. She has taught children whose parents are in a difficult situation and things like divorce or jail time are topics Wally can bring up and get the kids talking.
"It is a set program but it's not a cookie-cutter program," Wiskerchen said. "If I have kids going through a tough situation I can incorporate that with Wally and the kids will start talking. We talk about those feelings and what we can do with those feelings. So now we're talking about coping skills."
Cost for the program is reasonable as well. A one-hour group session is $40, which Wiskerchen says is comparable to any other kind of class around town.
She says just like a sport or art, the lessons taught in her classes are skills that need to be practiced and learned. She also spends time with parents separately to make sure they're keeping up with practice at home.
The program is run like an after-school class so Wiskerchen says her hours are flexible. She's just beginning now but she plans to host groups on weeknights as well as Saturdays and Sundays.
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