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'Your Body's Alarm System': Vt. Puppeteers Teach Kids About Anxiety

Puppet show with a red octopus against a blackboard
Vermont Family Network, Courtesy
Before the pandemic, Vermont Family Networks Puppets in Education program on Anxiety and worry took performances into classrooms to teach students. Now, they have gone virtual.

Worry is normal in healthy amounts, but this year, Vermont's younger students may be feeling more than is healthy. With the help of Vermont Family Network and some savvy puppeteers from Puppets in Education, some students in Vermont schools are learning how to not let worry and anxiety overwhelm them.

VPR Weekend Edition host Mary Engisch spoke with Vicky Crocker and Karen Sharpwolf, with Vermont Family Network and Puppets in Education. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mary Engisch: First off, can you define the term 'anxiety?'

Karen Sharpwolf: We tell kids that anxiety and worry is normal and we all experience it. And it's your body's alarm system.

But what happens is, sometimes our alarm system goes off when it doesn't need to. And you feel the same things in your body, like rapid breathing or sweaty hands. But it is important to remember that it is a normal and healthy emotion. It can just get too big sometimes.

What other things might parents and teachers and caregivers be on the lookout for, especially in terms of too much anxiety and worry in a school aged kiddo?

Vicky Crocker: Really for parents, we want them to know that children who experience anxiety are often overwhelmed by intense feelings of fear and worry that are kind of out of proportion with what is going on in the environment or situation.

The behavior becomes the focus. And really, you need to look underneath the behavior to find out that that's a symptom of possible anxiety.

Are they saying they don't want to go to school? Are they not going into online learning and refusing to turn in work? Are they not sleeping well at night?

There's a lot of different things that are happening, as far as the online piece it is really difficult for families at this point. But those are some of the symptoms that we're seeing.

So let's talk about Puppets In Education with Vermont Family Network. You're going into classrooms and talking specifically about anxiety and worry for kids who are, you know, schooling in a very different year amid a pandemic. What does that look like?

Karen Sharpwolf: With Puppets In Education, we do puppet shows in schools about keeping kids healthy and safe and appreciating each other's differences. So mostly social, emotional issues as well as inclusion. And it has been a lot of work to make the shift to being completely virtual -- I won't lie.

In March, we started out with a home edition version of our anxiety and worry program. But since then, we've upped our production game.

We bought new cameras, lights, we figured out tech, and now we're offering virtual presentations to schools that include a live introduction with a puppet and a person, then a high quality film skit and then a live Q&A with the puppet.

So if you're going into kids' classrooms virtually with the puppet shows, what's the main goal?

Karen Sharpwolf: Well, so our main goal is to really connect with kids.

We want them to feel heard and seen and provide them with tools for success, and have fun. And we want to support teachers.

We ask students questions directly. In the beginning of our show with the human and the puppeteer, the puppeteer is completely hidden. So it looks like the puppet is on the call, and then a human is on the scene, and we ask students what they think kids worry about.

And we hear things like: math assignments, reading, spiders, getting sick. And then we literally present a toolbox -- like a physical tool the puppet holds up -- about what kids can do when their worry feels too big.

And we personify worry and how it changes to be big and overwhelming, or smaller and more manageable, with an octopus puppet.

Is the sense that students will connect with a puppet and tell them things they would not tell of a parent or caregiver, and if so, why is that?

Karen Sharpwolf: The magic of puppets is really amazing, because kids are so used to feeling like maybe there's a right or wrong answer when they're with an adult or caregiver.

But when they're with a puppet, a lot of our puppets are kids or animals, and so they feel like there's no judgment.

At one point, a young student said:

"My worry is like a wolf that's going to eat me."

We ask them things like, 'Well, what do you do when your worries are too big?' And maybe that's a question they haven't been asked before by an adult.

And Karen, you're hearing from the teachers as well about these presentations on anxiety and worry. Can you share what they're saying?

Karen Sharpwolf: We got an email from a teacher who said, I'll read this to you:

"This was perfect for me, right now. I'm an adult worrier and I'm having a challenging time due to the COVID crisis, the demands of my teaching job and trying to do what's best for my family at home also."

So I think a lot of the strategies that we talk about with kids -- things like 'take deep breaths, move your body, talk to someone else and and tell your worry, 'I can handle this'' -- those are things that don't just work for kids. They work for anybody.

Vicky Crocker: The resources that we often talk with parents about -- it's a community effort, right? So reaching out to your pediatrician, reaching out to your school and any mental health providers that are working with you.

Vermont Family Network also has an anxiety resource packet that will give information about details and resources and ways to be an advocate be an advocate for your child.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vprnet.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
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