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Santa's helper is coming to town

Seasonal behaviour management tool or creepy spy in the classroom? Mary McCarney meets the Elf on the Shelf

Seasonal behaviour management tool or creepy spy in the classroom? Mary McCarney meets the Elf on the Shelf

You'd better watch out: a behaviour management toy that has taken US schools by storm is being launched in the UK in time for Christmas.

The Elf on the Shelf is a stiffly stuffed elf. Working as Santa's spy, it sees you when you're sleeping and knows when you're awake. US elementary school teachers who have adopted the toy say that without the elf in their classrooms they would never survive the excitement-fuelled frenzy of the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The product is marketed as a book and toy set. According to the story, the tiny toy elf keeps an eye on children during the day. At night, he flies to the North Pole to give Santa the lowdown on who is naughty or nice. The next morning, he is back but sitting in a different place. Little fingers can never touch the elf or he will lose his magic. What better motivator could any teacher or parent possibly need? He knows if you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake.

The book's authors, Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, are mother and daughter. Bell, a former middle school teacher, grew up with the tradition of an elf at Christmas. Based on these memories, Bell and her mother wrote The Elf on the Shelf: a Christmas tradition in 2005, but it was rejected by every major publisher.

"We were left with two choices: do it ourselves or forget it," Bell says. "We had no money, no experience in publishing, marketing or sales. I put about $21,000 (#163;13,000) on credit cards. My husband is a teacher, too. We both knew that if this idea didn't work, we could never pay off the debt. My sister sold her house and moved in with my parents. We invited 500 friends to our first book signing before we even had a product to sell. It was a huge leap of faith."

But their self-publishing gamble paid off: The Elf on the Shelf has become a US number one bestseller and their company is now worth $16.6 million (#163;10.4 million). Celebrity fans include Mark Wahlberg and Courteney Cox.

As Christmas anticipation builds, teachers and parents throughout the US now rely on this product as an effective behaviour modifier. Bell's company recently gave away 5,000 classroom elves to teachers who requested one online. "Whole schools have adopted an elf. Some have Elf on the Shelf Day," says Bell.

Suzanne Ryan used an elf with her second graders (Year 3) in New York last year. "Our elf was an extra set of eyes to keep the children following the rules during all the holiday excitement. I had an amazingly well-behaved class," she says.

Kindergarten teacher Caitlin Clabby from Florida has even blogged about her classroom elf, Wings (bit.lyT9qV6I). "Around the holidays, pupils start getting excited and their behaviour changes. The Elf on the Shelf is the perfect way to motivate them," she says. "If I even mention Wings, the pupils sit up straight and are quiet. They don't want him seeing bad behaviour. When a kid does something wrong, other pupils say, 'Wings is watching.' "

However, this new holiday tradition is not a huge hit with everyone. Some critics regard the elf as a creepy spy who simply bribes children to behave. The Washington Post's Hank Stuever recently wrote: "Christmas just isn't Christmas without the naughty-nice punishment paradigm ... The Elf on the Shelf is just another nannycam in a nanny state obsessed with penal codes ... The pixie-scout elf is no different than the store security camera and the gizmo that automatically generates speeding tickets. The tattle-tale elf, who reports back to the corporate Christmas machine, fits right in with our times."

Writer Dan Kois says that his children take the whole elf thing so seriously that when friends come over they tell them Santa will find out all about them, too. He claims that visiting his home is like visiting East Germany circa 1983.

In response to the critics, Bell refers to her own professional experience: "I put on my teacher hat and say that adults use lots of tricks to get children to behave, and many of them are far worse than this. Children need the opportunity to change their behaviour themselves before there are any consequences. The elf encourages children to monitor their actions, take responsibility and modify their behaviour. It is very positive and really promotes imagination."

For many schools in the US, Santa's little helper has become the teacher's new best friend. And with this latest craze now available in the UK, too, the all-seeing Elf on the Shelf could soon give "classroom observation" a whole new meaning.

Mary McCarney teaches at Atlanta International School in Georgia, US


The Elf on the Shelf website, with resources for primary teachers including lesson plans and activities:

A boxed set containing a toy Elf on the Shelf and a hardback book is available in stores across the UK now.


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