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Solutions with no strings attached

Puppets are being used to bring out the best in pupils' social and emotional behaviour, writes Henry Hepburn

DINA IS in charge at school and makes sure the children have done their homework. Dina also has blue skin and belongs to a species that has been extinct for millions of years.

Dina Dinosaur to give her full name is one of the puppets being used to bring the best out in pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties at Stobhill Primary in Gorebridge, near Edinburgh. She is one of the main characters in Dinosaur School, part of a series of programmes called Incredible Years, developed in the United States to improve behaviour and social skills.

Specially trained staff use hand-held puppets with small groups of pupils aged four to eight who have such difficulties. As well as Dina, who sets out school rules and encourages social skills, children get visits from Wally Problem Solver, a little "boy" in a school uniform, and Tiny Turtle, who teaches anger management skills.

Up to six pupils sit in a circle with two adults, either teachers or classroom assistants. One, the group leader, operates the puppet while the other, known as the "processor", gives the children feedback. Wally has proved particularly useful, as he presents potential solutions to a range of problems, from a child being involved in a fight, being unable to find anyone to play with, or being called names. The children then use small animal puppets to act out what they might do.

Such has been the succces at Stobhill that the puppets are being used with classes of all ages. These sessions are less intensive but also aim to improve social skills. Although a number of Midlothian schools have staff trained to use the programme, only Stobhill has broadened it in this way.

Ruth Lang, a learning support teacher at the school, said: "You don't have to be a fantastic puppeteer and the response from the kids is really positive they love it. One said, 'It's the best school in the universe'."

Although little known in Scotland, Incredible Years is more commonly used in Wales. Bangor University backed by pound;50,000 from the Welsh Assembly tested the programme with 150 parents over three months and found the classes helped reduce stress and depression for parents and the chances of their children developing antisocial behaviour.


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