Rewarding reptiles

7th April 2000 at 01:00
Dinosaur School's cast of puppets helps children earn tokens as they learn to control emotions and behaviour. Rob Stepney explains

In a classroom in Banbury, Oxfordshire, a puppet dinosaur is helping children to handle frustration without using their fists. Also in the cuddly cast is Wally the Detective, who is good at solving problems. And then there is Tiny Turtle. His job is to teach a child primed to respond aggressively to provocation to retreat into his shell for long enough to take three deep breaths and then try to think of an alternative reaction that is safe, fair, and leaves everyone feeling good. That is a technique of anger control we might all benefit from but find tricky to learn.

It is especially difficult for the children enrolled in the "Dinosaur School". All six are on the special needs register because of emotional and behavioural problems. "These eight and nine-year-olds have a short fuse," says Sheena Powell, their class teacher at St Joseph's RC primary school, on Banbury's Bretch Hill Estate. "With each of them, it is important to have stra-tegies in place so that we avoid the possibility of exclusion."

Alongside Sheena Powell, Ivana Klimes, a clinical psychologist and director of Oxfordshire's Family Nurturing Network, operates the puppets and assigns the reward chips given for good behaviour which the children later cash in for small toys. The children are poor at negotiation and at evaluating different solutions to conflict. The once-weekly classes aim to teach the children these skills, along with impulse control, how to acknowledge and talk about their own feelings and those of others, and how to deal appropriately with both.

Dinosaur School, which derives from Carolyn Webster Stratton's work at the University of Washington in Seattle, was piloted successfully last year at the Northern House school in Oxford, where the most persistently troublesome 1 per cent of Oxfordshire's primary children are educated. "It is a well researched and well evaluated programme," says Ros Hearne, of Oxfordshire's educational psychology service, who thinks Dinosaur School promising enough to have found time to take part. "It applies current thinking about emotional intelligence and learning style, using all the channels - verbal, visual and actually doing it."

That is nowhere better illustrated than at break time when the fruit provided is never enough for all the chidren to have exactly what they want - so they have to negotiate and share.

"The difficulty is ensuring that the behaviours children learn in Dinosaur School can be reinforced in their usual classroom, and the hope is that they will then generalise to the playground and the home," says Ros Hearne. "Children have often built up inappropriate behaviours over many years, and changing them in 15 two-hour sessions is a real challenge."

Roy Howarth, head of Northern House school, was impressed by the programme's almost exclusive use of positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behaviour. "When you're dealing with children with a damaged self-image, negative reinforcement stimulates behaviours rooted in a sense of inferiority," he says. "Dinosaur School is a positive reward system and we're sold on that philosophy, though it requires not just belief but incredible energy to deliver."

Giving each child a special challenge is part of Dina the Dinosaur's job. Some tasks are academic but have spin-offs in self-esteem; others are social. For one child, a boy with an attention deficit disorder, the challenge was to put up his hand before shouting out. For another it was to ignore children who tried to provoke him; and for a third it was to improve his handwriting. When the challenges are met by each child, Dina and the others applaud. As well as their reward chips, the children at St Joseph's are collecting 500 tokens as a group for a special party. "The reward system is part of our normal school policy, and Dinosaur School makes us feel we're on the right track," says Sheena Powell. "The children love it even though it means they miss an hour in the computer room and an hour's games."

Dinosaur School is expensive: the three-foot high puppets imported from the US, with the videos and equipment, cost around pound;1,200. On the other hand, says Ivana Klimes, "The average additional cost to parents and services of looking after a child with severe emotional and behavioural disorder has been estimated at pound;15,000 per year. If Dinosaur School can help prevent even a handful of exclusions, it could be very cost-effective."

Puppets and videos can be bought at Carolyn Webster Stratton's website: Training details, e-mail: 'How to Promote Children's Emotional and Social Competence', by Carolyn Webster Stratton, Sage Publications (pound;16.99)

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