A turtle helps youngsters to cope with Christmas. David Simmonds reports
A project special to Welsh schools - and a small furry turtle - are bringing a little peace on Earth to some harassed mothers this Christmas.
Tinsel, Toys and Tantrums, a programme for coping with young children in the festive season, has grown out of the Super Shell-by project, which has been running in nine primary schools in the upper Rhymney Valley for more than two years.
Caerphilly educational psychologist, Jim Tuthill, was concerned that a significant proportion of children were starting school with behaviour and language problems. His perceptions were confirmed by an audit of local headteachers, and the Super Shell-by project was born.
The project has been modelled on the American PATHS curriculum - Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies - which aims to develop self-esteem, self-control and emotional awareness. The stories on which the American programme is based have been adapted and illustrated for the youngest of pupils. All nursery-aged children coming into the nine Rhymney schools receive it, and those who need extra help from project workers and a speech therapist are identified.
By March this year, more than 180 children had received additional support.
Central to the project are the "turtle-time" classroom sessions, at which a furry turtle puppet makes an appearance, and the stories, which feature an anger-prone young turtle and his older and wiser friend.
In moments of anger, the children are encouraged to "do a turtle" - cross their arms over their chests and count to three.
"The message is that it's OK to be angry, everyone gets angry," said Bev Jenkins, the local education authority's schools adviser. "What's not OK is to hit out at someone or damage something.
"And by crossing their arms, they are sending out a signal to other children that they need some space. It's a sophisticated concept for three and four-year-olds."
The need to build children's self-esteem is one of the points that advisory teacher Nia Parsons has developed in sessions with parents. "We all need reminding sometimes that it's important our children have that positive reinforcement, to help them to feel good about themselves," she said.
"One mother told me that she couldn't get her son to do anything around the house until she made him her own 'turtle-time helper' - then he'll do anything for her. She thinks it's great."
The Tinsel, Toys and Tantrums programme has been developed in response to parents' concerns about behaviour and bad language. They have been offered a list of helpful hints, such as asking friends to take turns looking after each other's children, and advice on dealing with inflated expectations of Santa's generosity.
The project also came up with a list of suitable presents available locally. Claire Price, mother of four-year-old Hannah, said that was particularly helpful: "I would never have thought of some of them. And she loves the turtle, it's all she talks about."
Janis Davies, Hannah's headteacher at Lower Rhymney primary, backs the project.
"Because it involves the mums and dads as well, it gives them new ideas on how to play with their children, what sort of toys to buy and how to cope with difficult behaviour.
"It helps point up any problems there might be at an early stage, and the help is there for them straightaway."
And Diane Williams suspects her three-year-old granddaughter, Lucy Mumford, might miss a friend over the Christmas break.
"She tells me sometimes 'We didn't see the turtle today, Nan'. And she looks really sad."