Thomas O'Donnell reads about Twiggle the Turtle to his kindergartners at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore. (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)
Thomas O’Donnell reads about Twiggle the Turtle to his kindergartners at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore. (Elissa Nadworny/NPR)

By Maanvi Singh, NPR

Thomas O’Donnell’s kindergarten kids are all hopped up to read about Twiggle the anthropomorphic Turtle.

“Who can tell me why Twiggle here is sad,” O’Donnell asks his class at Matthew Henson Elementary School in Baltimore.

“Because he doesn’t have no friends,” a student pipes up.

And how do people look when they’re sad?

“They look down!” the whole class screams out.

Yeah, Twiggle is lonely. But, eventually, he befriends a hedgehog, a duck and a dog. And along the way, he learns how to play, help and share.

These are crucial skills we all need to learn, even in preschool and kindergarten. And common sense — along with a growing body of research — shows that mastering social skills early on can help people stay out of trouble all the way into their adult lives.

So shouldn’t schools teach kids about emotions and conflict negotiation in the same way they teach math and reading? The creators of Twiggle the Turtle say the answer is yes.

Emotional Intelligence 101

Twiggle is part of a program called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. It’s designed to help young kids recognize and express emotions.

Matthew Henson Elementary is one of about 1,500 schools around the country using this program, which was first developed in the 1980s.

Every week, students get two 15- to 20-minute lessons on themes like self-control and treating others with respect. Especially for the youngest kids — in kindergarten and first grade — Twiggle often serves as their guide.

O’Donnell says his students are really taking to the lessons. They’re trained, for example, to “do the Turtle” when they’re upset. “That’s when they stop and cocoon themselves. They wrap their arms around themselves and they say what the problem is,” he explains.

O’Donnell’s kids do the turtle all the time — in the hallway and during class.

Right before class starts, for example, one little girl tells her friend, “I don’t like when you touch my hair, because it makes me sad.”

“Sorry!” her friend responds.

While most kids will eventually figure out such strategies on their own, or with help from their parents, O’Donnell says, the lessons help them learn more quickly.

And for some, especially those with troubled home lives, Twiggle is their first and only introduction to healthy self-expression, he says. “Some of them don’t have words to express how they feel before this.”

The Long Game

We previously reported on a national study comparing PATHS and other, similar programs showing positive effects in preschool. They are based on research showing that kids who act up a lot in school and at home — even very young kids — are more likely to have mental health problems and commit crimes years later as adults.

So Kenneth Dodge, a psychologist at Duke University, asked, “Could we do something about that to prevent those problems from actually occurring?” And he has dedicated his career to answering that question.

He and his colleagues launched the FastTrack Project to see if they could change students’ life trajectory by teaching them what researchers like to call social-emotional intelligence.

Back in 1991, they screened 5-year-olds at schools around the country for behavior problems. After interviewing teachers and parents, the researchers identified 900 children who seemed to be most at risk for developing problems later on.

Half of these kids went through school as usual — though they had access to free counseling or tutoring. The rest got PATHS lessons, as well as counseling and tutoring, and their parents received training as well — all the way up until the students graduated from high school.

By age 25, those who were enrolled in the special program not only had done better in school, but they also had lower rates of arrests and fewer mental health and substance abuse issues. The results of this decades-long study were published in September in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The findings prove, Dodge says, “In the same way that we can teach reading literacy, we can teach social and emotional literacy.”

Cost Versus Benefit

PATHS and FastTrack aren’t the only programs of their kind. A social-emotional learning program called RULER, developed at Yale University, has shown promising results, as well. And every year, the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning rates the top evidence-based emotional intelligence programs around the country.

So what’s the catch? Why don’t all schools offer emotional intelligence lessons?

Well, it’s expensive.

The full, intensive FastTrack program costs around $50,000 per student, over a 10-year period. Schools can also pick and choose elements of the program.

For example, the short PATHS lessons about Twiggle at Matthew Henson Elementary cost less — about $600 per classroom to start, plus an additional $100 a year to keep it running.

It’s pricey, but it does cost less per child than juvenile detention or rehab programs later on, according to Dodge. As a society, we spend a lot on remedial services — programs like PATHS are preventive, he says. “This is something that in the long run will save dollars.”

At Clark K-8 School in Cleveland, fifth-grader Tommy DeJesus Jr. says he thinks it’s been worthwhile.

DeJesus has been exposed to the PATHS curriculum since he was in kindergarten, and he says he continues to use the social skills he learned from good old Twiggle.

The other day, for example, DeJesus says, he was quick to step in when he saw that a friend was being teased. “They were making fun of his shoes and how he dressed. I said, ‘Just because you have shoes and he doesn’t, that doesn’t give you the right to bully him,’ ” he says.

And the cool thing was, they listened.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit
Why Emotional Learning May Be As Important As The ABCs 2 January,2015MindShift

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  • Debbie

    I don’t understand why it costs so much per student. How is that price broken down? What is the training like? I come from a Montessori background where the $5,000, in 1998, it cost me for my training including all the manuels I needed in order to use the materials in the classroom. I paid for this on my own just like a would an endorsement.

  • Darleensun

    Of for goodness sake! This is why other countries are ahead of us. You don’t need an expensive program to teach emotions. We all have faces and bodies don’t we? That’s all you need. A little basic training incorporated into our regular curriculum would do. Stop making everything about the money.

    • Mary

      “We all have faces and bodies don’t we? That’s all you need.” This attitude points out a huge flaw with parenting and education. This gross misunderstanding that kids should just “get it” hinders appropriate development in children who have a very difficult time applying appropriate responses in certain situations. It is just as inappropriate to assume all kids will figure out proper social and emotional responses as it is to assume all kids will figure out algebra on their own.

  • Anne Webster

    I think that this is a great idea. In our Preschool room we have a problem solving station and it doesn’t work. We started out the year doing a basic lesson on emotions and how to keep them in check. Didn’t work. I think that something like this may get the kids attention. We did teach the kids how to do the turtle and that works. I have noticed this year that a lot of our kids don’t know how to express their emotions in healthy ways. It seems like we are dealing with the emotions as much as we are teaching them what they need to know.

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  • caddyman

    I’m sorry but “he doesn’t have no friends ”
    Maybe the teacher should have been correcting grammar .If that statement is true then Twiggles had friends and maybe he is sad for another reason. I don’t know maybe we should get back to some basic education instead of trying to make everyone feel good.

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  • Bob Dole

    How about interactive training with faces and emotions?

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  • Patti Tillie MobusSnover

    I think it should start in pre-k. But you see…we need parenting at home to continue what’s taught in school…too!

  • Janine Halloran

    Social Emotional learning is so important! Kids who are able to manage themselves socially and emotionally are more easily able to focus on schoolwork. Teaching kids about managing their emotions in a healthy way is key to them becoming healthy adults.

  • Hilary Keyes

    We see emotions, lots of emotions in even the youngest of children, who begin navigating their way through the world from their first cries as newborns. Emotions are a natural reaction and we begin to develop social tactics at infancy, as a means of survival, making it hard to remember that becoming an emotionally educated adult is a learned skill. As an educator it is difficult to hear some things that young children will say to each other. I will be aghast at some of the hurtful things that a child can say to someone who they have identified as one of their closest friends. My first reaction may be frustration, an instinct to scold and correct. I may jump to the conclusion that my student should know that telling someone that they are no longer your friend over a dispute about a highlighter, sending your friend into tears, is not a kind way to handle the situation.

    How would they know that though? If we do not have active teaching about how to resolve conflict and process emotions, the only opportunity to learn is to make mistakes. Even when there is a structured emotional learning program built into a curriculum, the time in which it is put into practice are when things get tricky.

    Any teacher runs up against the frustrating reality that there are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a year, to teach all that we aim to. There is a constant compromise between depth in which you go into a subject and the variety of subjects that you wish to cover. Add in the time it would take to pause and process every social dispute that arises between young students and you would potentially fill up your entire day. How do you not just let these moments fly past? Shutting down the behavior with a consequence or a “say you’re sorry” and continuing forward may bring the concentration back in but does not give the time to practice emotional skills.

    The result that emotional learning programs such as PATH could give us is a toolbox to handle these daily social learning moments effectively and efficiently. Developing tactics mentioned about both self-care and recognition of one’s own emotions as well as interpreting other’s emotions gives a plan to handle difficult social and emotional circumstances. A teacher would able to say a simple phrase to remind a student of a larger conversation that occurred in a structured emotional learning lesson could actively handle a situation and give them the opportunity to practice the skills talked about. The instruction to “do the turtle” is an excellent example of this, a phrase that is communally known and can be used by a teacher to quickly coach a student that may be having trouble processing frustration. Additionally, this could be used as a quick way for the student to practice being a self-advocate for their emotional needs. I have seen a similar effect with my own students, creating a plan of how to reset or process when emotions run high. Creating a plan and language with students could potentially save hours of problem solving while still giving the opportunity to learn from the daily moments of conflict.

    Taking the time to talk about emotional education not only gives our students and educators tools to deal with emotions, but also validates that these things are hard. In reality, nobody’s emotions are going to be under control and easy to navigate 100% of the time. I want my students to mess up now, so that they can practice emotional learning. I want to create the potential for them to avoid emotional and social conflict in the future and I additionally want to prepare them about how to deal with emotions when they are difficult, and how to handle if they mess up. These programs integrated into curriculum could give the opportunity to learn through practice and give strategies to integrate this emotional learning throughout the day without derailing the entire classroom over every social conflict.

  • J HB preschool curriculum has been working since the early 60’s. The Perry Preschool Research Project continues to prove the long term values.

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