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Teddy Bears as an Emotional Support in the Classroom

Teddy Bears

Reading Bears Bears Everywhere! Supporting Children's Emotional Health in the Classroom by Lesley Koplow, inspired us to give each of our 24 children a teddy bear this year. In her words: "...including [Teddy Bears] in the classroom process can give children a voice for fears, worries, and conflicts that sometimes underlie inattentive and disruptive behavior in the classroom. Bears in the room can help the teacher create a 'holding environment,' a place where children feel 'held,' even when they are struggling. This technique can help him or her build a foundation for a pro-social peer community within the classroom environment, setting the stage for more positive peer interactions and an emotionally safe environment at school." This was certainly true for us and our children this school year. The bears were important for all our children to feel safer and happier in our classroom and were specially helpful for a few children that had a really hard time fitting in (read about Kev).

Bringing bears into the classroom in the way that Koplow suggests, gives students that have unsolved attachment issues the opportunity to have a "transitional object" or comfort object. When we think about "transitional objects," we go back to the image of a toddler holding a little blanket or a stuffed animal. In fact, children that have created transitional objects in toddlerhood have accomplished a very important milestone in their emotional and social development. Toddlers invent "transitional objects" when they start spending less and less time with their primary caregivers, and there is a conflict between their desire to explore the world on their own and the need to have their parents close to feel safe and secure. The "transitional object" is then a symbol for the comfort and safety they feel when they are close to the primary caregiver. Holding the transitional object allows them to be apart from their parents and still feel safe. Later when children can hold the image of their parents in their mind, the need for the transitional object fades. Many children come into our classrooms without having accomplished important emotional and social developmental tasks. Even those that come to us with stable attachment histories may have trouble adapting to the new setting and the new adults they will have to rely on for 7 hours a day. "When teachers give children Teddy Bears as part of classroom life, the bears have the potential to become symbols for the security of the teacher-child relationship" (Koplow, pg. 15). For instance, in our classroom, the teddy bears really helped when one us had to be absent, as just holding them seemed to bring the children the comfort they needed to have a nice day in school without one of us there. In other school years the absence of one of us was a lot more disruptive, and usually meant a very hectic day for all.


We got the bears in October and introduced them to the children slowly as Koplow suggests. First we placed all the bears on a high shelf and just let the children see them. We talked about the bears and how each would have one, but first we needed to talk about how we would make sure our bears were safe with us in the classroom. We had several conversations that brought us back to our classroom rules and the importance of following them. We talked about how the bears would be their special friends. We then let each child choose a bear (all the bears looked the same) and just hold it. After a few days in which the children brought their bears to the read aloud time and played with them during Worktime Choices, we asked them to name their bears. Some children gave their bears names they liked, and it was hard for us to figure out their reasoning. Other children gave their bears names that showed us how powerful and healing bringing bears to the classroom could really be. One of our boys had just arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic a few days before he joined our classroom, he named his bear "Nathanael", the name of the best friend he had left in his country. In a similar way a boy that had started kindergarten in Florida and came to our class in November, gave the bear the name of his best friend in Florida. A boy in our classroom that lived only with his mother and whose dad lives in Mexico, named his bear "Papá"... When all the bears had a name, the children chose a tag for us to write their bear's name and their name, which we laminated and then tied to each bear with a ribbon each child had chosen too. The bears looked a little different now and the children began to get really attached to them.

Because the bears were part of our classroom life everyday, we needed to find them a space to live. We got little baskets for each bear and many children sewed cushions for their bears. Some children also made bracelets and necklaces for their bears with pipe cleaners and beads. A few brought sweaters and jackets for their bears from home. On our schedule we added a little picture of a bear at the times in which they could have their bears with them. Usually they could have their bears for read aloud (which made our read alouds very peaceful and wonderful!), rest and Worktime Choices. Sometimes we asked them to bring their bears for other activities as well. For example, for journal writing we would ask them to bring their bears and tell them about what they wanted to write about. After a week of vacation, we would ask the children to bring their bears for morning meeting to help them with the transition back to school.

The bears also became "self objects" or representations of the children themselves and their emerging identity. Providing a "pretend" way for children to express what they were "really" feeling. We had several conversations in which instead of asking the children: "How are you feeling about...?", we would ask, or "How does you bear feel about...?" It seems that this allowed even the most reluctant of children to reveal how he or she was feeling, with much more ease than if he/she had been asked the question directly. Every school year in June, we have asked the children what they are going to miss about our classroom. Some children have been successful answering the question and others have not been able to think of something or have felt shy about saying it. This year, when the children learned they would take the bears home when kindergarten ended, we asked them to think about what their bears would miss about our classroom. Their answers were so sincere and came to them so quickly! "My bear will miss the teachers," "My bear will miss playing with (friends name)," or "My bear will miss playing with the trains." Then we asked them to tell their bears about the things they could look forward to do at their homes. These helped them remember all the things they like to do with their families and their summer plans. It was truly a very successful meeting, and one of the ways in which the children said goodbye to our classroom and a year of learning and growing together. We were happy to have the bears' help!

This year the bears became part of our classroom life in a very natural way. However, we wish we had done even more with them. We did get to see their wonderful potential to support children's emotional well being and we will continue to use bears in the classroom hopefully in even deeper ways.
 

THINK ABOUT YOUR CLASSROOM

You do not need to be a kindergarten teacher to bring bears to your classroom. In her book, Bears Bears Everywhere! Lesley Koplow writes about how teachers in PreK to 5th grade have used bears. (If you are thinking about bringing bears into your classroom, we highly recommend to read the book. It is beautifully written and very inspiring!)

Middle and high schoolers may still need comfort objects, what could these objects be? Can your kids perhaps make friendship bracelets for each other? Can you use technology to help your older students invent symbols for caring relationships?