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2011 News Releases

Longwood professor uses bears to work with Charlotte County preschool students

January 7, 2011

Students with the bear in class
Students in a classroom at the Early Learning Center with their bear

Preschool students in Charlotte County are developing appropriate behavior and better literacy skills through an approach introduced by a Longwood University faculty member.

Teachers in each of the five classrooms in the Early Learning Center are using a personified stuffed bear to re-teach classroom rules, reinforce appropriate behavior, enforce consequences for breaking rules, and assist in understanding and completing assignments. The idea came from Dr. Stephen Keith, assistant professor of education, who calls it a "comprehensive package integrating a behavior management program with learning developmentally appropriate literacy skills."

"The bear is a student who is part of the class - he goes to recess, art, music, lunch, and to the clinic when he's sick," Keith said. "He earns stickers if he's good and is sent to time-out if he misbehaves. The teacher pretends the bear has broken a rule, and only the teacher speaks bear. Students earn the right to teach him developmentally appropriate literacy and math skills, based on their behavior. Each bear has a different name, but they all begin with B: Billy Bear, Bubba Bear, Betty Bear, Bradley Bear and Bob Bear."

"Nobody else that I know of is doing this," said Keith. "Based on my experience using this in a bilingual school in Honduras, we have anecdotal evidence this works, and, thanks to the research in Prince Edward, we have quantitative evidence that it's effective."

The bears have been used since fall 2008 at the Early Learning Center, which is the site of the Charlotte County Public Schools' pre-kindergarten program. The program enrolls about 75 students, mostly four-year-olds.

"We treat Betty Bear as if she's another student," said Jennifer Arbogast, one of the teachers. "We include her in circle time (where students learn colors, shapes and letters) and in our table work. Students take turns being the helper with Betty. We have her picture with the class in the school yearbook, take her to the playground and to the gym - in the gym, we put her on the back of the bike, and on the playground we put her on the slide - and we feed her breakfast and lunch. She lies down on the mat for nap time. We include her on field trips: we make a name tag for her and she rides on the bus. Sometimes she gets sick and has to stay home. When they're waiting for the buses, she stays in her seat because her mom has to come from the woods. They look out the window for her mom."

Another teacher, Joanne Catron, who teaches the early childhood special education class, had a student last year with a lot of behavior issues. "Midway through the year, he started taking Barney the Bear with him to the 'sad face' area, which is for time-out," she said. "He would tell us what the bear had been doing - kicking, for example - and he would make him do all the steps, follow all the rules, in time-out. We would say 'Is he ready to come out?' and he would say 'No.'"

The principal, Dr. Ann Nelson, who keeps two stuffed bears in her office, also has seen students open up to the bears. "We had a new student in my office one day, and in just a few minutes she was interacting with one of the bears and singing the ABC song to it," she said. "We use the bears for socialization, and Jill Davis, a teacher who had worked with the bears before, partnered one student with a bear. The student's job was to help the bear learn his ABCs, and he became friends with the bear. Classmates accepted him more, so it really opened the door for him. The change in him was like night and day. He took the bear to recess and to P.E. It's easy for students to communicate with the bear."

Carolyn Baker, now the federal program and finance director for the Charlotte County schools, was principal of the Early Learning Center when the bears were introduced. "This is a perfect program for kids this age," she said. "It started as a behavior management tool but has become so much more than that. It teaches kids compassion and empathy, rules, good manners, academic concepts. It helps with classroom management and self-esteem and is a more nurturing style for constructive discipline.

"When Stephen Keith visits the classroom, the students ask 'Are you Bob Bear's uncle? His dad?' Kids wanted to know more about the bear. They were curious, so we had to develop stories about the bear. They want to have a relationship with the bear and, like storybook characters, they want to believe in the fantasy. This has supported literacy education and parent education. Parents have embraced this project as it has provided consistency between home and school routines. If their child is jumping on a bed at home, they'll say 'Bob Bear wouldn't be jumping on the bed.'

This approach has spawned a series of books by Keith and the staff that supplement the teachers' use of the bears. The concept was used in a study in the preschool program at Prince Edward County Elementary School that was a research project by a Longwood graduate student, the results of which were published in a refereed journal last year. Keith and his collaborators hope to present this model at professional conferences.

Two books, Saying Kind Words with B_ Bear and Learn Shapes with B_ Bear, have been published in the B_ Bear Children's Literacy Series, and five more books have been written and will soon go to the publisher, Farmville Printing. The books are written by Keith, Baker and the teachers in a collaborative process. Brittany Hughes, a graphic designer who is a graduate of the Charlotte County schools and lives in North Carolina, does the illustrations.

"These are classroom readers that reinforce what the teacher is teaching," Keith said. "I taught the teachers the behavioral concepts, and I say 'Let's develop some storylines based on what you know of this.' It's all about kids making good choices. As the books are read in class, the students will sometimes tell the storyline - that's early literacy, which is what we're after. The next book will be about B_ Bear having a toy dinosaur and being told by his mom not to take it on the school bus, but he takes it on the bus and gets into trouble. These are real-world scenarios. We're limited only by the set of experiences that kids have at school and at home."

The books "reinforce the school rules, and what's in the book connects to the classroom," Baker said. "We've tried to be thoughtful in developing a curriculum appropriate to this age. All the pieces work together to support behavior management, but saying it's only behavior management sells it short. It provides reinforcement for the child: they've learned the rules, and now they're teaching them to the bear. And because they've doing their work, it gives them confidence."

The idea of using a personified stuffed bear was originated by Keith's wife, Joyce, a librarian at Prince Edward County Elementary School for more than 30 years before retiring in 2009. The original bear, Bob Bear, now in Keith's office, was a gift from a teacher at her school.

"She came up with Bob Bear as a behavior management tool, and she would pretend he was a student in the library," Keith said. "She would remind him of the rules, put him in time-out. His full title was Bad Bob Bear, but over time she dropped the 'Bad.' I just thought it was the neatest idea. This is a humanistic approach that plays to the kids' strengths and experiences. It's what educators call a constructivist approach, which is a model of teaching that builds on children's experiences.

Boy with bear in class
Boy feeding the bear in his class during snack time

"For 10 or 12 years I have been a consultant to bilingual schools in Honduras, and four years ago I took Bob Bear to that country. The principal of Dowal School (in Tegucigalpa, the capital) said they were having behavior problems with their preschool program - three- and four-year-olds and kindergarten - and asked me if I would help the teachers develop a behavior management program. I did a workshop using Bob Bear and built a program around a personified stuffed bear and monkey. With the three- and four-year-olds, who are still learning English, we called him Manolo mono, Spanish for Matthew the monkey, and in kindergarten, where they're better in English, we called it Bob Bear. Kids love alliteration, which is an early childhood literacy skill. We refined the program over two years. Essentially we're integrating behavior management with literacy skills, and we're doing it in a naturalistic way. The Honduran teachers are also writing Bob and Manolo books, but they will be bilingual since it is a bilingual school."

The bears were then used on a trial basis at Prince Edward County Elementary School. "I mentioned Bob Bear to my graduate research class, and one student, Meredith Michael, was intrigued by this and used it for her collaborative research, a requirement for her master's degree," Keith said. Michael's research, conducted for about two months in spring 2008 in the preschool program, was published in the May/June 2009 issue of Teaching Exceptional Children (published by the Council for Exceptional Children) as an article, "Bob Bear: A Strategy for Improving Behaviors of Preschoolers Identified as At Risk or Developmentally Delayed." Dr. Ruth Meese was her adviser, and Keith and Dr. Rachel Mathews helped with designing her research. Michael, who received a bachelor's degree at Longwood in 2007 and a master's in 2008, now is a 1st-grade teacher in Virginia Beach.

After the study in Prince Edward County, Keith "began to cast around for a full-blown program using this approach. I spoke with Carolyn Baker, whom I knew, and she was all for it. We received permission from Longwood and from the Charlotte County schools to proceed."

Keith visits the Early Learning Center every couple weeks to check on how the bears concept is developing. On a visit one Tuesday morning in late November, he brought in a new bear, Bradley, to replace one, Bella, that had gotten worn. "Students said 'Is he a brother of Bella?' Nelson said. "We said 'No, a cousin.' You have to have a story. One student said she was going to make a name tag for Bradley." In one class that day, a student seated next to Bubba Bear was saying "Bubba's being a good bear." In another class, a student was feeding Betty Bear when it was time for everyone to eat breakfast.

"Once when I came here," Keith said, "a student said to me 'Are you Billy Bear's father?' I said 'No, I am just a friend of the family, and I came here to check on him.' And that makes sense to them!"

Keith and Baker hope to present this model at conferences, including those of the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education in March 2011 and the Virginia Association of Federal Education Program Administrators in November 2011. "We want to present this as a curriculum model that can easily integrate many program components," Baker said. "This is something that other teachers can easily replicate."

"This is a nice collaborative effort between Longwood and the schools," Keith said. "Sometimes university professors research and develop concepts that don't have an immediate and pragmatic application. This is different; it is real and builds on, in a useful way, what we already know about children. It is easily implemented, authentic and has little or no cost except for the inexpensive B_ Bear books."