ROOSEVELT ELEMENTARY — In Catherine Handelman’s kindergarten classroom, a circle of 5- and 6-year-olds taunted a person-shaped cutout named “Put Up Paul.”
“You’re bad at skating!” one child said, and tore a small hole into Paul’s paper body.
“Surprisingly, no one’s made fun of his head yet,” Handelman said, referring to the drawing’s balloon-shaped facial feature.
The arrangement sounds like something out of “Lord of the Flies,” but it’s actually a carefully-staged lesson to show the kids the invisible wounds caused by meanness, and how they can be healed, but never truly taken back.
“Put Up Paul,” named for the kind words used to negate the “put down” that resulted in the original wound, is one of a number of strategies in Cool Tools, a system developed by the UCLA Lab School to teach young children how to relate and interact with their peers.
Cool Tools debuted at Roosevelt in 2003 when it was still in its early research stage under the direction of UCLA’s Ava de la Soto, and has since spread to every elementary school in the district with the exception of Will Rogers Learning Community.
Its strength lies in the strategy of teaching intangible concepts using physical objects so that children as young as Handelman’s kindergarten class can understand the abstract idea, said Laurie Ramirez, the Cool Tools coordinator at the UCLA Lab School.
“They get something they can see as tangible and are able to understand, and from there, they can talk about the analogy,” Ramirez said. “For instance, we tell them that we all have ‘tool boxes,’ but do you see people walking around with tool boxes all the time? No.”
A number of “tools” fit in the tool box, which is actually a plastic box filled with props that each relate to a specific concept, like a giant inflatable tennis shoe to symbolize exit strategies, or a kaleidoscope to represent that everyone sees a situation from a unique point of view.
Since all the kids in the school learn about the tools in similar ways, students and teachers have a common vocabulary to address and prevent problems, Handelman said.
For instance, the challenging process of herding two dozen 5-year-olds from one end of the school to the other gets much easier when they all respond to directions to respect each other’s personal space.
Because all the kids speak about problems in the same way, they’re able to relate better to their peers, interpersonal skills that many have mastered better than most adults.
One thing that never comes up in Cool Tools is the one topic that dominates almost every other conversation about education — bullying.
Although its creators hope that something like Cool Tools will prevent situations that lead to bullying, it doesn’t explicitly address it.
“It’s about how we communicate, not just for bullying,” said Norma Silva, the principal at the UCLA Lab School. “They’re learning the skills of being respectful, collaborating and having compassion for one another.”
In part, the focus of Cool Tools emerged from the context in which it was created.
“I think it was the year before Columbine,” Silva said. “One of the things we were noticing was that there were problems on the yard because the curriculum was not yet supporting development to solve the problems that came up.”
Kids on “the yard,” a term used to cover free-play time outside of a classroom context like recess, were insulting one another, using skin color, clothes and even learning disabilities as fodder for mean comments.
To combat that, UCLA researcher Jaana Juvonen took on the project of examining a number of anti-bias programs from around the world and used that investigation to develop Safe Schools, a systemic program that includes Cool Tools.
A decade later, the program is still in a state of evolution as new challenges like body image issues or alternative family structures begin to play more of a role than they did in the past.
It’s also critical to keep updating it so that kids that have grown up with the program remain engaged. Some, like the fifth graders at Roosevelt, have been getting Cool Tools lessons since they were five.
“We need to keep it fresh for them so they understand they still have these responsibilities,” Ramirez said.
Eight years into its tenure at Roosevelt, both teachers and parents have really embraced the program and seen the positive results that it has wrought in the children.
Lauren Culp, a therapist by trade and also district parent and substitute teacher, has been a proponent of Cool Tools from the beginning.
It empowers not just the students, but also faculty and parents in creating a new, positive focus on building interpersonal skills in schools.
“Right now there’s a whole movement to expand the three R’s — reading, writing and arithmetic — to include relationships and reflection,” Culp said. “If you can help people with reflection and relationships, that improves their ability to be successful later in life.”