When Sandy Chafouleas and Emily Wicks recently told an audience of business experts that there is an epidemic in children’s mental health, no one seemed surprised.
For years, the increase in depression and anxiety among children has been painfully and repeatedly documented in the media, in classrooms, and in overwhelmed emergency rooms.
“When kids don’t feel well, they don’t do well in school, in sports, or in life,’’ says Chafouleas, a school psychologist and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in the Neag School of Education and Ray Neag Professor of School Psychology. Childhood mental health concerns were growing pre-pandemic, but that disruption caused them to erupt, she says.
In response, she and Wicks, manager of operations and collections at the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry at UConn, created “Feel Your Best Self,” a toolkit that offers easy-to-use online materials for educators, parents, and other community providers to help children address and process emotions.
Later this month, Feel Your Best Self and five other UConn-affiliated startups will compete for $50,000 in prize money during the Wolff New Venture Competition, the School of Business’ premier entrepreneurship event.
Puppet Kids Demonstrate Emotional Coping
During the pandemic, the Ballard Institute shifted from in-person puppet-making workshops to virtual programs, and Wicks began wondering how they could be most beneficial for children. Chafouleas was working on simple strategies to support emotional well-being for children and educators, and the two interests created a perfect storm.
“This collaboration has been a bit of a happy accident,’’ Wicks says.
With funding from Principal Foundation and the Neag Foundation, the toolkit materials expanded substantially. Short, professionally produced videos feature “puppet kids’’ that teach 12 simple strategies to promote emotion-focused coping.
The goal is to help children develop skills to calm themselves, “catch’’ their feelings, and connect with others. Feel Your Best Self materials also include tip sheets to help adults discuss the strategies with children, facilitate guidance-like lesson plans, and directions on how to add puppet-making to creatively build a “friend’’ with whom to practice calming strategies.
Launched just over a year ago, Feel Your Best Self has already gained a tremendous following and garnered publicity through NPR, Edutopia, Scripps News, and locally on WFSB. The project won a 2023 Kids Screen Award and four Telly Awards for TV and web content.
Chafouleas and Wicks say they have been astonished by the reception that their startup has received, but its success has created another set of problems: requests for physical materials to complement use of what is available for free online.
“Educators and caregivers love the free digital resources, but we almost immediately started to receive requests for physical products to help with the implementation in classrooms and group settings,’’ Wicks says. “We were hand-cutting and packaging puppet kit parts, but it has been impossible to keep up with the demand.’’
In addition to puppet kits, educators reached out to ask about purchasing printed materials including posters, journals, and storybooks to support their use of Feel Your Best Self. Chafouleas and Wicks decided to form a company to develop affordable products to fully enable Feel Your Best Self’s mission to encourage emotional wellbeing through joyful learning and play.
‘It Wasn’t Something We Even Dreamed Of’
“Neither of us ever thought about creating a business; it wasn’t something we even dreamed of,’’ Chafouleas says. “It truly grew from the public demand.’’
While there are many other emotional-learning programs on the market, the majority are complex, costly, or don’t really focus on the emotional-coping skills used to navigate everyday life, Chafouleas says. Feel Your Best Self responds to those needs.
Last summer, the two collaborators were invited to participate in an entrepreneurship accelerator, the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CCEI), Summer Fellowship. Through that program, Chafouleas and Wicks got lessons in business development, fund acquisition, strategy and more.
“We would have been lost without Summer Fellowship,’’ Chafouleas says. “It was very rewarding to learn the business skills that we were missing.’’
“CCEI Summer Fellowship helped us focus on the steps to make the business a reality,’’ Wicks says. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What will we do next week? Next month? In six months?’” she says. “Being thrown into the business world and having the ability to work with amazing instructors and mentors was invaluable.’’
Millions Could Benefit from ‘Feel Your Best Self’
Feel Your Best Self is working with school districts and programs throughout Connecticut, including the Early Childhood Education Program in Waterbury. In addition, it has expanded its reach globally as the founders offer monthly webinars and professional development options.
Chafouleas and Wicks believe that many of the 2 million elementary educators, school psychologists, and counselors in the United States could benefit from the program. The founders’ primary business goal is to raise capital for initial launch with educational settings, but they also see potential to scale the company through growth in the family consumer market.
“Although it is designed and presented as a program for children, even adults can learn the techniques, like belly breathing,’’ Wicks says. “We’re creating life-long coping strategies. The adults have as much fun as the kids. I think more adults need a creative break and to have fun.’’
The Wolff New Venture Competition will be held on Tuesday, Oct. 17 from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the School of Business’ GBLC, Second Floor, 100 Constitution Plaza, Hartford. All are welcome. Please pre-register at https://ccei.uconn.edu/wolff-new-venture-competition