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The ‘Feeling Friends’ are helping students learn to talk about their emotions

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  • Love is the most important feeling for students at this Winston-Salem school. Learn how an entrepreneur and a principal have teamed up to teach students how to manage big emotions — and behavior.
  • The students at a Restart School in @wsfcs are learning a "feelings vocabulary," and now the principal says the school "just feels different."
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“What’s the most important feeling?” a woman in a bedazzled bucket hat calls out to an auditorium of 300 young students.

“LOVE!” the students shout in response. 

The word explodes from them, as if yelling it with enough force will transform the word into the feeling itself, and then Miss KK will truly know what she means to the students of Kimberley Park Elementary School in Winston-Salem. 

It’s just another Friday at Kimberley Park, where Karen Cuthrell (aka Miss KK) makes regular appearances to read aloud to the students.  

They know the most important feeling is love because they’ve met the “Feeling Friends,” characters created by Cuthrell and featured in the books she reads to them.

Kimberley Park has gone all-in with the Feeling Friends this year, embracing the curriculum Cuthrell built around her characters with the goal of supporting children’s social-emotional health. 

The Feeling Friends are 12 animal characters, each associated with an emotion — Lotta Love the LovaRoo, Angie the Angry Tiger, Billy the Bully Goat, and their friends. The Feeling Friends curriculum includes books, songs, puppets, activities, and professional development led by Cuthrell. 

Since adopting Cuthrell’s curriculum, Mia Parker, the school’s family engagement coordinator, has noticed a significant improvement in the behavior and mental state of the students and their families.

“She’s like a freakin’ goldmine,” Parker said. “There’s so many things that she does that resonate with our children. And with everybody, not just the kids.”

Karen Cuthrell (aka Miss KK) prepares to read a Feeling Friends story about Lotta Love the LovaRoo to the students of Kimberley Park Elementary School. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

Miss KK & the Feeling Friends

The shimmering Miss KK persona was forged in a moment of darkness and fear.

“Almost 29 years ago, my daughter was diagnosed with depression,” Cuthrell told EdNC. “When I heard the word depression, I became scared because back then, depression was such a dirty word.”

In addition to worrying about how the stigma of a mental health diagnosis would impact her young daughter’s life, Cuthrell was at a loss for how to support her.

“She was 6 years old when the doctor said I had to get her to talk about her feelings,” Cuthrell said. “I realized she didn’t have a feelings vocabulary.”

Cuthrell started thinking about ways to help her daughter develop that vocabulary as a starting point on the road to better mental health.

“I knew she liked music, I knew she liked dance, I knew she liked books,” Cuthrell said.

Cuthrell started by hiring a music teacher to help her write songs about emotions. Together, they created 12 characters, each based on an emotion they thought would help her daughter and other students talk about their feelings: fear, anger, shame, disgust, guilt, hostility, meanness, sadness, tenderness, happiness, satisfaction, and love.

Next they hired a Morehouse College student to draw cartoon versions of their characters. His mom sewed stuffed animals inspired by his designs, so children could have something to hold and squeeze while navigating their feelings through songs.

“In a three-month span, we went from an idea to throwing a concert at (a community college) with cassette tapes and coloring books,” Cuthrell said.

Cuthrell took on the persona of Miss KK — a name inspired by the fact that she and the music teacher she worked with were both named Karen — to visit schools, singing and dancing with students as she introduced them to the Feeling Friends

“And one of the reasons I started doing that is because I realized that my daughter was in a school where they never had any Black performers coming in,” Cuthrell said. 

It’s important to Cuthrell that the Feeling Friends were specifically designed with Black children in mind. 

“You can’t take some curriculum, just put a brown face on it and say that it’s culturally responsive, because it isn’t,” Cuthrell said.

Karen Cuthrell (aka Mis KK) puts on a more serious hat to talk about the importance of children having an emotional vocabulary. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

“Funding needs to be opened up to African Americans to write curriculum,” Cuthrell said. “because if you want to be culturally responsive, we know our children.”

The Feeling Friends curriculum is built on the foundation of the widely used CASEL framework for social-emotional learning. The evidence-based framework focuses on five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness, and relationship skills. 

Cuthrell’s curriculum also incorporates the principles of targeted universalism. According to the Othering & Belonging Institute:

Within a targeted universalism framework, universal goals are established for all groups concerned. The strategies developed to achieve those goals are targeted, based upon how different groups are situated within structures, culture, and across geographies to obtain the universal goal. 

As Cuthrell explained, “What we write is for everybody, every kid loves it. But it really resonates with our children.” Children like her now-thriving adult daughter.

Because North Carolina is Cuthrell’s home, the Feeling Friends curriculum is similarly aligned with the state’s Standard Course of Study for elementary schools.

Strong social-emotional health is particularly important for children who live in communities with high rates of violence, crime, poverty, and/or unemployment. It can serve as a protective factor for children who are at risk of exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). 

That includes the students who attend Kimberley Park Elementary School.

The grounds of Kimberley Park Elementary School in Winston-Salem. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

Diamond Cotton & Kimberley Park

Kimberley Park Elementary sits in the heart of the Boston-Thurmond neighborhood in Winston-Salem, a mile-and-a-half north of downtown on Cherry Street. 

Like many predominantly Black neighborhoods established during the era of racially restrictive covenants and redlining in the early 20th century, the area was home to middle-class working families and successful small businesses. 

And as in other thriving Black neighborhoods, construction of a new highway bisected the community in the mid-20th century. Then Black workers began losing jobs to mechanization and globalization. The neighborhood developed a negative reputation as illegal activity and drug use increased, and some homes fell into disrepair. 

There’s little evidence of that visible today as Black parents walk their children down tree-canopied sidewalks to their neighborhood school. A concerted effort from community members in partnership with philanthropic organizations has revitalized the area. 

And Principal Diamond Cotton has revitalized Kimberley Park Elementary School.

Cotton took over as principal of Kimberley Park in March 2020. She was the fourth person to hold the position that school year. 

Diamond Cotton, principal of Kimberley Park Elementary School in Winston-Salem. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

“I was asked to come here for a reason… We were in the bottom 10% of the state on test scores, so we had to do some work to try to get out of that hole,” Cotton said. “For me though, I knew that there are lots of pieces that contribute to the academic success of kids.”

Kimberley Park was designated as a Restart School due to its “recurring low performing” status. According to the Department of Public Instruction, Restart Schools are granted “charter-like flexibility” to adopt innovative strategies that can lead to better student outcomes. 

Cotton started her work at Kimberley Park by focusing on what she called the “extreme behavior” of the students, caused by the trauma she knew they experienced on a daily basis.

“When I came in, kids didn’t know how to walk in the halls, they didn’t know how to respond to each other. You could tell there were lots of needs,” Cotton said. 

Then 10 days after she took the job, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district. 

Cotton worried about what her students were dealing with at home, but the closure also presented an opportunity to hit the reset button for the school, its staff, and its students.

The flexibility of being a Restart School gave her the ability to retain staff members who shared her vision for the school, and bring new members on board. She also got support from the superintendent to beautify the school building and grounds, removing bars from the windows, replacing broken doors, painting murals on walls and floors, and planting new flowers and shrubs outside.

She and her staff established new norms for the school, including a weekly Friday morning assembly called “Harambee,” a Swahili word that means “all pull together.” 

Staff members, including principal Diamond Cotton (far right) lead Kimberley Park Elementary School students in affirmation chants during a weekly Harambee assembly. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

During Harambee, staff members lead students in singing and dancing, teachers or volunteers read aloud, students receive awards for academic improvement, and Cotton announces which staff member will be receiving a free lunch in recognition of their work (which she pays for from her own pocketbook). 

When students began returning to classrooms for the 2020-21 school year, she started with the youngest students, who had no previous experience with the school. She and her staff brought back one grade level at a time, establishing new norms and expectations as they went. 

By the time the fifth graders returned, the school’s appearance and culture was nothing like they remembered from their years before, and the new norms had already been accepted by the rest of the school’s students. The KP School (as it’s often called) was reborn.

But despite the changes to the school, students were still bringing the trauma they experienced in their lives off-campus into the hallways and classrooms. 

“It’s not unusual for there to be a shooting down the street and our kids to be impacted by it in some way, shape, or form,” Cotton said. 

She knew she needed to find a way to help them talk about and process their feelings. 

“A big part of it was culture and making sure that we were providing an environment that was supportive of the needs our kids had, even if there were deficits coming from home,” Cotton said. “And so that’s how we landed on the Feeling Friends.” 

Cotton had welcomed Miss KK into a school where she had previously worked and knew the Feeling Friends had been visiting Forsyth County classrooms for more than a decade. With the flexibility granted to her as the leader of Restart School, she had the opportunity to adopt Cuthrell’s entire Feeling Friends curriculum schoolwide. 

Cotton and Cuthrell started with providing professional development to the staff, training them in social-emotional learning, giving them the “feelings vocabulary” of the Feeling Friends, and giving them the books, music, puppets, or activities appropriate for their classrooms and grade levels. 

Parker said that when students get upset now, instead of lashing out or shutting down, they have conversations. 

“They can tell you their emotions, and they can tell you why they’re feeling that way,” Parker said. “Because the teachers are teaching that curriculum, so they’re getting that SEL that they wouldn’t normally get if it’s not embedded into instruction.”

The entryway to Kimberley Park Elementary School in Winston-Salem. Mia Parker, the school’s family engagement coordinator, can be seen in the main office, providing support to a student. Katie Dukes/EducationNC.

“People walk into our building, and then they’re like, ‘It just feels different.’ And that’s what I want,” Cotton said. 

“I see the school going in a very positive direction,” Parker said. “So much so that if it were not for the fact that I’ve given the state 32 years, I wouldn’t retire!”

And it’s not just the kids who are learning.

Parker described a powerful moment when a veteran teacher stood up during a recent staff meeting to say that she had seen the Feeling Friends curriculum working for her students, even though she hadn’t initially been on board. 

“I think that was what made it so impactful for her to say that,” Parker said. “She validated that she’s learning, too.” 

The Feeling Friends curriculum at KP School has also included emotion coaching workshops for parents, which Parker believes is an essential part of the curriculum’s success. 

“Miss KK also teaches them how to deal with their emotions, and how their adverse childhood experiences impact how they perceive their children and what they project to their children,” Parker said.  

Cuthrell works with people of all ages, from preschoolers, to teen athletes, to parents. 

“It’s a holistic program that’s good for everybody, that’s rooted in love, that’s based in love,” Cuthrell said.

She’s replaced Miss KK’s bedazzled bucket hat with a simple black beanie, but Miss KK still shines through. “Because love is the most important feeling.”

Katie Dukes

Katie Dukes is a policy analyst at EdNC.