a conversation with teri weiss

Emmy Award winner Teri Weiss has developed many of Nick's hit preschool shows including Team Umizoomi, Bubble Guppies, Fresh Beat Band, Diego, and many more.

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To help bring awareness to National Anti-Bullying Month in October, we sat down for a conversation with Teri Weiss, Nickelodeon's Executive Vice President of Preschool Programming, about how Dora engages a bully in her new special, "Dora's Great Roller Skate Adventure."
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Why did the creators of Dora the Explorer decide to tackle the subject of bullying?
TW: Chris Gifford and Valerie Walsh Valdes (creators and executive producers) really wanted to take on the subject of bullying in a way that would not be threatening to kids and demonstrate the power of strength in numbers. For young kids entering a social group, whether it's at preschool or on the playground, there is a lot of trial and error. As adults, it is easy to forget that interpersonal skills are exactly that--SKILLS--that are not necessarily instinctual to preschoolers. So kids try a lot of things, and some of the stuff works and some of it doesn't.

And some kids try bullying as a technique, so we thought it was important to address it in Dora the Explorer. Kids are going to encounter bullying behaviors, and Chris was passionate about writing a story that demonstrated what Dora would do. He did a lot of research on the subject, and one of the things that was really important was to distinguish for kids in the episode was that it wasn't about a character being a bully, it was about their behavior of acting like a bully. The script makes a point that Big Wheeler was acting like a bully; we never actually call him a bully in the episode. Especially with young kids, it's important not to identify someone with a label, and to really direct your feedback on the behavior. That subtly can have a big impact; when you identify it as a behavior and not a part of someone's character, everyone can see the possibility for change. The kids being bullied can leave that door open, and perhaps more importantly, so does the child behaving like one.

In "Dora's Great Roller Skate Adventure," Big Wheeler, the bully, shuts down Skate Park and Dora and her friends challenge him as a group. Tell us more about that.
TW: Part of the message was about strength in numbers, which I thought was an original and refreshing approach to take and very much in keeping with the spirit of the series. Dora challenged Big Wheeler's behavior and made it very clear to him that he wasn't being nice and that there was an issue of fairness about allowing everybody to use Skate Park. And then, when Big Wheeler suggested that the group would cower in the absence of Dora, the other characters one by one say they will in fact stand up to him, demonstrating that if they came together as a group they could be stronger. We really want preschoolers to be empowered by this; if everybody embraces the idea that certain kinds of behavior are unacceptable, there's a better chance of getting your point across.

How does Big Wheeler respond when the group stands up to him?
TW: He backed down. Solidarity can be very powerful, and it is very common for a young kid to retreat the way he did. He thought, this is a no-win situation, and he rolled away. But what happens next is very important. Dora approaches him and makes him understand that it wasn't about winning or losing, it was about acceptance. She made it clear to him, "You can play with us too. The park is for everyone and we want you to have fun as well." I think that once Big Wheeler understood that he was going be accepted if he changed his behavior, he was able to adjust the way that he related to them. I feel like that is a key message in the show. There is a long, emotional journey from "I'm not going to behave that way anymore" to "Because I see how it makes you feel." When you get to that place emotionally as a kid, and even as a grown-up, you have opened that gateway to empathy, and empathy is the foundation for positive social interaction. Once Big Wheeler understood that changing his attitude was going to open the door to friendship, he could be a different person. The big win is not to overcome someone behaving badly in a particular situation. It is to break the cycle of bad behavior for good.

Did the character change during the production process?
TW: The Dora research team, headed by Mariana Diaz-Wionczek, PhD, tests the show with kids at different stages in production. They start by telling the story in still picture/book form, and then an animatic (rough animation) phase, and then test final animation with kids.

Early in the story testing process, there was an uneasiness about Big Wheeler's bullying behaviors, and so the research team recommended that the end goal be less about Big Wheeler and more about Skate Park, and how great it would be when we got there. What never changed was Dora making sure Big Wheeler understood that it wasn't him they didn't like, but his behavior. Dora suggests that if he was open to recognizing that sharing the park was the right thing to do, they were certainly open to accepting him into the group. I think that really made the kids happy in research because they felt as if Big Wheeler had an opportunity to change. It's so telling about preschoolers because they had such investment in his emotional transformation.

I talk about this a lot, anecdotally, about the show in general. It's funny, we've done a number of magical transformations over the years where Dora turns into a mermaid or a princess, but what clearly has the most impact on our audience is the emotional transformations; it's what kids talk about after they watch episodes more than anything else. And I think it's really inspiring to know that even after Big Wheeler's bad behavior, young kids are still cheering for him to want to be friendly and play in the park. After the script was tweaked, the kids were really happy that he turned it around. And it's probably in large part because they empathize with the situation--Big Wheeler did something wrong, but if he CAN be friendly, let's give him another chance. I think we all want to feel that there is always another chance to be better. (I know I do!)

What is Dora's role in this episode?
TW: Dora is a catalyst; she's a leader, she's a role model for kids, and she was standing up there and taking on Big Wheeler. I think that what Dora is really modeling is the idea that it's okay to stand up for yourself when you know that something is right.

This story aims to be more than, "Okay, we fixed our problem and now we can play," it is about that second step where Dora helps Big Wheeler understand that "we want to be your friend, we want you to play with us," and I think there was that nice little touch at the end where all the characters said, "And if anyone ever says to you that you can't use the playground, then we're going to stand behind you, too." That's also a very powerful message because once again, it shifts the focus to behavior being bad, and not labeling someone a bad person, and reinforces that as a group of friends, they can be very strong when they stand up for what is right.

Why is Dora such a good role model for children?
TW: With each season that we make of Dora, I find myself increasingly proud of her model citizenship. She has such a strong sense of justice, and fairness, and inclusion. Dora always has time for a friend. Kids always talk about that in research.

And she has a very special bond with the kids watching at home. She really empowers them by needing their help. From the moment the episode starts, Dora let's kids know that we're in this together. I think it has a really powerful impact on a kid's confidence, because they do feel as if they helped Dora do what she needed to do.

Dora has always been about building a child's self-confidence and self-assurance. I think that it is built into the dialogue of every episode that we've ever done. From the first question she asks the audience: "Do you like this or have you ever done this?" as a way of getting the conversation started is a way she is asking kids to express themselves and to feel good about what they think and feel. She values kids' opinions. In those interactive game moments where she asks for a call-and-response to propel the plot and she says, "Great job! Thanks for doing that!" she makes kids feel really good about their contribution.

Which all ties back in to this idea of how to address bullying behavior. So much research that we've done suggests that when you talk to kids, particularly kids who act like bullies, about what they feel, and ask them to use their own experiences to project how someone else might feel in a similar situation, you create an opportunity for change. The idea is not to dictate a change in behavior, but to lead a person to want to change their behavior because he or she has experienced empathy. And we like to think Dora is helping with episodes like "The Great Roller Skate Adventure." If she can help kids believe that what they think and feel matters, and that how they treat other people matters, we are hopefully on a path of fewer kids acting like bullies and many more wanting to be friends.
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