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Southwest Portland parents launch app to help children navigate emotions and stress

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - John and Kristi Coppa with their daughters at Gabriel Park. The couple recently developed and launched Wondergrade, a phone app that uses a character named Yog to guide kids through exercises that help them learn to manage emotions and calm down.Kristi Coppa is lucky. No one in her immediate family got sick with COVID-19 during the pandemic.

But as a parent and teacher, she quickly recognized the propensity for kids to become sick with worry during a year marked by uncertainty, isolation and abrupt change.

"I had a lot of anxiety as a child," Coppa recalled. "My youngest daughter now she's about 4 and I noticed some similar signs. I started looking around for some tools and struggled to find anything that was age-appropriate."

Coppa, who has a nursing background, became certified as a children's mindfulness and yoga instructor shortly before schools closed in March 2020. She had planned to teach in-person classes to young kids yoga, psychology tools and self-regulation practices, but the pandemic prevented her from starting the gig.

She started developing her own tools for her daughter and eventually began creating content for other preschoolers to use, too. Before long, she found she needed an efficient way to dispense the tools and training.

Her husband, John was working on app development for Nike last year. It didn't take long for the two to combine their talents.

"I was telling him, 'gosh I just feel like these tools are so important, especially right now, and I just wish we could provide a platform where parents could have this all the time,'" Coppa recalled, talking to her husband last spring. "He looked at me and said, 'why don't we build an app?'"

The suggestion evolved into a full-fledged career move.

The Coppas launched Wondergrade, their first interactive app for children and parents, on the Apple store last month. The app is set to be available for Android devices soon. Both are now working full time on launching and promoting the app.

Wondergrade is centered on Yog, a big, green, androgynous bear-like creature that helps kids find their calm, regulate big emotions, center their bodies and practice guided breathing exercises. The app is geared toward children ages 3-8.

SCREENSHOT COURTESY OF JOHN AND KRISTI COPPA - Wondergrade is an app geared toward children ages 3-8."One thing we really work on is helping kids regulate when they have an extreme emotion," Coppa said. "They can go into that crisis mode really quickly because their brains aren't fully developed."

She said the tools and exercises in Wondergrade can helping parents and kids recognize when they're in a state of fight or flight, or "being really angry or upset before they hit their sister or start screaming."

"This helps them use that breathing tool really quick in the moment to help get back into a state where they can feel less overwhelmed," Coppa said.

As a mom, Coppa said she interacted with other parents and got a lot of feedback about what they were going through and how their children were reacting to life in quarantine.

"Honestly as the pandemic unfolded, and we started seeing a different light about what kids and parents needed," she said. "We switched the format a little bit."

Learning self-regulation and coping tools is invaluable and may be more important coming out of a pandemic, said Dr. Linzy Tere, a California-based educational psychologist and founder of the Brain MatterZ program.

"What you practice is what you hardwire," Dr. Linzey said, referring to early learning and psychology. "That's the way the brain works."

Linzey said she's seen a lot of kids lose sight of their executive functioning and time management, as well as other skills to stay on track, in addition to the undeniable emotions and anxiety the pandemic caused.

"A lot of them just don't have the tools to know how to bring themselves out of it," she said.

Wondergrade evolved from a heavy yoga emphasis, to more calm down and self-regulation techniques.

The Southwest Portland couple, who leaned heavily on their two daughters, ages 4 and 7 for inspiration, said the app's main character was the culprit of children's movie and shows that they found resonated most with their own kids, as well as a character who was equal parts likable and visually stimulating to young minds.

"We really had to strike a balance with the entire project between something the parents enjoy using and the kids would relate to," John Coppa said. "We wanted a character that was really relatable. Body image is certainly something I've dealt with growing up, and I didn't want to have any of those issues in the app."

The tech developer and father of two said after sinking so much time into the app, Yog started to feel like a third child for he and his wife.

"There was a joke that Yog was my only friend during the pandemic," John Coppa said.

The Coppas have counted "several thousand" downloads of the app since it launched on the Apple store in April. It comes as a $39 annual subscription, or users can pay $4.99 a month. The couple has also given away several free, "scholarship" subscriptions to those facing financial difficulty. They said a Spanish version is in the works and they're aiming to partner with a children's cancer organization to make the app available free to families with children undergoing treatment.


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