Early Childhood Opinion

Developing Resilience in Our Children With Help From Sesame Street

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 20, 2014 6 min read
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Resilience is an essential social/emotional ability that children need to be helped to develop. Our budgets are limited, and finding reliable resources to aid in this work is important. Sesame Street has conducted extensive research and provides free resources in both English and Spanish, and reaches our youngest learners. We were able to interview Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s Senior Vice President of Outreach and Educational Practices about their work and her thinking about developing more resilient young learners.

How did you come to the decision that this skill of resilience could be developed starting with preschoolers through your work with your television audience?
Our work goes beyond our programming. When we began our work on resilience in 2008 it was specific to military families. It centered on the extensive challenges and transitions that young children were facing around deployment, when a parent becomes changed, or when a parent did not return because of a death. Then when we got to that point of grief, we realized that this wasn’t just significant for young children in military families - it extends into the general public.

Since then we’ve worked on other topics and challenges like divorce and incarceration in order to help build children’s resiliency. But we realized that resilience is not just about the big challenges, but also the equally important smaller ones that happen in everyday moments. Everything from bedtime blues, to sibling rivalry, relocation or transition requires a level of resilience. We really want to help preschool-aged children with these transitions and provide resources to help them learn how to develop skills to better overcome challenges they’ll continue to face as they grow up.

What type of research and background did you to gather to know that this programming could impact children and help them develop these social/emotional skills that are so essential?
The idea of how to present this subject to parents today - and from the point of view of young children - is a challenge. Internally, we did an analysis of the kind of research there is around resilience with a focus on young children. We looked at elements such as risk factors and the impact of poverty to get a better grasp on the landscape.

As with all our initiatives, we also assembled a group of key advisors from different perspectives to guide us throughout the entire process. And then we do a very intensive testing of prototypes the resources. So we went out to children and families, both English and Spanish speaking, to test the resources to make sure the strategies we were suggesting in these everyday moments were applicable, easy-to-do and understandable from the child’s point of view.

We’re fortunate that our Sesame Street Muppets have widespread recognition. That helps us to engage children. Because of our connections with parents and caregivers, we developed a package of resources that are both online and hands-on to support them in their work with children. Those resources include everything from our Muppet stories to an app (Breathe, Think, Do) that demonstrate strategies for confronting challenges. And because we want to ensure our resources are readily available to all who need them, we make them accessible for free.

What relationship have you developed with families?
We pay careful attention to what we see and hear in our relationships with parents and caregivers. It’s also important to have resources that are created bilingually, in English and in Spanish, as the Spanish-speaking population continues to grow. The way you connect in your native language or culture is important and should be carefully considered as materials and toolkits are developed, as there are nuances not only in the language, but in the approach.

In order to be successful, we need to connect with parents - and they in turn need to connect with caregivers or educators as well. So we believe in the circle of care. And that circle of care is built on our relationship of trust through our Sesame Street brand, but also that we do it from a child’s point of view.

What do you mean by circle of care?
It’s this idea that you’re encircling a child. Because, when we’re talking about resilience it can’t just be parenting or a caregiver - it has to be everyone. It’s like a community model, where parents, educators, schools and communities surround and support the child, who is the focal point. We need to build around them.

What recommendations do you have for schools regarding the continuation of the development of these skills? What is your vision for once you lose your audience into the public school years?
It is the goal of our initiative to help establish a philosophy that building resilience skills should begin early but does not stop after children leave their preschool years. As a society, we should focus on helping children become stronger academically, as equally as we do their social and emotional wellbeing. As a society, we’re so focused on helping children to become stronger academically, with a specific focus on literacy, math, etc. that oftentimes we forget that emotional wellbeing plays a major role in virtually everything they do. In an ideal world, there would be programs dedicated to helping to develop resilience skills incorporated into the curriculum.

It is useful for educators to recognize that they don’t have to do this on their own, and that’s where Sesame Workshop’s initiatives are so helpful. With all of our initiatives, we include resources specifically developed for educators on how to incorporate these strategies into their classroom routines. And we work with wonderful partners like the National Head Start Association, as well as other national and local organizations and partners, to ensure that our resources reach young children and families where they are, either in school or within their community. And once children have moved on from Sesame Street and make the big jump into the early elementary school years, we hope our resources have provided them with the basic skillsets needed to help overcome the new challenges they may face, like separation anxiety on the first day of school or bullying that may happen on the playground or other settings.

We strongly believe that through our work with families, educators, and the early childhood communities, we have an advantage to develop awareness and offer resources, especially around resilience, because it is so critical. If we do that, then we’re helping children through that major transition from early childhood into their public school years. We hope that by helping to facilitate critical skills early on, such as resilience, we are assisting parents, caregivers, and educators in helping children learn how to make transitions without undue stress.

What do you see is the biggest challenge in educating young children today?
I think the biggest challenge is exactly what we’ve been speaking about -understanding the advantage that we have in early childhood. It really is these early years that are so crucial. And it’s not just for the child - it’s for that circle of care. We need to engage all the important stakeholders who support young children and can help them thrive. But we need to do it collectively and really focus on those early years to establish and support all early childhood systems. What young children need most from us is for us to focus on their education, health and wellbeing.

What are you hopeful about?
I am hopeful that we are recognizing that those early childhood years are so critical. I feel that now there is a movement toward providing quality early childhood education and services. I’m also hopeful that the increasing interconnectedness of today’s world will help us to get there as well. That is why all of our resources are free and available bilingually and through our social media channels, Google Play and iTunes on the app store, so we can connect with those who need them across the nation.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.