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Children and trauma: How Sesame Street can help


 

 

Nearly half of American children have faced one adverse childhood experience (ACE), according to new analysis of the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, and more than 20% have had two ACEs or more. This may include abuse or neglect, witnessing violence, parental substance abuse, mental illness, or incarceration. And from news headlines, we are all too aware of other traumas children face, such as natural disasters and mass violence.

The presence of a caring adult makes all the difference in the life of a child coping with the effects of trauma. Sesame Workshop 2017
The presence of a caring adult makes all the difference in the life of a child coping with the effects of trauma.
While some stress in early life is normal, chronic exposure to traumatic experiences can become toxic. Children who have had multiple ACEs are at higher risk for challenges affecting development and learning, and are more likely to face serious health issues as an adult. The groundbreaking Adverse Childhood Experiences study found that, as the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, as well as alcohol abuse and drug use, obesity, and depression.

But we know that children are remarkably resilient, and trauma does not have to define their trajectory. With the right tools and support, the effects of trauma can be mitigated, and children can build coping skills and resiliency for a healthy, promising future.

Adults can help children express themselves … even when children don't have the words. Sesame Workshop 2017
Adults can help children express themselves … even when children don't have the words.
That’s where Sesame Street comes in. You may know us as the TV show, but as a nonprofit educational organization, we have nearly 50 years’ experience working in communities to address developmental, physical, and emotional needs of children. Over the years, we have addressed difficult topics, such as death and illness, divorce, and incarceration in a “Sesame way” – through the lens of a child, with content featuring the iconic Sesame Street Muppets, loved by children and trusted by parents and providers.

When we began hearing from community service partners and child development experts that there was a critical need for resources to help children cope with trauma, we felt we could help.

Traumatic experiences can disrupt brain development, but when children have hope, when they feel seen and heard by caring adults who can guide them through those crucial resilience-building techniques, the impact of ACEs can be mitigated, and children can be set on the road to healing and stability.

With support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and other funders, Sesame Workshop set out to create content for universal coping strategies to address “big feelings” like anger, anxiety, and sadness. To do this, we enlisted the pediatric community and professionals in the field, grounding our approach in the latest research. Then we used our proven model to produce resources that could engage and comfort children while building coping skills and foster crucial nurturing connections between children and the adults in their lives.

Our free materials – some are targeted for children and others are for providers – include videos, storybooks, and digital activities in English and Spanish. They are all available at sesamestreetincommunities.org/topics/traumatic-experiences.

Trauma's a big deal -- but Big Bird's got a supportive friend who gives big hugs. Sesame Workshop 2017
Trauma's a big deal -- but Big Bird's got a supportive friend who gives big hugs.
We know that pediatricians and other pediatric providers are uniquely situated to identify children who are at risk, and can, in turn, equip families with resources. And we created these resources with such providers in mind: What makes our tools so effective is that they can be integrated into any intervention or service, enlisting our lovable Muppets as guides. Watching Elmo or Big Bird talk about their emotions can provide comfort to children coping with big feelings of their own.

In one video called “Comfy Cozy Nest,” when Big Bird faces an unspecified difficult situation, he learns to think of his nest as a “safe space” with comforting items like his teddy bear and Granny Bird’s birdseed cookies. This is a place he can go in his imagination to make himself feel safe. In others, Elmo builds a blanket fort to feel secure and the Count teaches Cookie Monster a breathing strategy to help him relax.

In addition to engaging materials for children, providers can find professional development workshops, webinars, and other adult-facing content that includes, as part of our trauma content, a powerful animation to help parents and caregivers understand the impact of domestic violence from a child’s perspective.

Dr. Jeanette Betancourt with Elmo Sesame Street Workshop
Dr. Jeanette Betancourt with Elmo
Our trauma content is part of Sesame Street in Communities, a first-of-its-kind initiative to help the pediatric community, providers, parents, and caregivers give children a strong and healthy start. Sesame Street in Communities offers hundreds of free, multimedia tools to help children as they grow through the critical developmental window of birth through age 6 years. In addition to our new resources around traumatic experiences, Sesame Street in Communities pulls together decades of content for providers and families around early math and literacy, healthy habits, food insecurity, handling emergencies, and more. All resources are available for free in English and Spanish at www.sesamestreetincommunities.org.

No one plays a more vital role in children’s health and well-being than pediatricians, nurse practitioners, and family physicians. Our hope is that Sesame Street in Communities will allow us to work together, to help children everywhere grow smarter, stronger, and kinder.

Dr. Betancourt is the senior vice president for U.S. social impact at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit media and educational organization behind Sesame Street, in New York.

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