Supporting parents to foster children’s learning and well-being in times of crisis

The makers of Sesame Street reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the critical role that parents and caregivers play in promoting children’s learning and well-being during the current crisis and beyond.

May 07, 2020 by Shanna Kohn, Sesame Workshop
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5 minutes read
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Basma, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, meets a young child and caregiver in Amman, Jordan.
Basma, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, meets a young child and caregiver in Amman, Jordan.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization behind Sesame Street, has long understood the early years as a critical window for building a foundation for lifelong success. While COVID-19 has been less common in children, the United Nations warned its broader impacts on children “risk being catastrophic and amongst the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole.”

Research has shown that the effects of adversity in a child’s early years can inhibit brain development, threatening future learning, health, and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented disruption into the lives of children, compounding the risks for those who have already experienced the effects of conflict and displacement.

We know that failure to support them now will cast a long shadow. But we also have a solution: the best way to mitigate the effects of early adversity is through promoting engagement between children and the adults who care for them – and it’s especially important during the current crisis, as families stay home and try to navigate their “for-now normal.”

Co-engagement and children’s well-being

Research shows that responsive care – the process of observing and responding sensitively to a child’s cues – is crucial to enriching learning and promoting children’s well-being. Responsive caregiver relationships support the development of a myriad of skills, but top of mind for many at this moment is how we can respond to children’s stress and promote their social-emotional well-being.

Beyond the disruption of their own routines, children sense and respond to the stress of the adults around them and pick up on our coping mechanisms. It’s tempting to present mindfulness or other coping strategies for children as a silver bullet, but the reality is we simply cannot expect children to practice healthy emotion management without the support of their caregivers. Fully independent regulation doesn’t typically happen until around primary school-age, and that estimate assumes that children have experienced no prior trauma.

What we can do is present models of healthy co-regulation between children and caregivers that supports the parasympathetic calming response – in other words, the relaxation response. This is simpler than it sounds – a few slow deep breaths in unison, a soothing touch, or a moment of attunement from a caregiver can go a long way in supporting children’s healthy social-emotional development and sense of well-being.

Ma’zooza, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, reads along with a child and caregiver in Mafraq, Jordan.
Ma’zooza, a Muppet character from Ahlan Simsim, reads along with a child and caregiver in Mafraq, Jordan.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

Case study: Ahlan Simsim, a new Sesame Street for families across the Middle East

Promoting co-engagement is a core tenet of Sesame Workshop’s refugee response program in the Middle East, where we are partnering with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to deliver quality early childhood development opportunities to children affected by displacement with landmark funding from the MacArthur Foundation and complementary funding from the LEGO Foundation.

The program includes an all-new, Arabic-language TV show called Ahlan Simsim, just launched in February 2020, which features familiar friends Elmo, Cookie Monster and Grover as well as two brand-new local Muppet characters, Basma and Jad, who are almost six years old and just getting a handle on managing their big feelings.

Basma and Jad are supported by two adult human characters, Teta Noor and Hadi, who serve as caregiver figures and model simple steps for responding to children’s emotions – including recognizing and validating their feelings, helping to investigate them, and participating in appropriate co-regulating responses such as belly breathing.

In this clip from Ahlan Simsim, caring adults Teta Noor and Hadi model belly breathing together with Basma and Jad—an example of co-regulation. You can read more about how Ahlan Simsim helps address the social-emotional needs of children in the Syrian response region here.

Much like Sesame Street in the US, Ahlan Simsim incorporates music, humor and celebrity appearances and was designed to appeal to both children and the adults in their lives. When caregivers watch the show alongside their kids, they will both engage with their children during viewing as well as learn strategies for engaging in meaningful interaction and compassionate responses.

Findings from a recent study on Season 1 of Ahlan Simsim revealed that children’s comprehension of the educational messages was high. Caregivers also reported that episodes sparked conversations in the home about new emotional vocabulary, helped children describe their feelings, and prompted children to practice new coping techniques. One parent reported, “[My child] learned to deal with nervousness by putting his hand on his stomach and breathing.”

Ahlan Simsim’s direct service programs for caregivers, spearheaded by the IRC and designed to also support this goal, include home visits, support sessions, text messages, and reminders via WhatsApp that emphasize the importance of nurturing care and learning through play. They empower caregivers with practical tips for promoting their children’s cognitive, social and emotional development.

Jad, a Muppet from Ahlan Simsim, flies a kite with a new friend in Azraq camp, Jordan.
Jad, a Muppet from Ahlan Simsim, flies a kite with a new friend in Azraq camp, Jordan.
Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop

The current challenge – and opportunity

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sesame Workshop has launched the Caring For Each Other initiative, which features resources designed to help parents provide comfort and manage anxiety, create routines, foster playful learning at home, and stay physically and mentally healthy. These resources have been translated into 18 languages and shared around the globe.

In the Middle East, we are working with the IRC to rapidly adapt content and distribution of our Ahlan Simsim program, including producing a new Family Special directly from Muppeteers’ homes that models fun and educational activities that children and caregivers can do inside. The special will broadcast across the Middle East this week.

IRC has tested digital delivery of audio messages on early childhood development and links to Ahlan Simsim video and print materials with a group of caregivers through WhatsApp, and are now analyzing feedback, revising the material, and developing a system for mass distribution.

The television show and direct services components of Ahlan Simsim aim to build caregiver capacity, language, and self-efficacy around responding to their children’s emotions, laying the groundwork for the important responsive interactions that we know are so crucial to children’s healthy development, well-being, and continued learning – particularly at this disruptive time.

In a recent UN policy brief on the impact of COVID-19 on children, the need to provide practical support for parents and caregivers was seen as a top priority for the response. To take this forward, we now need concrete action from humanitarian actors, governments and donors to ensure prioritization and investment in response plans that that support caregiver engagement and early childhood development during the current crisis and beyond.

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