Jeanette Betancourt

Hope Street Group Network Member Interview with Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President, Community and Family Engagement at Sesame Workshop

Jeanette PL PicSED (Social Emotional Development)-related themes are cropping up more and more in popular media (for example, the films Inside Out and The Little Prince) but many people still aren’t familiar with the phrase. How would you describe SED to parents?

Social-emotional development is how young children learn to develop and maintain relationships with others and how they understand and regulate their feelings, handle frustration, and persevere despite everyday challenges.

But of course it’s not as simple as that! SED develops as children grow and learn, so observing it isn’t as clear as noticing children’s physical and cognitive milestones, such as when they learn to walk or speak in full sentences. SED evolves in a way that relies significantly on experiences. As children start to understand more about their world, there are more and more feelings that need to be expressed and more ways to get along with others, to understand different perspectives. Children are, of course, also continually trying new things and experiencing novel situations. SED happens through all of these adjustments, and these skills become the foundation for a lifetime.

Although SED-related themes may be cropping up in popular media, these opportunities are just a moment in time, presenting a specific situation; it’s more challenging to parents to observe and understand the more subtle evolution of SED in their own children. Why is SED so crucial for children from birth to five years of age? What sort of long term effects do we need to know about?

SED is fundamental and is expressed from the moment of birth! We see it as a newborn expresses herself through her first cry; it’s the first step in expressing emotion. We see it as a toddler persists in building a frustrating block structure, and we see it as a preschooler handles his first day of school away from his family.

SED helps children navigate their world as they learn and grow, and there is more and more evidence that social-emotional skills are essential for children’s success in school. Teachers often list paying attention, listening, and persevering as skills that are critical to school success. Of course, these skills do not emerge the day a child turns five. They are nurtured throughout their earliest years when parents lovingly engage and interact with children and guide them to learn to share, label their feelings, show empathy for others, and so much more.

What makes Sesame Workshop so effective at incorporating SED in a way that caregivers relate to?

As the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, we’re focused exclusively on our mission to help children grow smarter, strong, and kinder—something every parent wants for their child. We’re in a unique position to do so through our longstanding research model, the power of our well-loved Muppets, and our ability to use media that touches every platform. Social Impact and Philanthropy is the division within Sesame Workshop dedicated to developing domestic and international multiple media initiatives that offer access to early learning basics, support health and well-being, and provide tools for vulnerable children. Each are entirely research-based and include input from external issue experts, community stakeholders and providers, and most importantly, family members and their children. We do this to assure that these free resources and programs effectively represent the perspectives and needs of children, especially those often facing challenges situations, while modeling strategies for the grownups in their lives that will help children thrive.

In the U.S. we have specifically addressed issues that significantly blend how young children’s SED skills as well as those of their caregivers can help families face challenging situations (i.e., grief, the incarceration of a parent, or food insecurity), understand and accept differences while celebrating each one another’s uniqueness (autism), or the key areas that will help children get ready for school (i.e., language and vocabulary development, literacy, math, or STEM). Within each of these initiatives, the integration of SED skills was essential in helping children and their parents cope with challenges, understand others, or simply know how important listening and perseverance is for future school success. Yet, we could not model such strategies if it were not for the power of our Muppets as a trusted source to engage children and grownups alike. We find that we can offer information in ways that are engaging, fun, while still modeling strategies that can happen during every day routines or activities.

What advice would you offer and where would you direct parents/caregivers who are looking for support in how to provide a quality SED setting for their child?

Everything you do as a parent or caregiver matters! You’re the foundation for nurturing children’s SED through thoughtful interactions, compassionate reassurance and guidance, and a loving home environment. It is also understanding that as parents we are all learning about our children and each child is unique.You can explore our free resources on a variety of issues related to SED at sesamestreet.org/toolkits.

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