Most older children have the vocabulary to tell a parent or caregiver about their lives—whether about a traumatic experience or just an average day at school. This may not be true for children under the age of five. Young children are just beginning to learn the vocabulary they need to express themselves, especially when tough things happen. Often, this can lead adults to believe that young children don’t understand what is happening or are resilient enough to bounce back from any setback. Nowadays, we all are gaining a greater understanding of child development to counteract these myths. We have a greater awareness of strategies and practices that support the emotional well-being of young children and of ways to help them cope with traumatic experiences.
Sesame Workshop is the nonprofit known for the world-famous TV show Sesame Street and its cadre of irrepressible furry characters who have taught generations of children. The organization focuses on children’s well-being as part of its vision of “helping children become smarter, stronger, and kinder,” says Jeanette Betancourt, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president for US social impact. In the following edited conversation with McKinsey Health Institute partner (and Sesame Street superfan) Katherine Linzer, Betancourt elaborates on the impact of childhood trauma and what parents and educators—and Sesame Workshop—can do to address it.
Katherine Linzer: It’s truly a pleasure to be back here! Fifteen years ago, I was in these offices because I was conducting research for my senior essay at Yale, on Sesame Street in the community from 1966 to 1974. At that time, the Children’s Television Workshop had a revolutionary concept: that television could be used to educate children.1 Jeanette, if you were describing the Sesame Workshop of today to someone who didn’t know anything about it, what would you say?
Jeanette Betancourt: Sesame Workshop has a vision of helping children become smarter, stronger, and kinder. We’ve been around for over 50 years. Now we have little ones, we have their parents who grew up on Sesame Street, and then we have grandparents or others, so we have that ability to connect with everyone.
We initiated, from the start, this belief that whenever Sesame Street is present on television or on any platform, there also has to be community engagement. That means mobile vans going to Head Start2 or community centers and providing resources, and also working with our local PBS3 stations to really reach families and children in the community. It is about not only introducing them to this medium but also about what Sesame Street was trying to do. It was about elevating children’s understanding of their school readiness4 and their social–emotional development through seeing these wonderful characters doing many of the things that young children love to do.
Today, what we say is that Sesame Workshop is involved in global social impact—again, with our vision of making all children smarter, stronger, and kinder. But, more importantly, how do we raise the voices of young children and what they need, especially when they’re encountering either traumatic experiences or they are marginalized, whether through race or economic situations. What surrounds them in terms of support?
Understanding trauma in three- and four-year-olds
Katherine Linzer: Let’s talk about trauma. Can you help us understand its impact on preschoolers?
Jeanette Betancourt: There’s a lot of myths about trauma, especially for young children. We often think that our little ones are resilient. Yet young children are experiencing trauma or traumatic experiences. We define trauma in a couple of ways. It is very chronic, persistent stress and anxiety that is affecting children’s development, that is affecting the way that they connect with others, and, more importantly, that leaves them constantly in a situation of not feeling safety or comfort. For children, this could be anything from a parent who may have substance use disorders or a parent who is incarcerated to being impacted by crisis and conflict and having to resettle. For young children, what we have to keep in mind is that trauma is affecting their physical development, their emotional development, and their brain development.
Katherine Linzer: We see a lot of parents and educators who are committed to playing a part but often don’t know what to do or how to respond. What do you wish that parents or educators understood better?
Jeanette Betancourt: First, it’s shifting our way of thinking about early childhood. We often look at the impact of trauma on school-age children. Once they get into school, yes, children can express their feelings more, and they are able to tell you more. But the little ones—especially children under five—tend to show their anxiety or express their concerns or fears more physically rather than with words.
For example, many children in traumatic experiences may have stomachaches, or they maybe seem overly clingy, or there is a misinterpretation of their behaviors. They may be in a preschool program and “acting out,” quote, unquote. They are considered as having a discipline issue. But many times, they are acting out because there is a concern, and they don’t know how to verbally express it. When young children experience trauma, we have to intervene and understand how they’re expressing it.
Katherine Linzer: What resources are available from Sesame Workshop that help address trauma in our communities?
Jeanette Betancourt: On sesameworkshop.org, you have access to this wonderful representation of explaining a traumatic experience. One is with Big Bird, and he’s experiencing quite a bit of stress. Alan5 is there to help him, and what he does is help Big Bird go to his nest and think of things that are comforting. He thinks about his Granny Bird’s cookies and finding comfort in a safe space.
We often couple those wonderful Sesame Street Muppet videos with additional resources to reinforce the strategies. So there’s a digital storybook. There are interactives. There are printed materials. And there’s also professional development to help different providers use these resources. All of this is available in Spanish and in English, for free, at sesameworkshop.org/resources.
Strategies to prevent trauma
Katherine Linzer: Jeanette, what have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic about how we might address trauma in our youth going forward?
‘We know that when young children display early signs of anxiety, stress, or discomfort, it’s up to us to acknowledge that and look at that without stigma.’
Jeanette Betancourt: Globally, there’s a mental-health crisis. Not only adult depression, but we’re seeing increased youth depression too, unfortunately, with higher rates of suicide. We’re seeing young girls having a lack of self-confidence. There is such an opportunity to say, “These things begin in early childhood.” We have to ask, "How do we prevent trauma in the first place?"
For young children, we need to establish a foundation of emotional well-being, to promote their social–emotional development to the fullest, help them express themselves, find that sense of comfort and consistency. We know that when young children display early signs of anxiety, stress, or discomfort, it’s up to us to acknowledge that and look at that without stigma. Often, there’s such stigma against asking for help or support.
As a nation, we really need to look at children’s well-being, starting from the very beginning. If we need support as parents or caregivers, there shouldn’t be a stigma or a hardship in doing so. One thing I’m looking forward to is shifting the perspectives on mental-health well-being—really reducing the stigma felt by everyone from grown-ups to young children.
How children communicate
Katherine Linzer: While we’ve talked about nonverbal cues, we also know that different children express themselves in such different ways. You have a background as a speech pathologist. Can you say a little bit more about how we can better understand the different ways that children communicate and how we can be more responsive to the ways that they’re expressing themselves?
Jeanette Betancourt: Children learn to express themselves verbally but also cognitively, or receptively, which means that young children tend to understand many more things than they can say verbally. Especially two-year-olds, who tend to understand so much more than they can express.
As parents or caregivers, we know our children best. That means we know how they may react or what makes that reaction different. Suddenly, the little one is a little more clingy. Or friends that they may have, they suddenly don’t want to be with them. Or their sleep habits may change. That is expressing something that may be going on. Whether we’re providers or educators, we also need to know and respect that parents or caregivers really know their children. When kids express something to us as parents or educators, let us respond. Let us know and acknowledge that. Adults can enhance resilience in youth and children by really thinking of themselves as the key supporters. It’s a child knowing that there’s always an important and safe adult who is there, who’s helping through the times when there are no difficulties but also, particularly, the challenges.
Katherine Linzer: Where do you see the greatest opportunity for the show to have an impact with kids?
Jeanette Betancourt: Now we are really focusing on how we address children’s emotional well-being from very early on. We have opportunities to demonstrate this through our wonderful Sesame Street Muppets and our programming, which show new ways to express emotions; ways to do new things and try new things, such as making friends; or the idea of the joys of learning or the joys of understanding the diversity of our nation or our world.
All of that happens in our programming. But it’s not only there, because we replicate that in our publications of children’s books or, digitally, through our YouTube experiences, or through every platform. In the US, we’ve tackled everything from parental addiction to parental incarceration to coping with grief. How do you explain death to young children? Globally, we work with crisis and conflict. How do we help the many children experiencing this long-term trauma and resettlement? The basic thing we can start with is to know that we need to provide a sense of comfort and safety for every single child we know.
Katherine Linzer: As you look ahead to the next five to ten years, what are you most looking forward to?
Jeanette Betancourt: It is all about how we help and nourish young children from the beginning in early childhood, how we’re helping them thrive in their emotional as well as their educational well-being, how everyone around them starts to understand how young children develop.
We focus so much more on youth, likely because we can see the consequences in school when those are related to emotional well-being or school readiness loss.6 We need to look at things in a continuum. We need to really focus on the idea that we have to help young children thrive emotionally and physically, so that they have the foundation for their later years and not suffer trauma or traumatic situations.
I think—particularly in addressing children, families, and others impacted by crisis and conflict—that we’re understanding the long-term effects of trauma. It’s not only about the moment but lifetimes. If we monitor that for all children, and value them, then I think we will have much healthier youth, healthier adults, and thrive as a nation.
What the Sesame Street Muppets mean
Katherine Linzer: I’m so motivated by the power of Muppets of Sesame Street, who help create smarter, stronger, and kinder youth. Each Sesame Street Muppet seems to play a very important role for some issues that you’ve raised today, Jeanette. I have to ask you: If you were a Sesame Street Muppet, which one would you be?
Jeanette Betancourt: In terms of learning and appreciation, one of the Sesame Street Muppets I gravitate to is Rosita. I feel like I’ve experienced the same things she represents. Rosita is a Sesame Street Muppet who is bilingual and bicultural. She comes from Mexico. And she represents culture, diversity, and the use of language—Spanish and English—in such a joyful and strength-based way. That reflects my upbringing. I grew up biculturally as well. I grew up partly in Colombia, South America, and then came to the States. I would move back and forth. And I had a perception of the advantages of being bilingual, and the diversity you share when you have that experience is such a joy. But many times in those early years, it was not viewed by the broader world as a joy. Having that experience where it’s not viewed as a deficit but rather as a strength, I just gravitate to her.
But I will say all the Sesame Street Muppets are my favorites.