Sesame Street Reaches Out to Children of Incarcerated Parents

Sesame Street Reaches Out to Children of Incarcerated Parents

July 1, 2013 | Lynn Chwatsky, Vice President of Outreach Initiatives and Partners, Sesame Workshop

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Sesame Workshop, which has produced the beloved Sesame Street for over 40 years, is best known for making educational children’s television but also has numerous projects aimed at helping underserved children both in the United States and abroad. For years the Workshop’s Community Outreach group has been engaging with children and caregivers in targeted communities, using multimedia resources to address the unmet needs of specific preschoolers and the grown-ups in their lives.

Sesame Workshop, which has produced the beloved Sesame Street for over 40 years, is best known for making educational children’s television but also has numerous projects aimed at helping underserved children both in the United States and abroad. For years the Workshop’s Community Outreach group has been engaging with children and caregivers in targeted communities, using multimedia resources to address the unmet needs of specific preschoolers and the grown-ups in their lives. When we look at the needs of children—the needs of the whole child—we focus on three big “buckets”: School readiness (ABCs and 123s); health and wellness; and social-emotional well-being, which is our term for broaching topics that are tough for children and adults to talk about.

Those tough topics fall under a broader effort to foster the skills necessary for children to be emotionally resilient. Over the years we have helped families cope with a number of difficult situations: divorce; adjustment to economic difficulties; grief following the death of a parent; and the unique challenges that arise when one or both parents are members of the military. All of this work takes into account the young child’s perspective, and both offers support to the child while providing the adults and other caregivers tools and information they can use to give the child an age appropriate understanding of the situation and make the child feel loved and reassured.

The messages necessary for children to develop resilience skills tend to be similar. We want to encourage young children and adults to engage in a dialogue about whatever challenges they may be facing. We want parents, with the help of our content, to help explain to their children that the situation they are facing is not their fault and there are reasons to be hopeful about the future. It helps foster resilience in the children, and by providing tools for the parents, helps the adults in their lives feel empowered and foster their resilience skills as well.

The latest resilience initiative focuses on young children who have an incarcerated parent. It’s a topic that easily catches people’s attention—“Sesame Street is talking about incarceration?”—but addressing it is merely the logical outcome of the same process that led us to address divorce, children in military families, and other tough topics. Our team of education and research experts continues to identify groups of children with unmet needs, and the ways in which our brand and educational content can help improve the well-being of those children. Given that there are a staggering number of young children who have an incarcerated parent yet few resources to support them and their caregivers, tackling this complex issue was something that came naturally to Sesame Workshop.

The resources created for this initiative are developed and produced the same way we create all of our outreach material. We work side by side with outside advisors who are experts in the day –to-day business of the given subject; in this instance serving the needs of children affected by incarceration. Those advisors help us hone in on the right messaging, tone, and content, as well as help us identify which kinds of media will most effectively engage these children and their families. After over two years of working together, we have developed some incredible free, bilingual (English/Spanish) resources, which include print materials, original video content, a digital app, and other resources available in a resource kit, at our YouTube channel, and on our website. The goal is to use as many mediums as possible to effectively distribute our message of love and support to these children and their families. Like anybody else, young children with an incarcerated parent and their familes deserve to have the tools and support necessary to thrive.

We engage partners at the national, regional, and local level who can integrate our content into the work they do daily, engaging families who would benefit from our resources. It is these critical partnerships that allow us to truly execute our mission.

Lynn Chwatsky is Vice President of Outreach Initiatives and Partners at Sesame Workshop. Chwatsky oversees Sesame Workshop initiatives that reach beyond television into local communities, schools, health, and childcare settings to address the unmet needs of children and the people who care for them. Currently she oversees Sesame’s “Little Children: Big Challenges” initiative, a bilingual, multimedia project providing resources to help foster resilience skills in young children during challenging times including divorce and the incarceration of a parent. Chwatsky holds a BA in psychology from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.