Creating a Sesame Street for the Syrian Response Region: How Media Can Help Address the Social and Emotional Needs of Children Affected by Conflict
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A “North Star” Strategy
Sharon Lynn Kagan, Guest Editor
Shanna Kohn, Kim Foulds, Katie Maeve Murphy, and Charlotte F. Cole provide a stunning example of how to carefully and meticulously adapt a US-developed iconic phenomenon—Sesame Street—to address the needs of children in diverse contexts and situations. In so doing, they provide an exemplary approach to cross-national learning and sharing.
What the authors present is a “north star” strategy to address children who have experienced intense stress, many of whom are also displaced. But they go one important step further: they describe how such adaptation can be designed, implemented, and refined. Their work to create Ahlan Simsim (“Welcome Sesame” in Arabic) reveals how essential it is to respect local cultures and religious beliefs while using research and locally gathered data to guide their work. As such, this article presents a cache of lessons for those interested in promoting cross-national work.
The authors first demonstrate how basic scientific research has fueled international interest in young children. They affirm neuroscience research as a platform of hope for children whose early life experiences are laden with stress. Second, and building upon the first point, the Ahlan Simsim effort also draws upon decades of research that unequivocally demonstrate the need for dyadic approaches to serving children and their primary caregivers. Understanding that the needs of stressed children are integrated with those of stressed families, the intervention posits supports for both children and adults. Third, the effort builds upon well-hewn data that underscore the need for multiple approaches to intervention; here, those approaches include children’s exposure to Ahlan Simsim via television, children’s participation in preschool interventions, and family visiting programs. Fourth, the effort prioritizes social and emotional development, an emphasis often neglected in situations of extreme stress. Finally, Ahlan Simsim uses existing research, much of which has been developed in contexts that do not reflect the focal setting, but it is not constrained by this research. To the contrary, the effort not only collects data from context-wise local participants but also carefully reflects on it and then tailors the program to the findings. This adaptive, research-driven approach to intervention design and development offers a foundational lesson for effective cross-national work.
Beyond underscoring the importance of existing and embedded research, the Ahlan Simsim effort offers a concrete example of visionary thinking. By design, the Ahlan Simsim team plans for spillover, hoping that the effects of their effort will ripple well beyond those immediately involved; pivotally and presciently, they aim to use their work to better position the plight of distressed children, bringing societies’ obligations to them to the fore. Ahlan Simsim provides a keen example of an intervention with significant social change intentions.
Those intentions, as seen in the recommendations for educators in the United States and around the world, have salience for all cross-national adaptations. Creating a common lexicon, recognizing nonverbal communications, focusing on the importance of social relationships, and encouraging a sense of pride are all strategies that beg for attention no matter the context. But because cross-national work has so many inherent opportunities for misunderstandings, these recommendations offer invaluable guidance for multicultural collaboration.
In reality, exporting an American brand like Sesame Street reverberates with the same challenges as exporting and tailoring effective policies (as those presented in the Early Advantage, see pages 8, 10, and 22) or effective pedagogical approaches (as those described in the forest schools, see page 42) to diverse contexts. By discerning the unique challenges facing children in conflict and displaced situations and by paying such careful attention to cultural variation and contextual uncertainties, the Ahlan Simsim team has created something that is both exciting and promising. Clearly, Ahlan Simsim’s process, rich intervention, and the posited recommendations emanating from it address its intended audience while resonating with universal salience to all who engage in cross-national work.
Aref and Ghazi are two brothers living in Azraq refugee camp, a facility located in Mafraq, Jordan, built for those displaced by the Syrian Civil War. (Throughout this article, names and identities have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.) Aref is 15 years old, articulate, and confident. He attended primary school in Syria before the war began. It was difficult for Aref to leave his home, but he knows his family made the choice that was necessary to keep them safe. Aref is an avid artist, and he uses drawing to express his hope for peace and stability in the future.
Ghazi is 2 years old and markedly different from his brother. While the other children come together to play, Ghazi sits at the back of the tent, silent and watchful. Like many young refugees, Ghazi was born inside Azraq refugee camp. He has only known displacement.
Ghazi and Aref’s mother died shortly after giving birth, and the brothers are being raised by their father, Mr. Al-Faraj. Mr. Al-Faraj has very little support in his parenting role. There is no preschool, and when Ghazi gets older, the primary school he will attend lacks materials and well-trained teachers. Mr. Al-Faraj is frightened about what the future holds for his family. He is doing everything he can, but he is right to worry.
The greatest danger for children like Ghazi is severe and persistent stress—stress so prolonged and extreme that it triggers a flood of hormones that impair how the brain develops (Jabbar & Zaza 2014; Britto et al. 2017; Bouchane et al. 2018). But there is still hope for Ghazi: the latest brain research shows that early interventions are effective. During their first five years, children’s brains are developing at an astonishing rate. Influencing that development can set young children who have faced adverse experiences on a positive path (Britto et al. 2017).
Influencing children’s brain development can set young children who have faced adverse experiences on a positive path.
Imagine if, each week, Ghazi and Mr. Al-Faraj tune in to watch and learn from a local, culturally relevant, Arabic-language version of Sesame Street. Ghazi finds special friends there—furry Muppets who open up a world of learning and who help him feel that he is not alone, giving him the tools he needs to cope with his big feelings.
Imagine also that Ghazi begins to attend preschool—a joyful, play-based learning space that is responsive to his needs. Picture him forming a relationship with a teacher who is equipped with high-quality curricula, videos, and Muppet-rich learning materials to help draw him into interacting with his classmates and to enhance his knowledge and skills across developmental domains.
Finally, imagine that a trained facilitator regularly visits Mr. Al-Faraj in his tent, supporting him through the stresses of parenting and giving him information on the science behind the importance of nurturing care. The facilitator provides Mr. Al-Faraj with strategies to promote engagement and gives him a storybook to read with Ghazi before bedtime, helping to create an atmosphere of safety and trust to mitigate the stress Ghazi often feels at night. Later, Mr. Al-Faraj receives daily text messages with practical tips for promoting Ghazi’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as for managing his own stress and well-being.
This program has the potential to transform how the humanitarian system responds to displacement crises around the world.
Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee have designed such a program to reach millions of families like Ghazi’s who have been affected by conflict and displacement. Called Ahlan Simsim, which means “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic, our joint initiative is giving caregivers like Mr. Al-Faraj the tools they need to provide young children with early learning and nurturing care. Through a localized version of Sesame Street airing across the Middle East and in-person direct services offered in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, Ahlan Simsim reaches families in as many ways as possible—from classrooms and health clinics to television and mobile devices—with the vital educational resources they need to thrive. This program not only addresses immediate needs and builds a strong foundation for future well-being; it also has the potential to transform how the humanitarian system responds to other displacement crises around the world.
Creating a Sesame Street for the Syrian response region
The Ahlan Simsim television show, which began airing in 20 countries across the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf in February 2020, follows the adventures of Basma and Jad—two best friends exploring their world with plenty of fun, laughter, and learning along the way. Season one focuses on the “emotional ABCs”—that is, the fundamental skills of identifying and managing emotions that all children, and particularly those who have experienced trauma, need in order to grow and thrive. In each episode, Basma and Jad learn to identify and manage a big feeling with the help of trusted adults, animated characters, and familiar Muppets. These lessons are reinforced in the variety show portion of each episode, when the friends of Ahlan Simsim are joined by real children and celebrity guests to play games and sing songs related to the primary emotion of the episode.
A research-based early intervention
In line with the Sesame Workshop production model, the show’s focus on the “emotional ABCs” was determined through research and close consultation with local academics and practitioners. We (the authors of this article) began by conducting studies to better understand the lived realities and educational needs of children and families in the Syrian response region. A needs assessment completed in mid-2018, designed to inform the creation of the new show, focused on the following goals:
- Learning more about children’s academic, social, and emotional needs
- Understanding caregivers’ parenting needs
- Identifying and comparing caregivers’ and practitioners’ educational priorities for young children
We conducted interviews with 195 caregivers of children ages 3 to 8 and 70 practitioners who serve young children—including educators, child protection officers, and social workers—from host communities and displaced communities in the region. We found the following:
- Caregivers share many daily moments of joy with the children, including children showing affection and kindness, acting silly, and demonstrating personal development.
- Children’s favorite things to do are play with friends, go to a shopping mall or entertainment center, visit relatives, and go on picnics.
- While many caregivers enjoy the feeling of parenthood, the instability of the region presents many challenges, as they are or fear they will be unable to secure their children’s basic needs.
- When caregivers teach the children about culture, there are four main elements they typically include: (1) Arab social customs and traditions (family ties, respect for elders, welcoming newcomers); (2) social values (kindness, compassion, love, integrity); (3) national history; and (4) religious practices and principles.
- Children’s role models in real life and in the media are aligned with helping others, kindness, and being smart and emotionally strong. Real-life role models are mom, dad, and other family members. Spiderman is the most common media-based role model among respondents from all four countries.
- For topics to include in the new show, caregivers prioritize academic skills while practitioners prioritize social and emotional skills. Teaching healthy habits and personal hygiene are clear priorities for both groups. Caregivers are especially interested in content on respecting others, expressing feelings and emotions, self-confidence, forgiveness, and dealing with differences.
- The importance of religion is clear as both an educational priority and as a coping mechanism. For many families, culture and religious values are directly linked.
After completing the needs assessment, Sesame Workshop held educational content seminars with Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, and Syrian advisors in the fall of 2018 to further refine its approach.
Children need support in building vocabulary to identify the wide spectrum of human emotions.
When we introduced some of the broader social and emotional themes suggested by practitioners via the needs assessment, advisors cautioned us against moving too quickly into complex skills and behaviors. Instead, they suggested we focus on the basic skills of identifying and managing emotions, which serve as building blocks for more complicated social and emotional skills such as making friends and conflict resolution. Academics and practitioners alike emphasized the serious need for support in this area, explaining that children in the region often use only two or three words (“happy,” “sad,” and “afraid”) to describe a broad range of emotions (including surprised, frustrated, and jealous). We also heard that children—particularly those who have experienced trauma—often express strong feelings in one of two manners: flat affect (a severe reduction in emotional expressiveness) or lashing out with physical violence.1
Following up on the advisors’ feedback, we conducted a formative study in early 2019 exploring how children and parents in the region express complicated emotions, particularly happiness, fear, nervousness, anxiety, jealousy, frustration, guilt/remorse, sadness, boredom, loneliness, and anger. We selected two Arabic-language children’s storybooks, The First Day of School: Arabic Story Book for Kids (Najjar 2004) and Treasury of Aesop’s Fables: Big Book of 16 Bilingual Stories (specifically, the story “The Hare and the Tortoise”) (Biro 2009), as stimuli because of the spectrum of emotional representation in the stories as well as regional familiarity with the titles. We conducted interviews with 60 caregiver–child dyads in Jordan and Lebanon. During the interviews, researchers read the selected storybooks, stopping at certain points to ask the child questions related to the emotions being displayed. Then, after reading both storybooks, the researcher interviewed the caregiver while the child colored.
From this study, we learned that
- Happy, sad, afraid, and bored are the most easily identifiable emotions for children, both in themselves and in others. Children do not use terms like frustrated, jealous, or guilty. In Arabic, anxious has two meanings: being worried about something or being unable to fall asleep. Children tend to use anxious to refer to an inability to fall asleep.
- Many children had difficulty expressing emotions, often resorting to action words instead of descriptive words for emotions.
- Children have limited emotional terminology and tend to group all emotional responses into afraid, sad, or happy.
- Caregivers’ emotional terms also seem restricted to happy, sad, mad, and annoyed. Caregivers do not use terms like frustrated, nervous, or guilty.
- The most common emotional prompts that caregivers ask children are translated as “What is wrong with you?,” “Who annoyed you?,” “Why are you sad?,” and “Why are you mad?”
The study clearly reinforced advisors’ feedback that children in the region need support in building vocabulary to identify the wide spectrum of human emotions. It also showed us how children describe complex emotions they are unable to name, and indicated that many caregivers face similar vocabulary limitations.
Ahlan Simsim Direct Services Programs
Ahlan Simsim direct services—which are delivered to children, parents, and caregivers through trained early childhood care and education facilitators—help to ameliorate the negative effects of displacement by providing children and the adults who care for them with engaging, play-based programming that meets their specific needs.
Programming for caregivers includes home visits every two weeks and support sessions to promote play and communication for caregivers of children ages 6 months to 3 years, complemented by text messages and reminders via WhatsApp with links to video and audio content. The home visiting model is an adaptation of the Jamaican Reach Up and Learn program, which has shown significant longitudinal impacts on cognitive abilities, educational attainment, income, behavior, and mental health 20 years after participation in the program (Gertler et al. 2014). In locations where the 6- to 12-month home visiting program is not feasible or practical, shorter duration programs that combine group sessions, individual counseling, and text messages are provided. All programs for caregivers emphasize the importance of nurturing care and empower caregivers with practical tips for promoting their children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development, as well as strategies for managing their own stress and promoting their well-being.
Likewise, Ahlan Simsim programming for children provides children 0 to 8 years old with age-appropriate, play-based learning opportunities that are sensitive to the needs of displaced and host community children who have been affected by crisis and conflict. Based on the International Rescue Committee’s Preschool Healing Classrooms Model, these programs include formal preschool classroom settings for children ages 3 to 6 and informal play and learning spaces for children ages 0 to 8 that are adapted for community sites, health centers, and other focal points of aid. Videos, storybooks, activity sheets, and other learning materials featuring characters from the Ahlan Simsim television show are integrated into direct services programming to increase children’s engagement and connection with the learning materials.
Applying our findings to the show
Informed by our studies and consultation with advisors, Sesame Workshop devised the educational objectives, format, characters, and narrative framework for the first season of Ahlan Simsim. The show has been intentionally crafted to support children’s social and emotional learning as well as caregivers’ abilities to communicate with their children about emotions. The episodes take a step-by-step approach to building children’s emotional vocabulary and helping them develop a roster of self-regulation strategies, an approach designed to build foundational skills that research shows are linked to children’s later functioning across peer and school contexts (Izard et al. 2001).
Emotional experiences are embedded in the social relationships between Ahlan Simsim’s characters. Across the 26 episodes that make up the first season, children are repeatedly exposed to terms and definitions aligned with nine core emotions—anger, caring, fear, frustration, nervousness, determination, jealousy, loneliness, and sadness—and see the characters successfully put into practice the following six core coping strategies: belly-breathing, counting to five, asking for help, making a plan, moving one’s body, and drawing to express one’s emotions.
We aspire to lay the groundwork for future early childhood development and learning in humanitarian contexts.
The show’s characters, including their backgrounds, personalities, physical characteristics, and relationships to one another, have been created to address the key themes identified by our research and advisors. For instance, Jad, an almost 6-year-old, yellow-colored Muppet who is new to the neighborhood, can “paint” midair using his grandfather’s special brush. Basma, a purple Muppet of the same age, has a special ability to create music and sound effects that comes in handy when she can’t quite find the words to express herself. Jad’s use of visual art and Basma’s use of song model the successful use of nonverbal and sensory-based modes of expression, which are useful tools for children (and people of all ages) who have experienced impacts on verbal expression due to trauma. Jad’s status as a newcomer also provides us with the opportunity to address themes such as loss, making new friends, and entering new social groups.
Two human adult characters, Teta Noor and her son Hadi, are trusted caregivers to the Muppets. They allow us to model nurturing, positive care practices for parents and caregivers who are watching the show alongside their children. Teta Noor is a vivacious grandmother figure who is ready to listen, give advice, and ask questions when Jad and Basma are experiencing big feelings. Her son Hadi, a clumsy but earnest aspiring chef, is likewise responsive and caring toward our show’s Muppet cast. Both Teta Noor and Hadi frequently repeat the key messages that emotions are normal and natural and that there are different strategies one can use to help manage big feelings.
The show also uses animated characters to reinforce emotion terminology and coping strategies. Abu’l Fihem, an animated character with an exaggerated midsection, allows us to visually and humorously model coping strategies such as belly breathing. Animated dancers, inspired by a Levantine (Eastern Mediterranean) folk tradition called Dabke, prance onto the screen to help characters label the emotion they’re experiencing and identify its physiological signs.
Our hope is that the Ahlan Simsim television show and related direct services for children and families will positively impact a generation of children affected by conflict and displacement. Through the evidence generated by this program, we also aspire to lay the groundwork for future early childhood development and learning in humanitarian contexts—doing so in a manner that underscores the crucial role that play and laughter serve in the development of all children.
1 It is worth noting that in addition to those affected by the Syrian conflict, a significant number of host community members across the four countries in our target region have experienced trauma. The Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990), the conflict in Iraq (2003–present), and various conflicts involving Jordan over the last several decades have affected the lives of parents with children in our target age group, including the way they understand, respond to, and cope with feelings. Beginning from a very early age, children learn from observation and interaction with those around them, and consequently may have been impacted in their own abilities to process and express emotions.
Guidance for Teachers Working with Children Affected by Conflict and Displacement
Although supporting and educating children affected by conflict and displacement may at first seem daunting, there is a great deal early childhood educators can do to ensure their curricula and classroom settings are informed by the latest research on trauma. Like all children, those who have experienced trauma need many opportunities to learn about feelings and how to cope with them. With consistently warm and intentional educators and caregivers, children who have experienced conflict and displacement can develop into happy and healthy adults. The following recommendations emerged from the process we undertook—including through research and consultation with advisors over the past two years—to create Ahlan Simsim (Cole et al. 2018; Matthews & Murphy 2018; Zada 2018).
- Build a lexicon—Introduce children to a variety of terms to describe emotions, helping them expand their emotional vocabulary. Formative research in Jordan and Lebanon indicates that in the Middle East, complex emotions such as frustration, jealousy, and guilt are most difficult for children to grasp. Many of the children had difficulty expressing emotions; they often resorted to using action words, confusing emotions with desires. Our recommendation is to introduce children to emotional terminology through discussion, ideally before big feelings take place. For example, a teacher can use story time as an opportunity to introduce terminology for different emotions.
- Model healthy expression—Model healthy emotional expression and regulation, including identifying emotions, recognizing different emotions’ physiological signs, accepting emotions as part of life, and using strategies to manage emotions. For example, a teacher who is feeling frustrated can model healthy expression for children by naming her feeling, then playfully wiggling or shaking out her body to model healthy, socially acceptable expression and regulation of feeling frustrated.
- Offer coping strategies—Introduce children to a variety of strategies to help them manage their emotions. Coping strategies we have found to be useful include talking, dancing, singing, or drawing it out; belly breathing; using safety chants (e.g., “I am safe,” “I am loved”); counting to five; and self-hugging.
- Be sensitive—Keep in mind potential sensitivities related to children’s experiences of conflict and displacement. For example, rather than asking children to “imagine a safe space”—which could potentially trigger memories of the home they have lost—lead children through structured, guided meditation with a specific safe space in mind.
- Be mindful of differences in developmental trajectories—Some children who have experienced severe trauma may have developmental delays. Keep in mind that while these delays may be related to trauma, with proper support these children can still reach their developmental potential.
- Model nonverbal communication—Trauma impacts people of any age at a very basic and sensory level, including speech. Building nonverbal skills such as drawing and making music can provide valuable alternative forms of expression for some children. Modeling various modes of communication (such as nonverbal and sensory-based modes of expression like using music, colors, and shapes) also increases inclusion of children who have disabilities, such as children who are nonverbal or hearing impaired.
- Recognize the power of play—Children need to play to learn and yet, many children who are refugees have had very limited opportunities to play. Through active experimentation and fun and engaging activities, children learn and gain important skills that serve as the foundation for future social, emotional, and academic learning. Create space in the classroom and time in the day for children to engage in self-led, unstructured play.
- Promote positive social relationships—When children are in learning centers, they are often playing together. They learn how to interact respectfully with each other, how to take turns, how to share, and how to help each other. This aids in children developing and maintaining positive relationships with their peers. You can encourage positive social relationships by having discussions with children about empathetic behavior, inclusivity, and prosocial skills. You can also proactively teach and, after a need arises, intentionally address social skills by using story time as an opportunity to speak about how characters in stories engage in these behaviors and what their reasons are for doing so.
- Help children gain a sense of control—A sense of control leads to a sense of stability and safety. It is important that children feel safe and protected—particularly in areas of conflict and displacement. Having a set routine and knowing what is expected of them helps children feel stable and secure. You can help promote a sense of control by reviewing the plan for the day each morning, displaying a daily schedule (with pictures of each activity), and keeping a relatively steady routine each day.
- Create a sense of belonging—Feeling like a part of a community helps children feel safe and supported. Creating an environment in which children feel compassion, feel included, and care about their peers helps them develop a sense of belonging in the class. You can promote a sense of belonging by speaking about the elements of a community and reminding children how each of them contributes to it each day.
- Encourage a sense of pride—When children feel a sense of pride, they feel capable, knowledgeable, and hopeful. When children face traumatic events, they may lose confidence to explore, experiment, and discover things for themselves. Feeling a sense of pride motivates children and instills in them a love of learning. You can help promote a sense of pride by offering specific feedback to children on their accomplishments and by reinforcing that their knowledge and skills are growing because of their engagement and efforts.
Photograph top: © Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop
© Shanna Kohn, Kim Foulds, Katie Maeve Murphy, and Charlotte F. Cole 2020, Sesame Workshop. Reproduced with permission; for photographs contained in the Materials as follows: © Ryan Donnell/Sesame Workshop, Jacob Russell/Sesame Workshop, Andrew Obserstadt/International Rescue Committee, 2020
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Shanna Kohn is senior education manager of humanitarian programs at Sesame Workshop. She leads curriculum development and design of multimedia teaching and learning materials for Ahlan Simsim and Play to Learn, two early childhood development initiatives serving the needs of children affected by conflict and crisis in the Middle East and Bangladesh.
Kim Foulds, PhD, is senior director of international research and evaluation at Sesame Workshop. Using a variety of methodologies to support projects throughout their development and working with academic and research institutions to evaluate efficacy, Kim works to translate data to provide recommendations to maximize the impact of Sesame Workshop’s international content.
Katie Maeve Murphy is the senior technical advisor for early childhood development at the International Rescue Committee. Through her work at IRC, Katie supports colleagues and service providers around the world to deliver high-quality early childhood development programming in places affected by conflict and crisis.
Charlotte F. Cole, EdD, is coexecutive director of Blue Butterfly Collaborative, which uses the power of children’s media to advance international development goals. Formerly, Dr. Cole was SVP of global education at Sesame Workshop. She is the editor of The Sesame Effect. Charlotte.firstname.lastname@example.org