By Heidi Stevens
The Chicago Tribune
With the national divorce rate hovering around 40 percent, Sesame Workshop has decided to tackle the issue in its series of online tool kits, alongside such topics as starting school, preparing for natural disasters and coping with financial difficulties.
The tool kits, under the educational organization’s “Little Children, Big Challenges” initiative, offer tips and age-appropriate resources for parents guiding their 2- to 8-year-old children through complicated terrain.
“Children of divorce often have questions that they may not know how to voice,” says Jeanette Betancourt, senior vice president for outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop. “Or they come up unexpectedly and the parent may be caught off-guard and not know how to answer them.”
“We really try, in these resources, to say, ‘It’s OK that these questions come up and it’s really important to help your child know they’re not alone,’ ” Betancourt says. “Some things will change, others will stay the same. We offer some basic facts that help children cope.”
The multimedia kit includes “Two-Hug Day,” an online storybook about Niko, a boy who divides his time between his mom’s and dad’s houses; songs that help children name their feelings; a divorce app; webinars; a guide for caregivers, extended family and friends; and tips for parents on getting their children to talk about the divorce, comforting them when they’re struggling and reaching out to key grown-ups in their lives (teachers, health professionals) for guidance and support.
A group of educators and clinical psychologists advised Sesame Street on the initiative, including internationally renowned researcher and author JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, who has spoken on the topic of divorce to members of Congress and the White House staff, and Robert Hughes Jr., the head of the department of human and community development at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“We created samples that we went out and tested with actual families and children to see, ‘Are we on the right track? Are these the type of questions that would be helpful to you? What are we missing?’ ” Betancourt says. “What we found is, we were on the right track, but we needed more content.”
An early “landscape review,” Betancourt says, showed that few resources existed to help children cope with divorce, as common and long-standing as the topic is.
“Sesame Street” has been loath to tackle divorce, only once toying with the idea of airing a scene in which Snuffleupagus copes with his parents’ split. But it bombed with test audiences, and the network decided not to air it.
“It wasn’t the best way to deliver this kind of information,” says Betancourt. “Children who weren’t experiencing a divorce suddenly started having questions about it. This is a very targeted program, distributed through outreach or community engagement for families specifically experiencing divorce or separation and looking for resources.”
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