Sesame Street coaches kids through parent's deployments, returns

  • Published
  • By John J. Kruzel
  • American Forces Press Service
Following a workshop that helped children cope with a military parent's deployment, the familiar, furry denizens of Sesame Street are starring in a new program focusing on multiple deployments and on family adjustments upon a parent's return.

Sesame Workshop, the makers of Sesame Street, have released "Talk, Listen, Connect: Deployment, Homecoming, Changes," a video workshop that aims to aid children in understanding and unbundling the tangle of complex emotions many feel in the midst of a mother's or father's tours of duty away from home, and even broaches the difficult subject of dealing with a parent's debilitating war injury.

"This follow-on DVD to talk about the changes, dealing with new medical injuries -- living in the 'new normal' -- is tremendously important," Army Col. Loree K. Sutton, chief of the newly created Defense Center of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, said during the workshop launch at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial here.

More than 80 percent of those surveyed said the first installment of Sesame Workshop's military outreach effort, which covered all phases of deployment, was incredibly effective, said Gary E. Knell, president and chief executive officer of Sesame Workshop.

"And they really wanted us to also go to the next step to deal with two issues," he added, referring to multiple deployments and changes, especially mental or physical injuries parents suffer while deployed.

To help keep the program authentic to children's experience, an advisory committee composed of members of military families and advocacy groups, child psychologists, educators and other experts offered perspective to Sesame Street creators throughout production.

The show's creators also vetted the program through "real world" military families and adapted it according to their feedback, said Jeanette Betancourt, vice president for content design at Sesame Workshop's education and outreach division.

In the original script, for instance, writers used broad strokes to paint an effusive reunion between Elmo, a red, furry and perpetually 3-year old character, and his fresh-from-the-front-lines father. After seeing a rough cut of the scene, the advisors recommended tweaking the script to reflect a greater emotional range.

Leslye A. Arsht, deputy undersecretary of defense for military community and family policy, said the first treatment failed to capture the emotional complexity of the reunion.

"In the original version, they had [Elmo] all excited and enthusiastic and happy. It's sort of what you expect if you really don't know how hard it is when somebody's been gone for a while and you're so anticipating their returning," Ms. Arsht said. "And yet there's this (worry), 'Is he going to be the same?' You know, all those mixed emotions."

The creators heeded the feedback and re-wrote the scene to be more three-dimensional and true-to-life, through what she described as "powerful adjustments" in the script. The effects of such realism are evident, she said: "You cannot watch these DVDs without crying."

Ms. Arsht said the anxiety arises, in part, because children feel ambivalent about the growth and progress they make in the midst of their parent's absence.

"The child has been growing; they can do things they couldn't do before. They don't know whether to be proud about that, or to think that the dad's going to feel bad that he didn't get to see that happening," Ms. Arsht said, describing a common reaction of 3- to 5-year olds, the show's target demographic.

According to statistics, some 700,000 children of military members are under the age of 5. Through Sesame Street's lovable characters, the program manages to teach young children about painful subjects in a medium that speaks to them.

In one scene, Rosita, a cheerful, bilingual blue monster from Mexico, sees her servicemember father return home in a wheelchair after an injury he suffered during deployment.

"Initially she's angry. Her emotions emerge. And what Sesame Street is able to do is turn the conversation to what is the same, what the parent can do," Ms. Arsht said. "If he can't kick the ball, which he couldn't, he can catch the ball.

"It's elementary," she continued. "But it carries a much bigger message than the words themselves convey."

Elmo and Rosita are the best venues for relaying such tender messages because they are trusted by young audience members, said Barbara Thompson, the director of DoD's military community and family policy office and an advisory board member.

"The children will listen and resonate with their message," she said. "Sesame Workshop captured the right message and how to say it in a very sensitive way. It's a well-done resource for our families."

Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit education effort, has been doing these special projects since its inception in 1968. The group has done outreach projects on subjects like early literacy, asthma, lead poisoning, going to the doctor and school readiness.

Performed in English and Spanish, the workshop will not air on television but will be distributed free to schools, child care programs and family support centers, thanks to a gift from Wal-Mart stores and other sponsors. The DVD kit or downloadable video is available on the Military OneSource Web site.

The previous Sesame Street workshop, a broader installment entitled "Talk, Listen, Connect: Helping Families Cope with Military Deployment," covered all phases of deployment, from predeployment to homecoming. A separate Sesame Street program, "When Parents Are Deployed," was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Children's Program.