Sesame Workshop focuses on racial literacy with four-year Coming Together initiative

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Sesame Workshop

Wes (top), pictured here with Abby, Rosita and Elmo, is one of two new Black puppets added to "Sesame Street" this year.

Sesame Workshop is building on recent content focusing on race and equality to launch Coming Together, a four-year project that will research and develop resources to teach children how to talk about race.

Although education around diversity has always been part of Sesame Workshop’s mission, it had put some diversity and inclusion work on hold in the spring of 2020 as its team focused on addressing the pandemic crisis, according to Senior VP for U.S. Social Impact Jeanette Betancourt.

But when the murder of George Floyd prompted protests across the country against racism and police violence, Sesame Workshop began producing content to model how to have conversations across racial differences. Betancourt said she soon realized that there was little research to draw from while creating early childhood resources about race, equity and inclusion. A major component of the Coming Together project will be research into developmentally appropriate instructional strategies for teaching young children racial literacy. 

Coming Together has already released materials explaining how children develop racial recognition, as well as worksheets for caregivers to start conversations about identity. The initiative’s content will be featured on Sesame Street and on the Workshop’s social media feeds, and additional online teaching resources will be available for parents and caregivers. All resources will be available in both English and Spanish. Programming funded through the Coming Together project will begin in April 2022.

The term “racial literacy,” Betancourt said, capitalizes on the Workshop’s existing emphasis on early childhood literacy and school readiness. 

“We sort of leverage that term as a way to introduce … vocabulary and conversation starters that help talk about what’s often a difficult topic, or one that parents, caregivers or providers often don’t know how to start,” she said. 

Sesame Street introduced two Black characters, Wes and his father Elijah, earlier this year.

For example, in a Sesame Street segment that appeared on the Workshop’s YouTube channel in March, Elmo talks about melanin with Wes and Elijah, two Black puppets added to the show this year. The objective was to give children language for why skin color differs.

Betancourt said Coming Together aims to capitalize on children’s ability to identify race and to give them language to discuss racism. For example, Betancourt said, the programming introduces the words “unfair” or “unkind” to describe scenarios in which someone is being discriminated against due to skin color. 

Young children do notice racial differences, even as early as three months of age, according to research published last year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. The study found that babies categorize faces according to race by nine months of age. At age four, children associate white faces with wealth and higher status.

Yet parents, who made up a representative sample of 600 participants for the study, said they don’t feel comfortable talking to their children about race until they are at least five years old, after discriminatory thinking has already set in. The research also found that white parents often use “ineffective strategies that ignore racism in the United States,” such as emphasizing color blindness or framing conversations about racial differences as impolite. 

The Workshop’s approach of emphasizing fairness “is likely to be very effective,” said Jess Sullivan, an associate professor of psychology at Skidmore College and co-author of the study.

Sullivan agreed that there is little research on developmentally appropriate methods of teaching race to young children and how children retain and apply such messages. In fact, Sullivan’s research in the area was sparked when she was looking for resources about teaching her own children about race. However, some data has been gathered. 

“One thing we know is that young children are very sensitive to ideas of fairness in terms of equality and in terms of justice,” Sullivan said. “We have really good data that little kids are going to listen to those messages.” 

Sullivan said Sesame’s approach has other merits. In her studies of parents’ willingness to talk about race, she said she heard most often that race had not come up in conversation in the last week. That could mean either that it wasn’t mentioned or that it was but the parent or caregiver missed the opportunity to address it, Sullivan said.

Either way, she said, Sesame Workshop’s program segments and resources around race, equity and inclusion increase the likelihood that the issue of race will be brought up. It also gives parents language to address the issue. 

In another video released in March, Rosita and Sophia talk about a time when Rosita was discriminated against for speaking Spanish at the grocery store.

“A lot of parents have not learned the tools that these children will be learning,” Sullivan said. “So, having a situation where parents and children can learn together, I think, is a really great way to start these conversations.”

Research on children’s racial awareness was particularly interesting to Sally McCrady, director of community affairs for PNC. The PNC Foundation donated $6.2 million to the Coming Together project, building on a partnership with the Sesame Workshop that started in 2004. 

McCrady said this grant is slightly larger than past donations, primarily because former partnerships focused on educational content on subjects such as math and financial literacy — areas already supported by extensive research into developmentally sound teaching principles for early childhood age groups. 

“People that are working in the early childhood space really want to address these topics, but there’s not a lot of materials out there,” McCrady said. “So that’s one of the things that really spoke to us on why it was important for us to support this project with Sesame Workshop.”

Betancourt said many caregivers and parents would like to have these conversations but don’t know how. “[Children] notice differences, and what a just incredible opportunity to nourish that curiosity and do it in a way that … is comfortable for both parents and caregivers and also links into, eventually, our preschoolers,” she said.

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