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Sesame Street launches tools to help children who experience trauma, from hurricanes to violence at home

It’s been a hard day on Sesame Street and Big Bird is feeling sad and angry.  His friend Alan tells him it’s okay to have “big feelings” when something bad has happened, and he encourages him to calm down by imagining a safe place that he can go to. Soon, Big Bird is feeling better in his dreamlike cozy nest, feeling the warm sun on his feathers and smelling birdseed cookies baking in Granny Bird’s oven.

The video is one of a series being released Friday by the creators of Sesame Street to teach children strategies to cope with traumatic experiences, whether they are unexpected, like a hurricane or a flood, or ongoing.

New federal survey data, also being released Friday, show that one in five children in the United States have experienced at least two types of “adverse childhood experiences,” such as abuse and neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or living with an adult who has a mental illness or substance abuse problem. The rates are higher for teenagers. And researchers say they believe the responses, which are reported by children’s parents, are likely undercounts.

Scientists have documented how such experiences create chronic stress and hormonal imbalances that can have long-term implications for health and learning and emotional development. Researchers are also working to document what tools or advantages help some children overcome these challenges while others struggle throughout their lives.

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“We know that traumatic experiences can be life-changing. We also know that kids can be remarkably resillient,” said Martha Davis, senior program officer for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the Sesame Street materials about trauma.

Sesame Street’s free online resources include videos, story books, games, and activities in English and Spanish aim to help children process difficult feelings and give them tools to feel more safe and relaxed when their adrenaline is racing and their emotions flare.

In one video, the Count shows how counting helps him calm down when he is upset. In another, Rosita learns to punch a pillow or roar like a dinosour when she is angry or frustrated. Elmo gives himself a hug or builds a fort out of blankets so he can feel safe when he is scared.

It’s not the first time that Sesame Street has approached serious topics. Programming has helped children cope with parents who are incarcerated or deployed, and how to deal with grief after someone they love has died. Last year, the show introduced a character with autism.

Two years ago, Sesame Workshop, the program’s educational arm, created “Sesame Street in Communities,” an effort to work with community organizations and caregivers and provide resources to support families that are dealing with difficult issues.

The materials about trauma were developed in response to requests from community service providers who say they can be used broadly, said Sherrie Westin, executive vice president for global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop. “When you look at the sheer number of children who are experiencing some form of trauma or childhood adversity, we thought we could do more to help,” she said.

The videos and activities are designed for both children and caregivers to watch or use together, a two-generation approach meant to nurture relationships that can dramatically improve a child’s chances of healing from traumatic experiences. Research shows that a consistent, caring adult is the most effective buffer for a child’s stress. Additional materials designed just for adults explain more about the research and strategies behind how traumatic experiences affect children and how they can help.

Saint Luke’s Hospital of Kansas City’s Crittenton Children’s Center has been using Sesame Street’s materials on a pilot basis for children in foster care and others who have experienced adversity.

Janine Hron, president of the children’s center, said the the organization uses iPads to share the videos or activities, but after watching them a few times, children can usually recite the simple messages by heart.

She said the familiarity of the Sesame Street characters for both parents and children make them very effective at broaching difficult topics.

“Nearly every family in America has a relationship with the characters on Sesame Street, and they are marked by trust and positive feeling and connection. When you have a foundation like that to work from, you can talk about anything,” she said.