7 lessons learned from Sesame Street partnership

Jan 31, 2022

In the storybook Comfy-Cozy Nest, Alan can tell that Big Bird is having a tough time. He asks him, “What’s happening with you?” and Big Bird shares that something scary and confusing took place. Alan encourages Big Bird to think about a safe place and what could go in his “nest” to bring comfort.

This is the power of Sesame Street: The characters talk about difficult situations in a way that helps young kids make sense of them. With adults’ support, kids learn how to recognize big feelings, cope with adversity, and solve problems.

In summer 2020, central Iowa became the 12th community nationwide to partner with Sesame Street in Communities. Since the launch, Sesame magic has been infused into more than 300 programs and systems, providing tools and messages that equip providers and caregivers in supporting children’s healthy development. The success of the work offers lessons learned in how partners can collaborate to improve children’s health.

Iowa's Partnership with Sesame Street in Communities

Central Iowa’s partnership with Sesame Street formed from a conversation between Suzanne Mineck, former President of Mid-Iowa Health Foundation, and Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President of U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop. The two realized the impact they could have by teaming up to bring Sesame Street in Communities to the region.

In anticipation of the project, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation convened stakeholders who represented networks serving children and families. This group eventually formed the Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids' steering committee, coordinated by Iowa ACEs 360.

The group unified around a shared focus on young children’s social-emotional development as an important building block for lifelong health and well-being. While many social-emotional learning efforts were already underway, no one was collaborating.

Sesame Street offered training, tools, messages, and fun to bring the work to life in an incredible way as children and adults connected with the characters and the recognizable brand. The pandemic further fueled interest as families experienced disrupted routines, isolation, and increased stress – all impacting young children’s social-emotional well-being.

From October 2020 until August 2021, the Alliance achieved the results captured in this report. This includes:

• Training nearly 1,500 providers on how to use the Sesame Street in Communities resources with children and families.

• Distributing more than 20,000 types of materials and more than 40,000 books to organizations serving children and families to promote skill-building with kids.

• Hosting a Town Hall Event to raise awareness of social-emotional learning as critical to every sector of our state.

• Drawing 1.6 million impressions of social media messages to families, offering support and encouraging them to access resources.

Mid-Iowa Health Foundation continues to be a champion of the work and a member of the Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids. The work aligns with the Foundation’s priority of fostering nurturing family relationships to promote children’s healthy development.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on more than a year of this work, the Iowa Alliance for Healthy Kids shared these lessons learned that can be applied to strengthen collaborative efforts around children’s health issues.

1. Leverage your network champions.

The Iowa Alliance is a collaboration among stakeholders who support broad networks that interact with children and families in early care and education, mental health, health, family support, and child welfare sectors. In addition to engaging network leaders on the steering committee, the Alliance trained 24 Abby’s Ambassadors who could deliver presentations. Having champions within networks and systems share resources and host activities enabled efforts to spread quickly to a wider group of organizations.  

“I was happy with the direction it went with the number of people reached who then reached kids and families,” said Becky Miles-Polka with the Iowa Campaign for Grade-Level Reading. “It reached so many more kids and families that way.”

2. Simple messages matter.

Having the Sesame Street characters on materials and as a part of events drew more participants.  “Part of the excitement was seeing the name, ‘Sesame Street,’” said Shanell Wagler, Administrator of Early Childhood Iowa. “People could trust them. They knew the characters when they were a kid. People wanted to be a part of it.”

But also important was having simple and direct messages that providers could use when talking with families about social-emotional development. Caregivers especially said they needed quick tips to apply within their busy lives. Materials focused on just a couple of key points with bright colors and images.

“Sesame Street in Communities is a nice resource with a variety of topics to give to people and say, 'Here is a tool you can use with family and friends,'” said Greg Bellville, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse Iowa. “It’s very well set up and easy to use.”  

3. Spend time building relationships.

The first half of the project was spent informing stakeholders within government institutions and private organizations about the initiative and getting their feedback on activities and buy-in to support the work. The time spent meeting with leaders led to greater engagement and support when activities began to roll out.

As relationships formed, the Alliance offered opportunities to engage in the work. Hosting a Town Hall forum on the importance of social emotional well-being provided a way for leaders, like Teree Caldwell-Johnson, President and CEO of Oakridge Neighborhood, and Kelly Garcia, Director of the Iowa Department of Human Services, to show support. Organizations distributing materials and providing trainings were recognized as members of the Alliance with access to additional Sesame Street-branded materials.  

4. Invest in coordination.

Having a dedicated person to coordinate the development and implementation of an action plan enabled the project to expand through many different strategies at once. The coordinator could spend time engaging stakeholders, systemizing the distribution of materials and activities to reach a wider audience, evaluating efforts, and making sure all partners involved were moving forward together and remained focused on the initiative.

5. Enhance existing efforts.  

Instead of hosting an event that families would have to go to, the Alliance found that programs wanted materials and activities that were ready to share with kids and families. This feedback inspired the Alliance to offer lesson plan kits to child care and summer programs, as well as activity bags for family-serving organizations to hand out.

Having Abby’s Ambassadors trained to support their networks and organizations also led to greater reach within specific sectors and systems. A trainer in the Child Care Resource & Referral Network, for example, offered child care credits to better serve early care and education providers. A health care provider used the training to educate her medical students.

6. Supporting provider networks can lead to greater advocacy.

When the Alliance formed, the group wanted to focus on advocating on the importance of screenings, but the Sesame Street tools and resources really focused on engaging providers and families with skill building. This provided an opportunity to educate providers receiving resources on how to talk about social-emotional development with families and leaders. A growing awareness of mental health challenges through the pandemic created an opportunity to explain how prevention and early intervention strategies, like Sesame Street in Communities, is a critical piece in responding.

Mineck recalls being at a leadership event where Business Record publisher Chris Conetzkey talked about how important Cookie Monster was for him as a parent.

“Sesame Street and the characters have provided a platform for individuals of all ages to speak out on mental health and social-emotional health and reduce stigma,” Mineck said.  

7. Push toward “Why not?”

In planning, the Alliance kept dreaming about how far the initiative could reach and how more and more people could be a part of it. The vision was how could families within a community receive the messages and materials wherever they went from the doctor’s office to the classroom to the grocery store. With more than 300 organizations engaging in the work so far, this vision has come to life in some areas of the state. The Alliance especially encouraged Sesame Street in Communities to expand beyond the central Iowa area to the entire state faster than intended.

“We didn’t accept no,” said Gladys Alvarez. “We said, ‘Why can’t we?’ If the goal is to share it with more people and that’s leveraging knowledge, Why not?’”

View all the partners and access Sesame Street in Communities resources by clicking the button below: 

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