How Children Can Learn Social and Emotional Skills Through Preschool TV
Following is a conversation I had with children’s TV show creator and writer Angela Santomero. Angela created the preschool phenomenon Blue’s Clues for Nickelodeon, as well as Super Why and Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood for PBS and Creative Galaxy and Wishenpoof for Amazon. Angela is also a bestselling author and was the host of The Parent Show with Angela Santomero on PBS. In our conversation, we talk about the intersection between preschool kids media, education, and differently-wired kids.
This is a cleaned-up and abridged transcription of Episode 10 of the TiLT Parenting Podcast. To listen to the full episode, click here: Angela Santomero on How Children Can Learn Social and Emotional Skills Through Preschool TV
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Debbie: Just to keep it real, you and I have been friends for a long time now as I worked on Blue’s Clues back in the day, and since then you and I have gotten to collaborate together on some really cool projects. It’s been fantastic to watch your journey as a kids’ show creator over the years and to see you continually bring your passion for empowering kids through TV in a way that I think has transformed the landscape for educational TV.
Angela: Thank you so much. You and I have always said that when we met there was this chemistry in terms of what we wanted to do in the world and better ourselves and what we’re doing for kids. So, obviously I’m also a huge supporter of yours since the beginning and also on this new endeavor, which I think is so needed. I’m so happy to support it.
Debbie: Thank you . . . I appreciate that. Before we get into the meat of our conversation, I’m curious if you could explain where this passion that you have around the work you’re doing stems from? I obviously know you’re the mom of two very cool daughters who are now well past the preschool years. But you were doing this work before you even had children. What it was about the blend of media and kids that really inspired you to go down this path?
Angela: I always thought that I might be a teacher. I was a preschool teacher when I was in college, and I was also always around kids. I was that teenager who had to keep a grid of all of her babysitting clients because I had so many. And then my little brother was born when I was fourteen, so I really got to watch him grow. He played a big role in sparking my interest in kids and child development. I was also a crazy fan of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood as a preschooler, and that made me so interested in what it would be like to teach through media the way that I believe Fred Rogers did. So that’s how the journey started for me.
Debbie: So, I just have to ask—what does a crazy fan of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood look like in action?
Angela: Well, you know, I was that four-year-old who could not get any closer to the TV when the show was on, and I would talk back to him all the time. And then also as I got older, when I was in eighth grade, I had to write an essay on a personal mentor and I choose Fred Rogers. I studied and looked up what he did and realized he had a master’s degree in child developmental psychology, and I learned that field of study included all these things that were really interesting to me. It all kind of started from there and continued to grow.
Debbie: It seems like just about every day at least one article goes by in my Facebook newsfeed where the merits of screen time are being discussed. Is it good? Is it bad? How little? How much? What are the benefits? What are the risks? But when it comes to educational programming, like the shows you’ve created, there’s clear evidence that children can learn not only school readiness skills and things like pre-literacy but also all kinds of social and emotional lessons as well, right? I mean, is there evidence to back that up?
Angela: Oh, yes. Deborah Linebarger has cited tons of research with her group about the merits of screen time. Obviously it’s choosing the right programs, but we’re seeing lots of reports that show that kids are actually learning from certain shows. And then we do our own formative research when we’re testing something new to see what kids across the board, both in low income and regular income families, are doing with our content. We want to know about the questions they’re asking about our content, as well as how it’s impacting their learning. That’s formative research—that’s what we see just to be better at what we’re doing. And then we back that up with research from developmental psychologist Dan Anderson, the University of Pennsylvania folks, and everyone who’s been doing this research starting from Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and beyond about the power and influence that media can have on kids.
Debbie: I was going to ask how you make sure your shows land with kids in the right way and that the viewers are making the intellectual and social and emotional connections you want them to? It sounds like the key is research. Could you share with us what that research looks like?
Angela: We have a formative research team on our show. Most of them come from Teachers’ College Columbia University where we’ve all studied the effects of media on kids and understanding how it affects their learning. The program at Teachers’ College also looks at education and child development and how those intersects with media in terms of what we can do using instructional technology in media.
Then we’ll literally take a second draft of a script in protocol format out to research, where one of our researchers sits on the floor with kids and reads the script in the exact same way it will be performed in the episode. For Blue’s Clues, we would even play the games that would be played in the show and record what was going on with kids. We observe what the kids are saying, whether they’re interested, whether they’re getting the concepts we intend to teach. For example, we want to find out if kids are taking away a strategy from Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood or cognitive skills from a Blue’s Clues episode.
We’re also constantly going back out to research, especially in the development process. We know there’s a difference between sitting on the floor with kids’ reading a script or playing games than when they’re actually watching something on a screen, so we’ll test a script in a rough cut form as well to make sure we’re maximizing the learning benefits of the program.
Debbie: It’s pretty incredible, the lengths that you go to at every step of the way to make sure an episode is going to resonate and have the impact that you’re hoping it will.
Angela: And the meetings that we have afterwards are kind of, you know . . . I was going to say argumentative. But there’s this intense love and vision for what we want to put out to kids and so we’ll spend a lot of time to get it right. The researchers spend so much time in the testing groups with kids and then debriefing about what’s going on, and then we all sit down with the executive producers and the writers and the research team and educational consultants and talk about what we can do to make sure the scripts are better. We want to continue to push the limits of what kids can do, what they need to know, and how they need to see it all the way through the production processes. It’s an engaging, interesting, and sometimes really difficult process.
There’s this intense love and vision for what we want to put out to kids and so we’ll spend a lot of time to get it right. The researchers spend so much time in the testing groups with kids and then debriefing about what’s going on, and then we all sit down with the executive producers and the writers and the research team and educational consultants and talk about what we can do to make sure the scripts are better. We want to continue to push the limits of what kids can do, what they need to know, and how they need to see it all the way through the production processes. It’s an engaging, interesting, and sometimes really difficult process.
Debbie: It’s almost like it could be too many cooks in the kitchen, but in this case you want all of those cooks. But it does sound like a lot of work.
When I reached out to you about this interview, I knew that I wanted to talk about this great essay published in the Motherlode section of The New York Times in 2015. It was written by Rasha Madkour, the mother of a five-year-old autistic boy, and she opened the piece by saying: “We’ve spent thousands of dollars on therapies, countless hours at trial-and-error play dates. In spite of all that, I know just where the credit lies for my high-functioning autistic son’s new-found ability to connect with others: Daniel Tiger.”
Angela: That always gets me. You know, I don’t care how many Emmy nominations there are out there—those are the kinds of letters we get that really make what we do every day worthwhile.
We’re seeing how sticky the social emotional strategies we’re sharing on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are. It’s important to say that we took Fred Roger’s curriculum and legacy and moved it forward through the show. And he was all about the social emotional learning of a child. So when we talk about sharing, we talk about it from the point of view of the child. You can have a turn but then I get it back. We drilled it down to this strategy that says to the child, “It’s okay, you’ll be able to get it back.” And then we have Daniel Tiger talk directly to that home viewer, which allows the viewer to immediately bond with this character. So we have a situation that’s very visual and very emotional and very real like a sharing situation, and then we watch Daniel struggle with it, we watch him try a strategy and have it work out, and then we repeat it a couple of times in the course of an eleven-minute episode. And then we expand that strategy in a song to show other experiences the viewer could use the same strategy for. And then we repeat the same curriculum in another eleven-minute episode but with a completely different story. So, at the end of a twenty-two-minute piece, we know that kids are really getting it. And then we started realizing it was also resonating with children on the spectrum who are now able to articulate their feelings and do things they might not have been able to do before.
Debbie: The approach you use for your shows really resonates when I think about the kinds of things we do with Asher and the kinds of things that help these kids learn the social and emotional skills that many of their peers are picking up naturally. Acknowledging his emotions has been huge for us—thinking out loud and talking about the emotion, acknowledging it, empathizing. And then the role-playing, and trying to take somebody else’s perspective, and then, of course, repetition. So it doesn’t surprise me that kids on the spectrum or kids who are differently wired are connecting with your programs. Did you have any sense that your shows had this potential to support differently wired kids in this way when you first created them?
Angela: No, it wasn’t something we set out to do, but we’re so focused on the development of childhood that it doesn’t surprise me either. We want what we’re teaching to resonate, so we make it really visual, we make it really repetitive, and we make sure it’s really emotional when we’re trying to solve a problem because we know from a story perspective that that’s going to have children engage. So, it’s not a surprise to me that all types of children are getting something from it. But it’s overwhelming to realize that the techniques we’re using on our shows are resonating in such a strong way.
So, at the end of a twenty-two-minute piece, we know that kids are really getting it. And then we started realizing it was also resonating with children on the spectrum who are now able to articulate their feelings and do things they might not have been able to do before.
I also think part of that is the way we use interactivity. With Blue’s Clues where we included a “pause,” we called it interactivity before that was even a buzzword. Actually, that’s one of the things I’ve been exploring with my work is this idea of a pause and what it really looks like. It’s more than the way we used interactivity in Blue’s Clues—you know, “Where is the red circle?” Pause. Really what it’s about is bonding with home viewer, giving kids a chance to pause and relate and reflect and be part of the experience. And I think that is a really big key on why Daniel is resonating with kids as well.
Debbie: You know, Asher has always had opinions about lots of things and he likes to share them, and I’m sure he’s not alone in that. And so that pause also gives kids a chance to blurt out their answer to let the character know that they know the answer, that they have a perspective or point of view on it. So, I really love that piece of it as well.
Angela: Me too. It gives them an opinion, it enables them to be part of that experience and to have a voice, right? And be part of the conversation. I love it when I hear the brilliance as it comes out of the kids’ mouths.
Debbie: They have a lot to say.
Angela: They do.
Debbie: There’s one other quote from the essay that I just wanted to share. “In a world full of unspoken social codes (the manual to which isn’t pre-programmed in children like my son) Daniel Tiger is a chipper guide. In the specialist’s lingo, Daniel Tiger teaches social skills discretely – that is, he explicitly spells them out and the episodes feature multiple examples of those skills in use – and he’s a peer model. Children tend to learn better from other children than from adults. It’s one thing when your parents tell you to share; it’s another when you hear it from a cast of characters who are as familiar as friends.”
That quote jumped out at me because I think peer relationships can be tricky for a lot of kids who are differently wired, especially if they struggle with social connection and social skills or “social thinking.” They don’t often get a chance to practice in their day-to-day lives or in preschool because a lot of kids will just kind of move along. You know, if this kid is behaving this way, I’m not really interested, I’ll move on to somebody else. So, this is kind of a safe way for these kids to see strong social thinking modeled and get to practice it.
Angela: Yes, absolutely. That’s what’s also interesting about animation—it’s a safe medium to practice those skills because it’s not necessarily as real as live action. We’ve found that animated characters are bringing a different sense to the situations we present. I’m hearing that more and more lately.
Debbie: That makes total sense. We’ve used what are called “social stories” a lot over the years with Asher—stories or books with a very strong social thinking component that we would read and discuss together, breaking down the different characters’ thoughts and perspectives and emotions. In a way, shows like Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood are social stories but in a different medium.
I’m sure the essay in The New York Times wasn’t the first time you’ve gotten that feedback about your shows resonating with differently-wired kids. As you create new episodes, are you thinking about how you might connect with kids who are wired differently or do you just know your approach is going to enable you to reach those children as well?
Angela: We definitely think about it. Because of the feedback, we took a closer look at some of the themes we could tackle with Daniel. And in partnering with the Fred Rogers Company, we’re able to come up with great themes for this audience, like the feeling of being left out or how to enter play. So, for example, even though our characters are friends with each other, we wanted to create a scenario to show what it would be like to be a bit nervous about entering a play situation. You know, how do you do that? How do you start? What happens when a friend says no to you? What can we do?
Because of the feedback, we took a closer look at some of the themes we could tackle with Daniel. And in partnering with the Fred Rogers Company, we’re able to come up with great themes for this audience, like the feeling of being left out or how to enter play.
These are things parents have specifically asked us for. We’ve also been playing with aggression and thinking about how to do an episode about promoting kindness without promoting violence. That’s something we’re really cognizant of. For example, on a kids’ program, when we show something, even if we say it’s wrong, it’s going to have many more implications than if we don’t show it at all. So, one of the things we’re working on is a strategy where Daniel gets so frustrated and he’s about to be aggressive—about to hit or about to throw something—but Mom Tiger stops him or Teacher Harriet stops him and then he learns it’s okay to be angry but it’s not okay to hurt. I’d like to think that we’re also growing this audience to be more kind with all the bullying and gun violence out there. So as kids start growing up, if they have these strategies and skills, they might make better choices.
Debbie: Absolutely. That’s something I’ve worked really hard with Asher on over the years, because he can be very intense. Especially when he was younger and things didn’t go his way his reactions were quite big. So, we’ve spent a lot of time with him on in-the-moment coping strategies and teaching him how to diffuse that so his reaction isn’t so big. And I often think this is something most adults don’t have the capability to do. So I love that you’re modeling that and showing it to preschoolers, because I think it’s something everyone can benefit from.
Angela: Totally. And I love when I hear parents say that they’re learning, too.
Debbie: So, how can parents take the programs you’ve created and capitalize on the learning in them in the conversations and opportunities that they bring up for their kids? How can they take it to the next level in their home?
Angela: Anything that their kids are watching or reading, anything they’re really excited about, parents can use those character as a way into important conversations. So, for instance the way that they talk about it in The New York Times’ article is exactly what we tell parents: If you as a parent can be aware of these strategies, take them on and use them and keep them going. Whether you have time to co-view or you just have time to play it out, if your child is talking about a pretend character, take that experience and that conservation to another level. Sometimes parents are concerned about doing that, or might worry about these fantasy characters not being real. But it doesn’t matter. It’s really just about the way your child is expressing themselves. And the more you can bring that into your everyday life, the more learning will continue to happen.
We do it as adults all the time. I’m constantly talking about the characters I’m watching on the shows I watch. So, I don’t see any problem with our kids doing it, and in fact I see the benefits of putting anything that you want your child learn, like morals and values, into words that children can understand. And sometimes these shows can help you do that.
Anything that their kids are watching or reading, anything they’re really excited about, parents can use those character as a way into important conversations.
Debbie: I can see just being on the playground and seeing something happen and asking our child, what would Daniel Tiger do in this situation? What do you think he would do? That’s a strategy we use a lot in our home. When Asher’s reading a book, it’s like watching a movie to him. He’s very engaged in the fictitious worlds that he participates in, whether it’s books or TV or movies, and we use that to our advantage all the time. If we’re co-watching something, we’ll pause and have a conversation about it: What do you think he’s thinking right now? What would you do in this situation? There are so many ways to extend the experience and kids are usually pretty interested in them because they’re starting with something they’re already focused on.
Angela: Yeah, we’ve had some of the best conversations about those kinds of things. I remember how in Cinderella, you know, how literally awful the stepsisters were, and we had this constant dialogue about that situation which helped us at the time with all the sibling rivalry stuff we were dealing with.
If we’re co-watching something, we’ll pause and have a conversation about it: What do you think he’s thinking right now? What would you do in this situation? There are so many ways to extend the experience and kids are usually pretty interested in them because they’re starting with something they’re already focused on.
Debbie: Before we go, do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share with parents whose kids are engaging with kids’ media?
Angela: I would love to invite parents to be part of the conversation. Creators like me are constantly looking to learn more about what parents are looking for in the shows their kids watch. So being an active part of the Facebook communities for our shows and asking us what you’re looking for is great.
Debbie: I think that’s a great tip to encourage parents to ask for what they want and be part of the conversation. That’s something I’m trying to get parents everywhere to do with every aspect of raising their kids. Be more vocal about our experience and what we need so we can get it.
Thank you so much for the interview Angela—it’s so fun talking with you about all of this stuff!
Angela: Thank you!
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Want to get learn more? Here are links to the resources mentioned in the article:
- Angela Santomero’s website Angela’s Clues
- Blue’s Clues (Nick Jr.)
- Super Why (PBS Kids)
- Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (PBS Kids)
- Creative Galaxy (Amazon Kids)
- Wishenpoof (Amazon Kids)
- Daniel Tiger Becomes a Boy with Autism’s Guide to Social Life (article from New York Times’ Motherlode)
- Dr. Deborah Linebarger (University of Iowa)
- Dr. Daniel Anderson (University of Massachusetts, Amherst)
- Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania
About Angela: Angela Santomero is the creator of many preschool TV shows including Blue’s Clues, Super Why, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Creative Galaxy, and Wishenpoof, and was the host of The Parent Show with Angela Santomero on PBS. She has a Master’s degree in Child Developmental Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University with a sub-concentration in Instructional Technology and Media.