Rutgers Psychologist Bound for 'Sesame Street' to Join Resilience Project

Rutgers Psychologist Bound for 'Sesame Street' to Join Resilience Project

Geraldine Oades-Sese explores ways to foster resilience in disadvantaged children
Rutgers Psychologist Bound for 'Sesame Street' to Join Resilience Project
Credit: Nick Romanenko
Geraldine Oades-Sese, a psychology professor, will lend her expertise to the Sesame Resilience Initiative.

Sesame Street has educated millions of kids since its debut in 1969, including Rutgers psychology professor Geraldine Oades-Sese. Now Sesame Street is hoping to learn a thing or two from her.

Very likely they will learn much more. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the show, is looking for ways to foster resilience in young children. Oades-Sese is director of the Research Lab for Resilience and Early Childhood Development in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology, and a specialist in the social-emotional and academic development of disadvantaged bilingual preschoolers. Last month, Sesame Street invited her to join the advisory board guiding its eight-month-long project, the Sesame Resilience Initiative. Her work began March 28 in Washington, D.C.

Resilience research examines the capacity of people to cope with stress and adversity. Resilience studies with children have typically focused on kids from war-torn countries, dire family situations, or trauma like the Holocaust or Hurricane Katrina. Oades-Sese’s research focuses on bilingual Hispanic-American preschoolers in an economically disadvantaged New Jersey community.  

“Some of these children are at risk for dropping out of high school and delinquent behavior. My goal is to determine what we can do for these children when they’re 3, 4, and 5 years old, to make these kids resilient and successful early on,” she said. “There’s a real gap in the research literature. Child development theories we learn in undergraduate and graduate school do not represent this group of kids. Theories and research fail to consider their unique circumstances such as acculturating to a new environment, learning a second language, and experiencing prejudice.”

Oades-Sese's own childhood experience sensitized her to their struggle. She emigrated from the Philippines to Jersey City when she was 6. She remembered how difficult it was to understand or speak English and being teased for her Asian characteristics at school. She recalled that there were a number of school factors that fostered her resilience: a kind and dedicated 3rd grade teacher who selflessly gave her time to help her catch up, a nurturing but challenging learning environment, and an advanced parochial school that had high expectations.

"Every child has the capacity to overcome adversity," she said. "To help immigrant children reach their potential, we must understand their unique socio-cultural and linguistic experiences and how these experiences influence their social-emotional and academic resilience.” 

In 2008, Oades-Sese launched a three-year, longitudinal study of preschoolers in Perth Amboy. The majority was from the Dominican Republic or Mexico. Parents tended to have a low level of education, and many were burdened by problems like unemployment, depression, or other poverty-related problems. Most of their children spoke Spanish as their first language, but had been placed in English-only classrooms. Fully half, she discovered, were not proficient in either language.

“If you reach a certain linguistic threshold in your first language, you can easily acquire a second language,” she said. “Most of them had not arrived at that threshold.”

Oades-Sese also assessed various preschool instructional models to learn which worked best for language development. Dual language classrooms outperformed regular classrooms. (The school district has since instituted changes based on her report.) She also collected a raft of data about the kids’ personal development, ranging from their emotional well-being to their relationship to the teacher and other indicators of classroom quality. 

“Before you can talk about academic success and achievement, or figure out interventions, you have to understand these kids’ development,” she said.

Her findings about resilience and vulnerability in immigrant children were published January 10 in the journal Developmental Psychology. In conversation, she paraphrases educator Cristina Igoa.

 “If you’re a gardener transplanting a flowering plant to a larger pot, sometimes it doesn’t do well. It’s had a shock to its system,” she said. “You have to give it time, sunlight and water. The more nurturing you give it, the stronger it will become. That’s how immigrant children thrive and develop during this transition through the care and support of teachers and parents.”

Oades-Sese, a certified school psychologist, also runs the CREATE Clinic at Rutgers to help young children reach their potential.