The Creators of Sesame Street Were Right!!

Emotional Intelligence and Cognitive Development at the Synapse Institute


By Barbara Fatum, M.Ed., Ed.D.


Sesame Street is the longest running Children’s Educational program on television.  Its conception occurred in 1967 and its creators insisted that the show be designed “as an experimental research project that would bring together educational advisors, researchers and television producers as equal partners” (Lesser, 1974, pg. xvi).  I began my long association with Sesame Street as a consumer of children’s educational programming when my daughter was about a year old, in 1982.  Watching my daughter’s vocabulary expand, her understanding of number concepts increase, and her enjoyment of learning blossom made me curious about the show and its ability to teach.

Watching the show for a period of time with my daughter afforded me an opportunity for analysis.  I discovered that separate sequences on the show were developed for different levels of cognitive development evidenced by children (and adults) watching the show (preoperational, sensorimotor, concrete operational, and formal operational thought).  I became quickly convinced that the reasons for the success of this show were rooted in the deliberate application of many aspects of cognitive theory by the program’s creators and producers.  In graduate school at the time, I wrote a paper entitled, “Sesame Street from a Cognitive Theoretical Perspective.”

Recently, I remembered that I had written the paper and went looking for it. Finding the typewritten copy, faintly yellowed by the passing of the years, I opened its cover to discover how my perspective might have changed in the intervening years. For the past 26 years, I have worked as a School Psychologist in a variety of educational situations ranging from public schools in New York State and New Jersey, to private schools in Connecticut, and International Schools in the UK.  I have completed an ED.S. in School Psychology, an Ed.D in Learning and Instruction, and become credentialed in 4 different states, as well as spent 6 years working in International schools in the UK.  My question upon rediscovering my old graduate school paper was, “How has my theoretical perspective changed since those days in graduate school when I was very impressed by cognitive theory and enamored of Sesame Street and its effect on my growing child?”

Educational research in the area of Emotional Intelligence (EI) and Academic Achievement has been my focus most recently.  Certified as an Emotional Intelligence Trainer and Leader by the Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Network, I am currently serving as the Director of Research for their lab school, The Synapse Institute.  At the Synapse Institute, we believe that helping children develop competencies in Emotional Intelligence improves academic achievement for those children.  Current research in the literature supports this notion (Durlak & Weissberg, 2005; Payton et al., 2008). During my professional career, my own educational theoretical focus has evolved to connect cognitive theory and emotional intelligence theory, and to look for the educational impact at the intersection of the two – educating hearts and minds.

Cognitive theory is based on the principle of constructivism.  A developing child actively constructs his or her own ways of thinking and his or her own ideas about the nature of reality (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).  Intellectual development is seen as a combination of maturation (the child obtaining the biological prerequisites for readiness to learn) and environmental opportunities.  As these opportunities present themselves, the child constructs a “theory” of the world on the basis of experimenting and effectively using the results of actions as feedback for corrective action.  It the child detects discrepancies between his or her current “theory” and the latest experimental results, he or she experiences discomfort.  This discomfort leads to revision of the child’s theory, the cognitive explanation for the process of constructing new and better ways of thinking.

The most basic part of this process is cognition, or the method of internal representation of those concepts or objects present in reality.  The Iconic Mode (formation of a mental picture), the Enactive Mode (use of actions to illustrate reality), and the Symbolic Mode (assignment of meaning to arbitrary symbols) together account for the process of cognition, or the transformation of sensory input into meaningful representation.  Mental representations are incorporated into cognitive structures, or sets of rules, that govern cognition.  Cognitive structures are relatively stable structures that can be applied in different situations.  Implicit in the idea of cognitive structures is the cognitive assumption that the structural whole is greater than specific mental actions or transformations.  The most famous cognitive theorist, Jean Piaget, regarded intelligence as a specific instance of adaptive behavior.  The organism organizes and reorganizes both the environment and its own thoughts in order to cope (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).

Emotional Intelligence (EI) theory adds an important layer of understanding to this cognitive process. EI theory articulated that sensory input, translated by the cognitive brain into a representation with meaning, first passes through the mid-brain, or emotional brain, and is rapidly evaluated.  Emotional data accompany the sensory input as it travels to the prefrontal cortex to be assigned meaning.  This emotional data is designed to give the cognitive brain important additional information to use in the assignment of meaning.  Unfortunately, most emotional data is registered in the unconscious mind and is not readily available unless an individual deliberately focuses attention on it (LeDoux, 1994).  The good news is that the literature supports the idea that Emotional Intelligence abilities can be taught (Mayer & Salovey, 2004). Emotional Intelligence can be thought of like a muscle; the more the individual uses this muscle, the stronger it can become.  With practice, individuals can increase their emotional intelligence no matter which level they are currently at. The Six Seconds Emotional Intelligence Network has conducted studies with students all over the world, using its model of eight Emotional Intelligence competencies (Jensen, 2001, Fatum, 2008; Freedman, 2003).  The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has also built a strong research base supporting this idea (Payton et al, 2008). Studies from both organizations have demonstrated that helping children develop Emotional Intelligence competencies improves classroom environments as EI competencies “allow an individual to recognize and regulate emotion, develop self-control, set goals, develop empathy, resolve conflicts, and develop skills needed for leadership and effective group participation (Elias, 2006).

An important point about emotional processing must be noted here.  Powerful emotions have an evolutionary precedent to help the organism by overriding the neocortex and flooding the body with hormones intended to allow survival.  Negative emotions have a particular ability to disrupt work and hijack attention from the task at hand.  Disruption of the process of rational thought by powerful emotions has been termed “emotional hijacking” (D’Amasio, 1994; Goleman, 1995; Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002; Pipher, 1996).  Research also suggests that people who are upset have difficulty interpreting emotions accurately in themselves and in other people, impairing their social skills (D’Amasio, 1994; Henriques & Davidson, 1994).  The good news is that management of negative emotions becomes possible with emotional awareness.

At the Synapse Institute, curriculum is created to address the intersection of emotional and cognitive processing.  The curriculum is constructivist, and emotional intelligence competencies are taught alongside academic concepts.  Developed by Gigi Carlson, the Helical Learning Curriculum Strategy engages students in a systematic and progressive series of activities, moving to increasingly complex and imaginative tasks that lead to a cognitive activity that addresses a community or world problem (Carlson, 2004).  The learning helix is the spine of the application of this Constructivist pedagogy and engages students to analyze patterns, failures and successes, concepts, and possibilities.  Students build foundations from which they learn to create their own theories of the fundamental laws of social studies, language arts, and mathematics.  Students are introduced to an academic concept or theme through play, where they connect subject matter to prior experiences and skills in a fun and engaging way.  Explore allows students to quest for more knowledge through questions and connections.  The connect phase of the curriculum allows students to solve a problem, using scientific, social research methodologies and/or creative processes.  Synapse students imagine by finding solutions, developing ideas, and asking new questions.  Finally, time to reflect is built into each lesson as students distill theories and concepts from hands-on learning projects and research activities.



The eight EI competencies, modeled by teachers in classes at the Synapse Institute and taught through direct instruction to Synapse students through connection to the Helical curriculum, derive from the Six Seconds Model of Emotional Intelligence.   EI competencies are also taught to students weekly in a separate curriculum facilitated by Synapse’s EI specialist, Marsha Rideout.

The eight EI competencies enhance the Helical Learning curriculum by allowing students to integrate the emotional and academic aspects of their learning.  Enhance Emotional Literacy (EEL) helps students sort out feelings, name them and begin to understand their causes and effects.  Research suggests that naming emotions helps calm and manage them, reducing activity in the amygdala (Lieberman, et al., 2007).  Recognize Patterns (RCP) aids students in identifying thinking, feeling, and action patterns which often operate as an established habit.  Often this system of patterns serves us well, and at other times it leads us to unconsciously create the opposite of what we really want. 

Apply Consequential Thinking (ACT) allows students and teachers to be as impulsive as we truly want to be, but it also allows us to delay gratification when the consequences are undesirable and/or painful.  Consequential thinking is key to evaluating and rechoosing our thoughts, feelings, and actions.  Navigate Emotions (NVE) is an EI competency that allows children to slow the reaction process down, carefully engaging both heart and mind, and creating productive solutions. The Synapse Institute believes that when individuals become skilled at sensing, labeling, and using their own emotions, they are able to harness them as a source of information and motivation.  This EI competency helps children to carefully choose how they will use the power of their feelings.  Engage Intrinsic Motivation helps students to tap into the part of themselves that has a longer view and find the reward within themselves.  This competency frees students from a dependency on feedback from others.  As students learn to get validation from inside, they create inner strength and the power to continuously grow.  Exercise Optimism allows students to see beyond the present and anticipate the future.  This competency is tied to resiliency and to perseverance, two skills that most affect our ability to function despite the stresses and challenges of day-to-day life.

Increase Empathy is the ability to recognize and respond to other people’s emotions.  Conscious empathy must be carefully banked and fueled through role-modeling, reinforcement, and practice.  Once people develop empathy on a conscious level, it becomes self-reinforcing because it answers a deep-seated need to build sustaining relationships with others.  Pursue Noble Goals is a competency that allows students to connect their actions to a higher purpose.  Recent research suggests that students thrive when they understand what the purpose of their learning is (Jensen, 2005; Willis, 2006).  Connecting students to noble goals provides a measure for their daily actions and invites their “best self” to step forward. The Synapse Institute teaches EI competencies in order to increase student self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

How does all of this relate to Sesame Street and Children’s Television Programming, you may well ask.  Well, to come full circle, I found in my paper, and to my delight,  examples of Sesame Street sequences demonstrating the intersection of Emotional Intelligence and Academic Achievement.  Gerald Lesser, the Chairman of the Board of Advisors of Children’s Television Workshop and a Bigelow Professor of Education and Developmental Psychology at Harvard,  worked closely with the creative and academic people developing this radical new educational concept, and encouraged them to set curriculum goals together.  In this way, research played a critical role, informing the creation of this highly successful educational television production (Lesser, 1974).  In much the same way, The Synapse Institute is using research-based practices from EI Theory and Cognitive Theory, gathering data on its students, and analyzing that data to inform the creation of curriculum and instruction on an ongoing basis.  Gerald Lesser believed that the intersection of the Head (curriculum firmly tied to developmental information and curriculum standards) and the Heart (age-appropriate, emotionally depicted sequences linked to qualitative changes in cognitive stages) were the key to unlocking children’s learning.  “If we can begin to understand why certain children become competent and happy while others do not, if we can try a variety of ways of reaching them and see how these ways work, perhaps some of the mysteries of early education will begin to dissolve” (1974, pg. 15).

Perhaps an example from the Sesame Street television program will serve to illuminate my point.  A favorite segment on the show involved a cartoon featuring a little typewriter that walks, types on itself, speaks, and reveals emotions.  In one specific segment, the typewriter walks to the center of the screen, smiles, and types the letter “l.”  A great roar is heard and the little typewriter cowers.  The typewriter, whimpering, types the letter “I” and another great roar is heard.  The little typewriter throws its arms over its keyboard and cries, frightened.  Shaking, it reaches its keyboard and quickly types the letters “o” and “n.” A great big lion bounds across the screen, roaring.  The letters are on the screen long enough for the child watching to associate “lion” with the bounding, roaring creature.  If that proved too difficult a concept for the child’s schema to assimilate, the typewriter segment showed the child that there are standard symbolic representations – words – for concrete objects in the environment.  The emotional component added data to the meaning of “lion” and let the child know that this animal is not a kitten to be petted.

Research has come a long way since 1974 and the tools and techniques educational researchers have available to us in 2010 yield a clearer picture of children’s learning, resulting in better educational approaches.  Gerald Lesser’s prediction was correct. The creative team of the Children’s Television Workshop understood the importance of helping children utilize the intersection of their emotions as an aid to cognitive processing.  The Synapse Institute will be leading the charge to enlighten educators about the powerful intersection of Emotional Intelligence and Academic Achievement in the early 21st century.



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