Why we must invest in remote early childhood development programmes

A young girl stands and learns with a Sesame Street character: Ahlan Simsim has proven the power of demonstrate the power of integrating educational media with early childhood development services.

Ahlan Simsim has proven the power of demonstrate the power of integrating educational media with early childhood development services. Image: Sesame Workshop

Sam Friedlander
Senior Manager – Advocacy and Policy, Humanitarian Programmes, Sesame Workshop
Heidi Rosbe
Senior Project Specialist, Ahlan Simsim, International Rescue Committee
Lizzie Goodfriend
Project Managing Director, Early Childhood Development in Emergency and Conflict , Global TIES for Children, New York University
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  • Forcibly displaced children often lack adequate early childhood development support within humanitarian settings, which sets them back in education and other developmental indicators.
  • New research from New York University Global TIES for Children on Ahlan Simsim, an initiative from Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee, reveals new learnings for improving children’s holistic development.
  • Several key findings show that remote programmes such as those offered by Ahlan Simsim can boost early childhood development, making a case for more research and investment into remote programming.

There are more than 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – almost half are children. Unfortunately, too often, the lack of early childhood development programming in humanitarian contexts has left these children behind in providing services related to development indicators such as education and mental health, and there is limited research on how best to reach and support them.

Ahlan Simsim – “Welcome Sesame” in Arabic – is an initiative from the Sesame Workshop and the International Rescue Committee funded by the MacArthur Foundation and LEGO Foundation, aimed to address early childhood development gaps. At the heart of the project is a commitment to learning and sharing what we learn so others can build on these lessons.

Now, three new randomized controlled trials into the Ahlan Simsim initiative, led by New York University Global TIES for Children, provide new insights into improving children’s holistic development.

Encouragingly, the findings indicate that remote programmes can support children’s development and caregivers’ well-being and demonstrate the power of integrating educational media with early childhood development services. This evaluation has significant implications for delivering child development interventions in humanitarian and other contexts where in-person services are unavailable.

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Key learnings about early childhood development

Several findings from the research could have profound implications for the humanitarian sector and its education provision. Here are some of the key learnings and why they matter:

A remote preschool programme with a multimedia component substantially impacted young children.

The initiative’s Remote Early Learning programme, mainly reaching Syrian children in Lebanon, improved children’s language, numeracy, motor and social-emotional development by engaging parents to guide young children through activities at home. Importantly, positive impacts from this programme did not differ by caregivers’ educational background or literacy level.

This finding is an important demonstration that caregivers can, with support, successfully deliver a comprehensive preschool curriculum at home, challenging assumptions that caregivers with limited education would struggle to support this type of learning.

Gains in literacy and numeracy from the 11-week remote preschool programme were comparable to those seen from one year of in-person preschool.

Remote learning for young children and in low-resource settings can be challenging but this success is evidence that a remote programme for young children can be developmentally appropriate and feasible in settings without access to in-person services.

This finding is important for populations affected by crises, for families on the move or in other contexts where in-person preschool is not feasible in the short- or long-term. And it challenges assumptions that remote preschool cannot significantly support child learning.

An educational television programme boosted children’s emotional development.

In Jordan, the Ahlan Simsim TV show significantly impacted children’s ability to identify emotions such as “fear” or “frustration” and to apply the coping strategy of pausing to take a calming breath in difficult situations.

These findings underscore the ability of mass media to encourage social-emotional outcomes while reaching children at scale.

Remote early childhood development parenting programmes can be designed to improve caregiver mental health.

The phone-delivered Reach Up and Learn programme’s facilitators were trained in responsive listening and non-judgmental rapport and used these skills during well-being check-ins with caregivers. These qualities were key drivers of reductions in depressive symptoms for caregivers, offering a window into new ways to support their mental health.

In addition to benefiting caregivers, reduced depression among caregivers is a long-term predictor of healthy child development. This evidence suggests that well-being check-ins can be successfully incorporated into remote programming to encourage caregiver mental health.

early childhood development
Two children sit on the floor to watch an Ahlan Simsim television programme on an iPad. Image: Sesame Workshop

The future of programming

In addition to lessons learned from programme impact, we gained further insights into programme design and delivery that can be applied to future programming. The lessons included:

Programmes designed with low barriers to entry and flexible participation options are key for ensuring access.

The Remote Early Learning programme allowed caregivers to access content through low-tech WhatsApp or audio calls and participate from any location.

Activities in the curriculum used materials found in most homes, such as utensils or cups, or required no materials.

Multimedia content can strengthen learning at home and school.

The research indicated that the combination of media assets is powerful, supporting parent-child engagement and learning during and beyond the programme.

Ahlan Simsim uses a variety of media tools to engage children and boost learning outcomes across domains, including its television show, videos and storybooks, among others.

Children and caregivers need enough exposure to content to create an impact.

Sufficient dosage is a key factor in any programme. For example, the Remote Early Learning programme involved almost daily touch points (two to three 40-minute calls per week, plus follow-up in between) for 11 weeks; children in the Mass Media programme watched an episode of Ahlan Simsim daily for 12 weeks.

We saw significant impacts in both programmes. However, the Remote Reach Up and Learn programme only included seven to 10 minutes of early childhood development content in three calls per month for six months.

This lower dosage may have been insufficient for impacting caregiver practices or child development, as there were no measured impacts on these outcomes.

These findings lay the groundwork for future investment, research and scale, including:

  • INVESTMENT: There is an enormous need for more early childhood development support in crisis-affected settings. Learnings from this research can inform future programming, including remote programmes and those that use multimedia or focus on caregivers. These findings should instil confidence that programming in these contexts is possible and can be remarkably impactful, encouraging additional investment in similar evidence-informed programmes.
  • RESEARCH: These studies measured the effects of select programmes in specific contexts, laying a solid foundation for further investigation. Investments in future research can build on these learnings to test and refine similar approaches in other contexts or with new populations.
  • SCALE: The impact of remote and mass media approaches to early childhood development programming offers the possibility of reaching millions more children worldwide, often in the most challenging contexts.

The collective findings of this research demonstrate the potential for improved outcomes and significant economic returns, making a strong case for evidence-informed early childhood programming to reach young children affected by world crises.

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