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'Sesame Street' to Teach ABCs of Self-Restraint

5:34 PM, Sep 15, 2013   |    comments
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Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

For 43 years, Cookie Monster has lived by one sweet, simple rule: When he wants a cookie, he gets a cookie.

Not this year.

For its new season, debuting Monday, Sesame Street aims to help its young 3- and 4-year-old viewers succeed in school - and in life - by learning a little self-restraint. The bad news: When Cookie Monster wants a cookie, he doesn't always get one. The good news? If he waits, sometimes he gets two.

Explored nearly a half-century ago in the Stanford University "marshmallow test," the research underlying the idea says that kids who develop strong "executive function" skills such as self-control, patience, grit and long-term, flexible thinking succeed in school and life.

For the experiments, Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues sat preschoolers at a desk with a marshmallow and a bell and told them they could eat the marshmallow anytime they wished. But if they waited 15 minutes until an adult returned, they'd get two marshmallows.

Mischel originally intended the experiment as a look into how children resist temptation. The first findings, published in 1970, also detailed the kids' coping strategies. But when researchers began tracking down the marshmallow kids in the early 1980s, they found that those who'd waited for two marshmallows at age 4 had much higher SAT scores and better academic records as teenagers.

The results, popularized recently in journalist Paul Tough's 2012 book How Children Succeed, have helped spawn a broad effort to rethink what helps children do well in school, with so-called "non-cognitive skills" taking on as big a role as kids' ability to read, write and do math.

Mischel himself consulted with Sesame Street researchers on the new season. The new approach isn't much of a departure from what the legendary show has focused on since its 1969 premiere.

"We always have been given great credit, and rightly so, for teaching the academic skills," says lead researcher Rosemarie Truglio. "But we have always focused on the social and emotional well-being of children, and sometimes we don't get credit for that because it's not as overt."

When she and her colleagues talk to teachers, Truglio notes, they say preschoolers "really need to have stronger skills in how to regulate their emotions and how they interact with others." That helps them arrive at school with the ability to focus on academics.

When she approached the show's writing staff with the idea of focusing on executive function, "I had no idea what it was," says head writer Joey Mazzarino. "But when we heard what it was, first of all, I said, 'I could use some help with that.' "

It didn't take long for Mazzarino, a father of two, to see that "delaying gratification is a big deal - it's a huge deal." Then he realized: Cookie Monster "is the poster boy for someone who needs to control himself. We thought, 'This is actually perfect for us.' "

In the new season, "Cookie," as his friends call him, struggles repeatedly to resist temptation, usually with a measure of success. "He's just going through this terrible conflict inside and how to overcome it," Mazzarino says. In one skit, a spoof of Star Wars called "Star S'mores," Cookie plays Flan Solo. His challenge: Not to eat his partner, a cookie named Chewy. after original Star Wars character Chewbacca, nicknamed "Chewy."

In another skit, Cookie actually undergoes a cookie-based version of the marshmallow test, appearing as a contestant on a TV game show dubbed The Waiting Game. The show's Guy Smiley Singers sing Good Things Come to Those Who Wait. Tony-award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown wrote the music. Mazzarino wrote the lyrics. He won't say how the skit ends.

To anyone who worries that delayed gratification will take the fun out of Cookie, Mazzarino says relax.

"It actually amps him up because you're just making him wait and wait," Mazzarino says. "The more he waits, the more tension he gets. He's always had that struggle, but he mostly doesn't struggle - he just eats. Nobody's ever made him wait that long."

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