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Cookie Monster teaches self-control

University of Iowa professor finds videos starring a favorite Sesame Street character helps preschoolers develop skills critical to school readiness

University of Iowa

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IMAGE: Deborah Linebarger is an associate professor in the University of Iowa College of Education's Department of Teaching and Learning. view more

Credit: University of Iowa

Who would have thought a Sesame Street video starring the Cookie Monster, of all characters, could teach preschoolers self-control?

But that's exactly what Deborah Linebarger, an associate professor in Teacher and Learning at the University of Iowa, found when she studied a group of preschoolers who repeatedly watched videos of Cookie Monster practicing ways to control his desire to eat a bowl of chocolate chip cookies.

"Me want it," Cookie Monster sings in one video, "but me wait."

In fact, preschoolers who viewed the Cookie Monster video were able to wait four minutes longer than their peers who watched an unrelated Sesame Street video. They were also better able to control the impulse to shout out character names and to remember and repeat back longer number sequences.

Linebarger says learning to master these executive functioning skills are critical to school readiness.

"A formal school situation requires that children control impulses, follow directions, transit smoothly between activities, and focus on relevant task information," she says. "These skills also predict other academic skills including reading, math, and science."

Linebarger presented the findings of her study on Nov. 10 during the London International Conference on Education. The results of the study, which was funded by a grant from the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the Sesame Street television program, have not yet been published.

The study involved 59 preschool children who were recruited from six child-care centers in and around a small city in the Midwest. The study involved a new curriculum developed by Sesame Street that features Cookie Monster and is designed to teach preschoolers executive function skills such as self-control, working memory and switching gears between activities.

"These are the non-academic skills that help make a child successful at school," Linebarger says. "They help children manage their behavior, sit still and pay attention."

Kindergarten teachers report that more than half of children entering school suffer deficits in these areas.

Linebarger, who is also director of the Iowa Children's Media Lab and a consultant to Congress, media producers and early childhood nonprofits such as LeapFrog, Disney, Nickelodeon and Sesame Workshop, made a second presentation Nov. 10 at the London conference about an earlier study she conducted about whether preschoolers can learn early literacy skills from an educational television program called Super Why!

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