Attention Teachers: This SEL Tool is Flexible and Free

Billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford believes in preventive medicine. When his attention turned to society and the challenges we face, this philosophy of prevention dictated that, as early as possible, children should practice their social and communication skills. Thus was born the Sanford Harmony Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Program.

Designed for Pre-K to 6th grade classes, this CASEL-SELect program uses strategies, stories, lessons and activities to foster respect, kindness and empathy—and decrease aggressive behavior. Students build communication skills and learn to regulate emotions as they connect, collaborate and problem solve. Thanks to Sanford’s philanthropic gift, the entire program is provided at no cost to schools or organizations.

“Building healthy relationships and supportive learning communities, early on in life, gives children the social and emotional competencies that, as adults, enable them to have better relationships and understand how to communicate across lines of difference. It helps their marriage, school, work, friendships, neighbors,” says director Richie Ressel.

“If you look at the data, what employers are looking for in a candidate—what identifies ‘success’ in the workplace—are skills like leadership, communication, problem solving, empathy and critical thinking. The strongest job performers have developed these competencies equally to their academic achievements.”

Know Thy Peers
A simple but effective tactic in the Harmony approach is Buddy Up, which intentionally pairs different students each week; by schoolyear’s end, everyone has collaborated with the whole class. They cannot choose only those classmates who share their interests and backgrounds, but rather, must work across diverse and sometimes opposite peers. This builds relationship skills and social awareness, with the added benefits of increased self-awareness, self-management and responsible decision making.

“Buddy Up de-emphasizes defining others and the right-or-wrong perspective. Instead, students focus on how we operate and interact, which opens them up to diversity and letting different perspectives grow and respond to each other,” says Ressel.

Grades Up, Bullying Down
A wide range of SEL research demonstrates the impact of these tools. School enjoyment goes up because being in positive relationships leads to overall more happiness. Academic achievement increases, especially among students distracted by friendship issues, bullying and other social concerns. Stereotypes and aggression decrease, with a reduction in fights and other violence.

"When we’re not being attacked for who we are, there’s greater sense of safety and belonging. When kids can empathize, and others can empathize with them, they feel stronger bonds around them,” says Ressel. “Creating this environment and culture, we believe, is a way to reduce aggression in schools."

Just Use It
Teachers often cite money and time constraints as barriers to SEL implementation, but T. Denny Sanford’s start-up donation eliminates the number one barrier, cost, with a focus on flexibility and ease of implementation.

“We know the program works, so the next step is growing it so more people can use it,” says Ressel. “The research shows, these are lifelong skills that will make students be more successful not just in academics but in every regard in their life, relationships and career.”

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