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Putting the Pieces Together to Form Harmonious Relationships

By Nick Yoder, PhD

The creation, development, and refinement of Harmony SEL is driven by the need for young people to develop the skills and be in environments (in classrooms and other settings) that lead to harmonious social interactions (Hanish et al., 2017). The program and associated activities are predominately driven by Intergroup Contact Theory (Allport, 1954), which states that diverse groups of individuals will more likely develop relationships when they receive opportunities to connect with another, establish common goals, obtain equal status, and are broadly supported by institutions (for review see Delay et al., 2017 and Pettigrew et al., 2011). To do this, Harmony is similar to other social and emotional learning (SEL) programs in that it explicitly develops core social and emotional skills (Rimm-Kaufman & Hulleman, 2015), yet is distinct because it centers development through peer influence and interactions (Miller et al., 2017).

Guided by cognitive behavioral and social-cognitive approaches, Harmony’s active ingredients— explicit SEL instruction and applying SEL Everyday Practices—define the mechanisms that matter most within the curriculum (Miller et al., 2017). In other words, these mechanisms are the core beliefs and theory that drive improvements in students’ social, emotional, and academic development (Rimm-Kaufman & Hulleman, 2015). Explicit instruction occurs within the units and lessons, comprised of relationship-based activities that allow students to learn and practice social and emotional skills at least once per week. Lessons and activities include storybooks; participatory, play-based peer activities; interactive games; hands-on activities; and role-plays and discussions (peer-to-peer, small and whole group) (Martin et al., 2017)—typical instructional practices found in other SEL programs (Jones et al., 2017). Everyday Practices provide students with ongoing and supportive opportunities to interact with diverse peers to participate in discussions, decision-making, problem solving, and community building—authentic opportunities to apply those skills learned in units and lessons (Martin et al., 2017).

Although the research base behind Harmony is strong (Delay et al., 2017; Hanish et al., n.d.; Miller et al., 2017), we continue to modify and adapt Harmony to meet the needs of students and adults within in and out of school time-settings. A key component of that is to elevate the general principles that guide our work (see Figure 1). The general principles come from the research and theory that guided the development of Harmony (Martin et al., 2017), research-based strategies on systemic SEL (e.g., Mahoney et al., 2020), and the evidence of what is needed to promote effective implementation of SEL programs (Jones et al., 2017; Rimm-Kaufman & Hulleman, 2015). In the remainder of this paper, we elevate key principles that guide our work at Harmony (see Appendix A for a description of active ingredients and Appendix B for the supports Harmony provides).


Figure 1. Harmony Active Ingredients and Guiding Principles



General Principles  

Student development of social and emotional competencies are complicated and intertwined with broader human development (SOLD Alliance, 2020). Social and emotional development depends not only on their individual knowledge, skills, and beliefs, but is influenced by the various environmental conditions students engage in. In other words, does the environment, co-created by the individuals who are in it, honor the lived experiences, cultures, and families of students? To facilitate Harmony users’ understanding and application of Harmony in a way that explicitly promotes student development and creates environments in which students feel safe and supported, we elevate the key principles that guide Harmony’s development, implementation, and adaptations.  

Developmental continuum. Harmony takes a developmental approach, understanding that the complexity of social and emotional skills increases as students develop. A growing body of research suggests social and emotional skills emerge and change over the first 10 years of life (Immordino-Yang et al., 2018) and are continuously malleable across the lifespan (SOLD Alliance, 2020). Although skills are malleable, the literature points to two key findings. First, some skills act as a set of building blocks or as a foundation for more complex skills that emerge later in life. Second, some skills are stage-salient meaning they enable students to meet the demands of a particular developmental stage and/or setting (Jones et al., 2017).  

Adult SEL. Harmony believes that if we do not start with the adults, effective implementation may not be as maximally effective for students. Educators model and facilitate discussions to help students connect, communicate, collaborate, and problem solve (Yoder, 2014a). Research confirms that for successful implementation of any SEL program, leaders need to focus on adult social and emotional competencies and capacities (Jennings & Greenberg, 2008; Maroney et al., 2020). In other words, explicit attention needs to focus on adult development of the five core competencies, as well as their capacities to support student development.  

Culturally responsive practices. To truly meet its potential, SEL must be used as a lever for equity and excellence, or what CASEL refers to as transformative SEL (Jagers et al., 2019; Schlund et al., 2020). To accomplish this goal, SEL programs and practices must honor the lived experiences of all youth, promote youth voice and choice, and work to dismantle systemic barriers. Harmony units and Everyday Practices provide opportunities for students to develop meaningful relationships with those who are different from themselves, and to recognize the assets and strengths that everyone brings to the community. Harmony promotes explicit practices to break down barriers between peers, discuss stereotypes, and ensure that all students are represented within the program. 

Academic integration and SEL teaching practices. Science confirms that learning is social and emotional, and education can no longer think of academic learning and SEL as distinct areas of learning (SOLD Alliance, 2020). Educators can promote integration through academic integration and through SEL teacher practices (National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development [NC-SEAD], 2019; Yoder, 2014b). Harmony provides opportunities for educators to do this. Through Everyday Practices of Meet Up and Buddy Up, Harmony provides opportunities that teachers can easily use for class discussions and problem solving. For example, during language arts, students may deepen their understanding of current or historical events and be encouraged to discuss how characters or historical figures have taken into account the perspectives, feelings, emotions, or needs of others. Physical education teachers will work with students to establish and monitor Harmony Goals to promote cooperation and teamwork in sports and games.  

Positive learning environments. Environments and social and emotional development are two integral components of student learning in schools. Students cannot develop or apply their social and emotional competencies if they are not nurtured within safe and supportive learning environments, and learning environments are created when students and adults have social and emotional competencies (Mahoney et al., 2020; SOLD Alliance, 2020). Harmony lessons, activities, and Everyday Practices are not only designed to develop social and emotional competencies, but to create environments where students feel as though they belong, are safe, and are heard.  

Trauma-informed care. All students need to feel safe and secure, particularly those students who have experienced trauma and traumatic events. When students experience constant stressors, those experiences modify student behavior and the ways they interact with the world. A key component of trauma-informed practices is inclusion of a social and emotional learning program that promotes student assets (Guarino & Chagnon, 2018). And Harmony takes that approach. Harmony ensures that lessons and activities honor the assets students bring with them and encourages continual development and refinement of them, in addition to ones that students need to work on.  

Data for continuous improvement. Harmony believes that high-quality assessment data can and should be used to support consistent, high-quality SEL practices. SEL assessment should include a comprehensive approach, in which SEL goals, assessment, and instructional practices align with one another (Assessment Work Group, 2019). An effective data system includes both implementation measures (e.g., school climate and educator implementation of Harmony), and student outcome measures (e.g., social and emotional competencies, attendance, and behavior incidents). Educators, families, and students should come together to collect, analyze and review these various data sources to best understand them and to determine next steps.

Moving Forward 

When students engage in classrooms that effectively implement the core components and guiding principles, student classroom environments improve and the students develop social and emotional skills, creating more harmonious classrooms (see Figure 1). For example, students develop such social and emotional skills as encoding social cues, generating prosocial and problem-solving strategies, creating consensus of divergent views, identifying solutions to overcome barriers, finding commonalities, recognizing stereotypes, and developing relationship efficacy (Hanish et al., 2017; Martin et al., 2017). Further, the relationship context is better, in which students build strong relationships with diverse others, feel a greater sense of belonging and inclusion, and feel greater affect in the classroom (Delay et al., 2017; Miller et al., 2017).

As we continue to develop and refine Harmony, it will be critical to more fully integrate the core principles within the active ingredients or mechanisms that matter so that students get the optimal experience and reflect current best practices in SEL (CASEL, 2013; Jones et al., 2017; Rimm-Kauffman & Hulleman, 2015; Mahoney et al., 2020). Further, we will need to continue to consider how those active ingredients are defined, for whom they work, how to adapt them based on context, and what it means for maximal implementation.  



       Appendix A. Active Ingredients of Harmony       


Explicit SEL Instruction  

Explicit skills instruction delivered through units and lessons helps students develop and practice the social and emotional competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. In other words, when educators implement Harmony, they are implementing lessons and activities aligned to the CASEL core competencies. Through our program materials, Harmony provides all students with rich learning experiences that build the critical knowledge and skills that foster academic achievement and preparation for life after school, ultimately fostering readiness for college and career. This section provides an overview of units and lessons, Harmony’s explicit instruction, including three of Harmony’s primary tools within units and lessons: games and activities, storybooks, and sing-along songs. 

Units and LessonsThe Pre-K – 6th Grade units and lessons found in our Online Learning Portal engage students in storybooks; participatory, play-based peer activities; interactive games; hands-on activities; and role-plays and discussions (peer-to-peer, small and whole group). Through lessons students learn core social and emotional skills that educators can reinforce throughout the school day, as outlined in our pacing guide. Each unit includes a family letter and suggested home activities. These home-school connections help families reinforce social and emotional skills at home.  

The core social and emotional knowledge, attitudes, and skills that students should learn are organized into five units, elevating core themes that Harmony embraces. The five Harmony unit themes are:

  • Diversity and Inclusion: Promotes inclusive classrooms; encourages students to appreciate and respect commonalities and differences, embrace diversity, and consider the perspectives of others.
  • Empathy and Critical Thinking: Helps students recognize, predict, explain and regulate feelings, emotions, and actions and develop critical thinking skills that reduce stereotyping.
  • Communication: Provides opportunities for students to effectively engaging with one another through building positive communication skills and understanding ineffective communication techniques.
  • Problem Solving: Helps students recognize how their behaviors affect others and develops constructive strategies for resolving conflict and working cooperatively with others, learning to compromise and practice self-regulation, and to seek and offer help when necessary.
  • Peer Relationships: Provides opportunities for students to form and maintain meaningful friendships, be inclusive, learn to apologize and forgive and reflect upon their choices as they consider safety concerns, and adopt prosocial social norms (ways of interacting with one another).


Games and Activities. Students in grades 3 – 6 can engage in the games included in the units, providing opportunities for students to enhance what they’ve learned and apply their social and emotional competencies. The games help build student understanding of commonalities and differences, identify positive communication strategies, utilize “think outside the box” strategies, and engage in team building and problem solving. 

Storybooks. As part of their lessons, students in Pre-K – 2 use a set of online, read-aloud storybooks featuring a character named “Z,” who learns the meaning of friendship from the Treehouse Friends. Educators facilitate discussions to help Z and friends learn about friendship, solve everyday problems, learn how to recognize and manage feelings and emotions, and communicate with one another. 

Sing-Along songs. The Pre-K – 2nd grade Buddy Time Sing-Along Songs reinforce lesson concepts and engage students in music, movement, and dance. Buddy Time Sing-Along Songs are a lesson resource, for example, they can introduce lessons, conclude Meet Up time, signal transitions, and provide additional opportunities for movement and dance.


Applying SEL in Everyday Practices 

Designed to foster relationships and build community, the Harmony Everyday Practices of Meet Up and Buddy Up are routines in which students connect with peers, collaborate, and solve problems, creating a positive classroom community. Everyday Practices also include developing and reflecting on Harmony Goals and can be extended through the Harmony Game Room app. Through these Everyday Practices educators provide ongoing opportunities for students to share strengths, backgrounds, interests, identities, and needs with peers and staff, ensuring all voices are heard. As they talk about and debate big ideas with respect, clarity, and understanding, students think about, discuss, and share ideas, coming to value the perspectives of others. Harmony Everyday Practices provide opportunities for students to practice social and emotional skills from the Harmony lessons and activities.  

Meet Up. Meet Up is similar to a community meeting (Grades K – 5) or advisory period (Grades 6 – 12) that fosters a culture of inclusion and community. Meet Up gives students the opportunity to learn and practice important social and problem-solving skills, including the following: setting and monitoring goals for how to treat one another; respecting others; identifying commonalities and differences; celebrating diversity; listening and responding respectfully; understanding the feelings of others; considering the impact of one’s words and actions; making group decisions; identifying consequences for behaviors and solving problems; taking responsibility; and being accountable toward one another.  

During Meet Up, students and teachers meet daily to greet one another by name, share ideas and experiences, monitor classroom Harmony Goals, solve problems, celebrate friendships, and engage in team-building activities using the Harmony Quick Connection Cards. Because there are diverse practices during Meet Up, teachers facilitate, model, and reinforce positive communication and problem solving. 

Buddy Up. Buddy Up is a peer buddy routine designed to bring together diverse students who otherwise might not interact with one another on a regular basis. Buddy Up can be integrated in Grades K – 6 or in 7 – 12. During Buddy Up, students engage in discussions, activities, and projects provided in the Harmony Quick Connection Cards as well as in teacher-designed activities connected to academic content areas. When students are paired with a different buddy each week, they connect with peers who they may not normally connect with. Buddy Up provides opportunities for students to practice social and emotional skills, including the following: sharing information about themselves; negotiating decisions and solving problems; developing relationships with diverse groups of peers; practicing reflective listening; empathizing with the feelings of others; demonstrating self-control; expressing ideas and feelings; disagreeing respectfully; and demonstrating caring and kindness. 

Harmony Goals. Co-created by the class, Harmony Goals are similar to group agreements, expectations, or a class pledge. The goals reflect how everyone wants to interact and be treated by one another. Goals are established and monitored during Meet Up and guide the class throughout the day. Harmony Goals promote a safe, supportive and productive learning environment by treating one another appropriately in a respectful classroom community.


        Appendix B. Harmony Supports       


Harmony provides multiple supports to our users to effectively implement the program with students in school and in out of school time settings. Almost all resources are in both English and Spanish. 

  • Online Learning Portal. Our Online Learning Portal empowers Pre-K – 6th grade teachers with everything needed to successfully integrate our social and emotional learning program into the classroom, including easy navigation for all lessons, classroom activities, SEL stories, games, and sing-along songs. 
  • Pacing Guide. Pacing plans provide flexible ways to incorporate Harmony Everyday Practices, lessons, activities, and games into the educator’s instructional program. Harmony’s design allows educators to use the program flexibly, for example using daily practices 3-5 times per week, or implementing lessons in one setting or divided over several days. Harmony pacing plans found in our online portal provide scheduling examples for educators to implement Harmony in different settings.
  • Scope and Sequence. Harmony provides an overview of the Pre-K – 6th grade unit focus themes and key concepts covered in the lessons and activities, including a Scope and Sequence of the objectives and concepts.  
  • Family Engagement Strategies. Family engagement is critically important for successful SEL implementation. Harmony provides home-school connections for each grade level unit, which provide a variety of suggestions and activities for interactive homework assignments and other ideas to help families practice skills to promote SEL with their students. In addition, Harmony developed Harmony at Home, an online toolkit for families and caregivers to reinforce social and emotional skills through curated strategies from Harmony lessons, activities and Everyday Practices.  
  • Distance Learning Guide. The Distance Learning Guide helps teachers start to plan and implement the Everyday Practices and Harmony units, lessons, and activities in virtual and classroom settings. The Guide also provides both strategies to support families and recommendations for SEL professional learning. 
  • Professional learningThere are multiple opportunities for educators to learn about Harmony through virtual learning experiences, as well as select in-person learning experiences (as allowed). On-demand videos, live-online training sessions and training webinars, as well as demonstration videos provide flexible and accessible options for users to learn how to implement the program. Furthermore, Harmony’s sister program, Inspire Teaching & Learning, offers multiple on-demand pathways, including Building Teaching Practices and Developing SEL Capacity for educators to create inspirational teaching and learning environments.
  • Game Room app. The Harmony Game Room app is designed for students and families to connect, practice communication and problem solving, discover commonalities and differences, and engage in relaxation activities. Students, families, and educators can use the games on the app either in conjunction with units and lessons or independently. The app provides electronic resources that are age appropriate and support social and emotional skills that can be used within the digital space.



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