Building Relationships in the Classroom

Mark Katz, PhD

 Attention Magazine April 2019

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Building Relationships in the ClassroomSCHOOL CAN BE A VERY LONELY PLACE for children with ADHD or learning differences. Thanks to programs like Sanford Harmony, their school lives may soon feel far more welcoming.

Sanford Harmony is an innovative, social-emotional learning curriculum that provides classroom teachers with tools and strategies that help all students feel they belong and have something important to contribute. Thanks to a generous gift from entrepreneur and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, the program is free of charge to elementary schools throughout the United States.

Program components

Sanford Harmony focuses on five main themes:

  • diversity and inclusion;
  • empathy and critical thinking;
  • communication;
  • problem solving; and
  • peer relationships.

Specific lesson plans and activities are provided for each of these themes.

While themes remain the same for all grades, lesson plans and activities vary according to grade level and developmental considerations. Teachers are provided with their own toolkits, which include a grade-specific lesson plan book, plus storybooks that focus on core program themes; games for upper elementary grades; and Quick Connection Cards intended to promote quick conversations, quick collaborations, and quick community-building exercises. The toolkits also provide communication letters and tips to share with the students’ families so that relationship skills can be practiced and reinforced at home as well.

Two key strategies are central to the program: Meet Up and Buddy Up. Each strategy is designed to foster a sense of community and to show children they belong and have something important to contribute.

Meet Up

To build a classroom climate where all students feel connected, comfortable, and ready to learn, students and teachers meet in a circle to greet one another, solve problems, monitor classroom Harmony goals, and participate in community-building activities.

Students learn to share information about themselves and to listen to and show interest in others. They learn to show interest in the feelings of others and how to disagree respectfully. They practice self-control skills and learn to collaborate with peers from diverse cultures and backgrounds. Schools currently implementing restorative practices will find Meet Up to be an excellent precursor to restorative practice circles.

Buddy Up

Students are paired with one another and engage together in fun, quick, and enjoyable activities designed to help them get to know each other better and form new connections. The activities allow children to feel more comfortable interacting with peers from different backgrounds and cultures, with focus on increasing caring, kindness, and empathy.

Buddy pairs change weekly. For students who have difficulty forming relationships on their own, this affords them opportunities to meet and connect with classmates through fun, non-threatening activities.

A free app was recently created for pre-kindergarten through grade 2, allowing teachers and other school staff to access resources directly on their devices. Resources include storybooks that provide opportunities for real-life problem solving, Meet Up class discussion topics, Buddy Up peer activities, and Quick Connection Cards.

Special education teachers find Sanford Harmony practices helpful in building inclusive classroom relationships. The program is also being successfully integrated into afterschool programs to help build friendships and teamwork outside the school day.

Sanford Harmony’s training model

Both on-site and off-site training options are available for teachers and other school personnel. Trainings are roughly 2.5 to 3 hours in length. Self-paced online training is available as well. Sanford Harmony also offers a train-the-trainer model, where individuals can be certified to provide training for their local elementary school.

For schools implementing Sanford Harmony, online Harmony Ambassadors are available for additional coaching or to organize webinars based on school and district feedback. Implementation support is also provided through quarterly newsletters that offer teaching tips and strategies. Sanford Harmony’s Implementation and Training Roadmap provides recommended steps for sustaining the program over time. Recommendations include establishing a school leadership team, establishing program goals and expectations, and recognizing teachers who can serve as program champions.

A quasi-experimental study conducted in 2010-12 found that students who participated in Sanford Harmony reported greater feelings of classroom identification and school liking. The Collaborative to Advance Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) now includes Sanford Harmony on its list of effective social and emotional learning programs.

Sanford Harmony is the brainchild of Rick Fabes, PhD, and Carol Martin, PhD, from the Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University. Fabes and Martin, along with their ASU colleagues, set out to identify practices for reducing relational conflicts among students while also increasing student confidence, relational skills, and academic performance. Sanford Harmony grew out of these efforts. In 2014, the National University Sanford Harmony Education Center was selected to disseminate Sanford Harmony throughout the United States.

The program is also the culmination of philanthropist T. Denny Sanford’s passionate vision: Change the world by improving long-term relationships among adults through a teaching and learning program created for young children. He says, “The skills children develop through Sanford Harmony will have a lasting impact into adulthood, and that’s what this program is ultimately about–building a better tomorrow.”



Visit or call 844-480-4500 to learn more about how to bring Sanford Harmony to a school near you.

Go to to watch a short video describing Meet Up and Buddy Up in greater detail.

To read the 2010-12 study on Sanford Harmony, see Miller CF, Kochel KP, Wheeler LA, Updegraff KA, Fabes RA, Martin CL, & Hanish LD. (2017). “The efficacy of a relationship building intervention in 5th grade,” in Journal of School Psychology, 61, 75-88.

Learn more about CASEL’s criteria for inclusion on its list of effective social-emotional learning programs, as well as the results of the study on Sanford Harmony, at


A clinical and consulting psychologist, Mark Katz, PhD, is the director of Learning Development Services, an educational, psychological, and neuropsychological center in San Diego, California. As a contributing editor to Attention magazine, he writes the Promising Practices column and serves on the editorial advisory board. He is also a former member of CHADD’s professional advisory board and a recipient of the CHADD Hall of Fame Award.