Education

28,000 LA preschoolers are learning how to be better humans

Bella and Madison, partners for the week as part of the buddy system, hold hands as they prepare to go play outside.
Bella and Madison, partners for the week as part of the buddy system, hold hands as they prepare to go play outside.
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I don’t want to be your friend. Stay away. I’m not going to share with you.

These harsh statements are "very normal to hear at the beginning of the school year," for preschool teachers like Rafaela Campos. To push past those moments of mean, she and more than a thousand other early educators in the Los Angeles Unified School District now have a new tool.

This school year, all 86 of the early childhood centers in the district started using a program called Sanford Harmony, which provides structured activities to help kids develop socially and emotionally. That means more than 28,000 kids in preschool and transitional kindergarten are getting hands-on training in how to build friendships, be empathetic and self-aware starting at the age of 4.

"Those are all kind of skills that we don’t necessarily put a number to but we notice them in adults when they lack those skills," said Dean Tagawa, executive director of early childhood education at LAUSD.

"This period of time in the 0-5 space where so much brain growth is happening," Tagawa said. "If they have these skills in place they’re going to be more successful adults."

Numerous studies show that when kids develop social awareness and relationship skills early, they benefit – not only in behavior and academics, but down the line in employment and mental health

This program is in 6,600 schools across the country, reaching more than a million preschool and elementary students. National University administers the materials and provides professional development for the teachers. Dreamed up and financed by billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, it is donated to school districts free of charge.  

Here's what the kids at Jaime Escalante Early Education Center are learning:

FRIENDSHIP

Campos has been in the classroom for 25 years and says she's always tried to reinforce ideas about friendship, sharing and acceptance with the children. But, she said, it's different now because "it's physical." The Sanford Harmony curriculum comes with books and structured activities that teachers can use at a designated time for 15-20 minutes a day to reinforce the skills.

Listen to her reading a bit of a story (and note the outraged gasps):

EMPATHY

Another tool that's in her arsenal now are known as scenario cards. As she holds up drawings of different scenes, kids looks at the facial expressions and surroundings to figure out what's going on, how the person is feeling and how they'd respond. 

SETTING AN EXAMPLE

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The star of the program is character who transcends structured activities to become part of the classroom culture. Z is a bright green alien, who has no gender and has come to Earth looking to soak up knowledge from all of the preschoolers. And those lessons happen throughout the day.

"The children know -- they know the skills," said Campos. "Z does not know how to socialize, so they are teaching Z."

Sitting in the classroom, you hear the tools put to use while the kids are eating or making crafts. A "thank you," and "you're welcome," with the pass of a crayon and lots of talk about how "sharing is caring."

ACCIDENTS HAPPEN

Edgardo Lazalde, whose 4-year-old daughter Bella is in Campos's class, says his daughter always comes home talking about Z. Listen to an adorable conversation where she tells him about how the class responds when Z makes mistakes:

INCLUSION 

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With the Buddy Up system, these preschoolers are partnered with a different classmate every week or two for daily activities to make sure all of the children get to know each other. Evaluations of the Sanford Harmony program in fifth grade classrooms found that it led to more diverse friend groups and a greater interest in school.

Teachers across the district have countless stories about changes they're already seeing. When a student panicked after a fire alarm went off, a classmate realized he needed to hold Z and helped him find his buddy, so they could go outside quickly. Children who speak different languages at home are interacting more often.

"What harmony does is really help teachers build their classroom community," said Scott Page, executive director of Sanford Programs at National University. "That’s what we hear consistently – it changes the culture of the classroom."

Campos's classroom was on of the places the district piloted the program and she's been using it for two years. She says she sees less conflict and more friendships between boys and girls. At the start of this year, most kids avoided one boy with special needs. But once they started practicing and reading the stories, she said the rest of the children started playing with him.

And research shows that developing these kinds of skills has academic payoffs also.

"My belief is that if a child does not have the social skills," said Campos, "that child is not going to be focused on numbers and letters."

Bella and Madison, buddies for the week, exchange cards that they made for one another during Z time.
Bella and Madison, buddies for the week, exchange cards that they made for one another during Z time.
Priska Neely/KPCC

Bella is always eager to share stories about Z with her dad. She loves school and can't wait to turn 5.

"Where are you gonna go to next?" Lazalde asks.

"I'm gonna go to kinder," Bella replies.

"Are you excited?" he asks.

Bella doesn't answer with words, but a beaming smile you can almost hear breaks across her face.