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ASU expands reach with new institute to nurture, enhance children’s relationships

Philanthropy advances years of research committed to improving health, welfare of children, families


Eight elementary-age children run down the hall with their backpacks

Photo courtesy Shutterstock

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March 05, 2024

The Sanford Harmony Program, developed by researchers at Arizona State University, has fostered positive relationships for more than 15 million preschool and elementary school children in more than 400,000 classrooms in the U.S. and 47 countries since 2008.

The program encourages preschool and elementary students to work and play together despite their differences to strengthen their social skills. Now, after 16 years, the developers of the Sanford Harmony Program are extending the program’s reach by establishing the T. Denny Sanford Harmony Institute at ASU. The institute will accelerate and broaden the research and programming geared toward nurturing children and their relationships.

“Relationships are at the core of human functioning: achievement, physical health, mental health. Relationships set the stage for everything else,” said Laura Hanish, executive director of the new institute. “Early relationships are the foundation for all that comes next and involve learning how to get along with other people who may be different from you, understanding other people’s ideas, how to address conflict or hurt feelings.”

A class (CDE 394: Designing Interventions for Children) that launched this semester empowers undergraduates to devise practical solutions to enhance relationships for children and families. Concurrently, Hanish’s team is rolling out several transformative field projects, including the Learning Together Challenge, which invites public elementary school teachers to submit proposals designed to promote positive classroom learning environments that enhance supportive and safe student relationships and interactions. Buddy Up, another field project that has shown promise for strengthening children’s gender-integrated relationships with peers, is seeding new efforts to further support children’s connections to others.

The institute will also promote social connectedness to address loneliness, a growing public health concern recently highlighted by the U.S. Surgeon General as an epidemic affecting the health and well-being of children and adults.

“The goal of the Sanford Harmony Institute at ASU is to generate new discoveries about children’s relationships and well-being and to translate those discoveries into innovative and evidence-based solutions that can be widely disseminated,” Hanish said. “By working with a network of transdisciplinary partners, we are able to reach national, and even international, impact at a scale that is unprecedented.” 

Donor’s investments enrich teaching and early childhood learning

Sanford increased his commitment to ASU in 2023 when he established the Sanford Harmony Institute. The South Dakota-based philanthropist and businessman serves as chair of First Premier Bank and has vowed to die broke by giving to numerous causes, predominately in support of children and families’ health and welfare.

Sanford’s investments to ASU have propelled the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics and Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. In addition to backing the Sanford Harmony Program, the donor supported a class for adult learners to hone their compassion and empathy skills as well as professional learning for educators to address bullying in schools. One of Sanford’s gifts to ASU established the Sanford Education Project, which expanded the relationship between the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Teach For America. He also supported development of the Sanford Inspire Program by the Teachers College, which equips teachers with free, online tools and resources to inspire students from pre-kindergarten through high school.

“Denny Sanford’s continued support of ASU and improving relationships early in a child’s life are inspiring. His latest investment will enable new evidence-based solutions designed to enhance children’s lives to be developed and deployed at scale,” said Gretchen Buhlig, ASU Foundation chief executive officer.

Research projects making a difference

The Sanford Harmony Institute will work in collaboration with other ASU academic units and organizations, as well as partners outside of ASU, to further amplify the message and mission of harmony.

“We are so proud to launch the Sanford Harmony Institute at ASU,” said Sally C. Morton, executive vice president of Arizona State University’s Knowledge Enterprise. “This is a critical step in Knowledge Enterprise’s mission to create a thriving society by investing in the communities we serve. The institute will address the socioemotional needs of children, creating a transformative opportunity to benefit future generations.”

The institute will build on the successful programs that are focused on advancing harmony, embracing empathy, cultivating compassion and addressing bullying in schools.

"The grand vision is to create a world where every child benefits from healthy, caring and supportive relationships with the people in their lives. Addressing that vision is a challenge,” Hanish said. “It's the science, the translation of knowledge into solutions, building a pipeline of innovators in this sector and working with our partners to scale that is needed to achieve the big goal.”

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