Can team building accelerate SEL skill development?

There is a deep love of baseball in New York’s East Harlem community. DREAM’s TeamBuilders program has not only tapped into young people's passion for baseball, but they’ve also leveraged and cultivated the neighborhood’s deep sense of community through sport.

Team is at the heart of everything DREAM does. In the TeamBuilders program, young people are placed into teams on their very first day and stay with their team from elementary to high school. “Young people operate as a unit,” explained Jenn Khan, Teambuilders’ Program Manager. “Everything is based upon team. Even on the weekends, no matter what we are doing together, we discuss how you can help your teammate.”

Team members receive about 200 hours of afterschool programming, almost all of which take place in a team context. Even before their first baseball practice begins, each team forms an identity, sets ground rules, names themselves, and chooses their team colors. Early in each program, they begin to work together as a unit and take responsibility for one another through self-monitoring. “Kids are going to listen to a peer more than an adult telling them what they should do,” shared Kalila Hoggard, Director of Social-Emotional Learning and Middle School Programs at DREAM.

Finally, in the spring, afterschool programming actually includes twice-weekly baseball or softball practices and Saturday games. Even the staff at DREAM are on teams at work and on the field. Staff model good teamwork throughout the program. This approach is important as mounting research shows that strong youth/adult and peer-to-peer relationsips are the key ingredient in growing social and emotional learning skills.[1] We are also learning more about how the culture of sport can increase social and emotional outcomes, improve physical fitness, increase sport skills, decrease obesity,[2] and reduces discrimination.[3]

It’s really about how individuals grow and how the relationships evolve — because the team is so strong and they’re together for so long, they start to build those social ties in a way you wouldn’t necessarily see outside the program. - Kalila Hoggard, Director of Social-Emotional Learning and Middle School Programs at DREAM.


Research-Based Best Practices that Boost SEL

With nearly 40,000 young people in the Hello Insight platform, we have strong evidence about the key experiences that young people need to increase their SEL. These look different in every program. Here is how TeamBuilders does it.

1: Engage Young People in Interest Exploration

Provide opportunities for young people to explore potential interests, try new things, broaden their horizons, and take risks in a safe space.

TeamBuilders promotes interest exploration among young people through deep engagement with baseball and through the concept of team. “It’s something that’s in the water a little bit,” Kalila chuckled. “Staff members are always talking about what’s going on in baseball and teamwork.” When young people enter DREAM, most want to engage in baseball, but many others just want to engage with their peers and be part of a team. Young people develop their baseball skills during physical literacy periods and practices, while they develop their team skills in every other aspect of the program. “There are young people who are not amazing at sports, but still love being part of the team. They’re not actually that pumped to be on the field, but they want to be in uniform, supporting the team,” says Kalila. TeamBuilders staff use this energy to engage young people in interest exploration both on the field and off. For example, staff engage young people in statistics through fantasy baseball, encourage young people to explore all of the responsibilities in baseball, from management to coaching to playing, and they provide a broad range of additional activities such as arts, dance, and STEM. Each young person is invited to explore their interests and set their own path forward through these activities.


2: Peer-to-Peer Engagement

Encourage young people to work with and learn about others with differing backgrounds and perspectives by promoting teamwork, group cohesion, and problem solving.

“In terms of social-emotional competencies, what is most important to us is that there is strong, tight-knit team bonding. Working as a team to handle conflict is especially important,” Kalila emphasized. “When we can get to a point where the conversation is actually among peers and facilitated by a staff member, rather than the staff member talking to the team, it is so much more impactful and powerful.” The team uniforms embody the deep peer bonding and positive relationships young people develop during the program. “You have to earn your uniform,” Kalila declared. “We have a big uniform night that usually coincides with MLB Opening Day and the team gets to pick the color of the uniform — and it’s always kind of a big thing — like what team is going to get this or that color, and the team song they pick.” This type of teamwork mirrors how most adults work together throughout their careers, and TeamBuilders provides them with the time and resources to practice in an authentic environment.


3: Goal Management

Plan activities to give young people the chance to practice setting goals, breaking them down into smaller tasks, develop plans of action, and adjust them as necessary.

TeamBuilders engages young people in goal setting, reflection, and management through one-on-one check-ins with individual team members and their families. Often these goals they set for themselves are unexpected and not necessarily what we might choose for young people. Through these interactions, TeamBuilders staff learn even more about the young people they serve. Jenn explained, “As educators and adults, we tend to think we know what is best for every student, but we set goals with them, personal and academic.” TeamBuilders helps break down their goals so they have a better chance at achieving them. “A lot of them initially think about what their future job could be, but it’s about how to get them to understand how to get there, or how do they adjust their goals if needed, so they know they have not lost; that it is still attainable. We help them to not be afraid to fail. Like you can change, and this is the time to do it.”


4: Prioritize Young People

Build meaningful relationships by prioritizing young people by setting high expectations for them and inviting them to share their unique experiences and passions with the program.

TeamBuilders actively uses Hello Insight data and ongoing reflection surveys to cultivate a deep trust with young people. “We really listen to what youth are saying during survey times and circle back to share if there was a suggestion made about different types of enrichment activities.” TeamBuilders demonstrates that they value young people’s voices and are willing to act upon their recommendations for program improvement. As Kalila explained, “We are able to connect the dots for them, you gave some feedback and we made a change because of it. At TeamBuilders in Harlem, we decreased the homework time because we got feedback to do this, and then we got feedback that it wasn’t enough homework time, so changed it back.”


At DREAM, building relationships with young people and families is at the core of their work.

As Jenn explains, “making sure youth feel supported and part of the community is at the center of all of our work.” Staff intentionally use informal time with young people to let them know they care about them and what is going on in their lives. Staff are trained to actively listen to young people and let them know they care. Every month, staff also check in one-on-one with every young person to learn about their goals, strengths, challenges, and relationships with friends, family and staff.

TeamBuilders staff are as much a part of the team as young people are, Kalila stressed. “We see them as part of the same unit rather than a separation between young people and adults, while also recognizing that adults are in a leadership position. We really value our staff being vulnerable as well – if a mistake is made by a staff member, we want them to be modeling the behavior of, ‘I made a mistake, and that’s okay.’ We really want to make sure they’re modeling all of the competencies and narrating that to the students.” This vulnerability and modeling of positive choices and behaviors lies at the heart of how young people and adults form trust in the program over time. “I think the most important thing is that students know how to leverage the staff member that they work with. They understand that they can go to the staff member for academic support, a problem with a friend, or because they are having a hard day with their mom. They see this person as a sort of hub where they can get any of the support that they need, so there’s that trust and bond.”


About This Case Study

Each year, the Hello Insight team analyzes the data in our growing community of more than 500 programs across 20 states to identify those that are supporting exceptional growth in SEL. Celebrating their success through the HI Impact Awards.

The HI Impact Award winning TeamBuilders program engages more than 250 sixth- to eighth-grade girls and boys in post-secondary readiness, leadership development, and physical literacy programming, including membership on a baseball or softball team. Learn more about DREAM's TeamBuilders program


  1. Roehlkepartain, E. C., Pekel, K., Syvertsen, A. K., Sethi, J., Sullivan, T. K., & Scales, P. C. (2017). Relationships First: Creating Connections that Help Young People Thrive. Minneapolis, MN: Search Institute. The Art & Science of Creating Effective Youth Programs (2017). New York, NY: Algorhythm. Doyle Lynch and Flores, K. (2017). Social Emotional Learning and the Power of Adult-Youth Relationships. Flores, K. (2018). The In Between Times: Building strong youth-adult relationships in an era of overscheduling. ↩︎

  2. Malina, R. Children and Adolescents in the Sport Culture: The overwhelming majority to the few select. ↩︎

  3. Neirotti, L.. Sport Has the Ability to Reduce Discrimination Among U.S. Youth. ↩︎

Pamela Wridt

Pamela Wridt

Pamela has over 15 years of experience on a range of local and international child-rights, mixed-methods, and participatory projects in over 35 countries. She currently leads Hello Insight's services.

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