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Jeannette Myhre Elementary principal Alivia Wamboldt holds the Olympic torch as students leave the school gymnasium following a program to kick off the school's Winter Olympics. 

After a giant aluminum foil torch lit with bright orange and red tissue was passed, the Myhre Elementary School's 2018 Winter Olympics began.

But this wasn't just any Winter Olympics. Instead of learning about sports such as ice skating, skiing and snowboarding, the games incorporated social-emotional learning strategies, which center on students' interpersonal and behavioral skills.

The Winter Olympics opening ceremony kicked off Friday in the school's gymnasium, where retired Bismarck Public Schools activities director Jim Haussler gave opening remarks about sportsmanship and the importance of being respectful.

"Participating in activities, everyone wants to win, but winning is not the priority," Haussler said. "The importance of having activities in schools is to make you a better person, to be a good sport (and) be a good teammate."

The goal of the Winter Olympics at Myhre extends beyond athletics. Over the next two weeks, students will compete by refining their social-emotional skills. Each grade level was assigned a skill, such as social awareness in kindergarten and first grade, which includes the ability to understand and empathize with those from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

"We teach reading, we teach math and we also need to teach what we want to see, those social emotional skills in students,” said the school's principal, Alivia Wamboldt. "We teach everything else, we have to teach behavior, as well."

At Friday's opening ceremony, students waived countries' flags that were assigned to their classrooms. To honor the school's Native American students, Native students were invited to the front of the room to take part in the passing of the torch to a "Johan Jacobson," a cross-country skier from Norway.

Over the next two weeks, classroom instructors will weave the Winter Olympics and social-emotional learning strategies into their curriculum. Each student has a bracelet, which they give away when they see another student using a skill. When they give it away, they get a link to add to their classroom's chain. The longest chains will determine who gets the gold, silver and bronze medals.

Other social-emotional skills students were assigned include relationships skills and responsible decision making. Research shows social-emotional learning correlates with positive outcomes, including academic achievement and fewer disciplinary referrals.

"As a counselor, (social-emotional learning is) huge. I want these to be skills for life, and if they learn them early and they practice them early then they’re likely to obviously adhere to those skills later in life and have better skills later in life," said Jonathan Wangen, the school counselor.

The idea of teaching social-emotional skills to students is not only for the students to grasp, but educators to be aware and for parents to notice at home, too. Parents will be able to award their children with links to add to their classroom chains if they notice them utilizing these skills at home.

Wamboldt said the school incorporates social-emotional learning already through the district's curriculum, but events like this are more memorable for students.

"It’s one thing for us as educators to teach it to students, but it’s a whole other thing for students to actually notice it in others," she said.

Students will still participate in winter sports, such as cross-country skiing and curling. On Feb. 23, a closing ceremony will be held at the schools and medals will be distributed to students.

(Reach Blair Emerson at 701-250-8251 or


Education and Health Reporter