Learn about the importance of SEL and 11 essential ways that teachers can incorporate social-emotional learning activities into the classroom today.
Children need social and emotional skills to navigate the world around them. Teachers can help children get a healthy start by incorporating social-emotional learning activities in the classroom. This post explains the importance of SEL, the everyday struggles teachers face, and 11 ways that teachers can include social-emotional learning activities into the classroom today.
Social-Emotional Learning Activities
Children need social and emotional skills to manage their emotional responses to everyday events and to participate appropriately in social interactions. To maintain healthy relationships and take care of themselves each day, they need to develop skills like self-regulation, emotional awareness, social awareness, problem-solving, and responsible decision making.
What is SEL and Why Should We Teach It?
CASEL defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as, “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
In a recent study, students who participated in evidence-based social and emotional learning (SEL) programs (like the DESSA System) scored 13 points higher academically, had a 6 percent higher high school graduation rate and were 11 percent more likely to graduate from college.”
According to a 20111 meta-analysis performed by CASEL of 213 studies involving 270,00+ students, it was found that those who participated in SEL programs had an 11% increase in academic achievement. SEL programs not only lead to future academic success, but they also lead to fewer problems, less emotional and mental health issues, improved attitudes, and positive social behavior in the classroom.
More than two decades of research shows that using social and emotional learning programs in classrooms leads to positive results that last a lifetime.
But where do YOU, the classroom teacher, begin?
Begin today by choosing to make SEL a part of your teaching agenda. Advocate for your students and their well-being. Select an SEL curriculum that is appropriate for your learners and make plans to teach lessons and activities often throughout the week. Strive to educate and inspire the minds and hearts of the children because you KNOW it will make a difference!
Common Struggles with Integrating Social-Emotional Learning Activities
As teachers begin to integrate social-emotional learning activities more into their classrooms, they may experience internal and external struggles.
A teacher’s time is limited. There are several responsibilities and topics that they are required to take on each day. Unless the school joins together to make SEL a priority, teachers may find it difficult to properly integrate an effective program with limited resources, time, and support.
But don’t let these struggles stop you or stand in your way of making a real difference in young lives.
Below are the most common struggles heard by teachers and a solution that should help teachers move past these hurdles.
Struggle #1: “I don’t have access to quality social-emotional learning activities, materials, and lessons.”
Access to adequate SEL resources can be a limiting factor in whether or not a teacher teaches social-emotional learning. Teachers may find that they are relying on a school counselor or community worker to supply the occasional SEL lesson or activity. They may not know where to begin or where to look for quality resources. They may have a program in their school, but not understand where to start or how to use the included materials.
- find quality options online. Learn more about the mind+heart SEL curriculum.
- see what is available in your school
- seek out support to get started
- team up with colleagues to learn and teach
- seek outside PD on social-emotional development
- Learn more about Mindful Hearts Classroom – A program where teachers make SEL a priority and seek classroom transformation!
Struggle #2: “I don’t have enough time or room in my day to teach SEL lessons.”
The demands of the current curriculum are intense, not leaving much room for anything else in one’s day. Teachers are required to spend X amount of time teaching math, reading, science, and social studies. Then, there are the blocks for gym, music, and art that take up any leftover spots quickly. The time you have left each day to teach social and emotional skills is minimal and often an afterthought.
- combine social-emotional learning activities with the subjects you teach each day
- integrate within the existing structure of your day
- start small and teach SEL once a week
- work up to more and teach once a day
- strategize with colleagues about ways to creatively include SEL
Struggle #3: “I don’t understand why I should teach SEL in the classroom.” OR “My admin doesn’t think I should be spending time teaching social and emotional skills.”
The responsibilities left to a teacher are endless. There is a curriculum that needs teaching, assessments administered, and a classroom of students managed. But none of these things can be appropriately handled if there are internal and external struggles faced by the children we teach. We need to change our mindset and understand the importance of teaching social-emotional learning activities and how they can positively impact our classrooms.
- read the research on SEL and its positive impact on young lives
- have a meeting with your administrator to share your finding
- Share the link to the CASEL website to educate others.
- hold a mini-PD session during a staff meeting to share the information you have found
- encourage open conversation with colleagues about implementing SEL
There needs to be a mindset shift. Before the importance of social-emotional learning becomes more widely known, it is our job to share what we know and learn, and what we see as useful in our classrooms.
Social-Emotional Learning Activities for the Classroom
Here are 11 effortless ways to bring social and emotional learning activities into the classroom each day. Highlight and focus on one skill a week to allow kids time to understand it and see it take shape in the classroom, as you facilitate.
Social-Emotional Activity #1 – Morning Meetings
Morning meetings provide a much-needed opportunity at the start of the day to connect with students. They encourage you to teach things that are not covered in the academic curriculum but are more relevant and deserving of your time.
They enable you to check in to identify what is working and approach things that need adjustments within the classroom community. Children actively listen to ideas and are empowered to share what needs work. Here is a step-by-step itinerary for running a class or morning meeting.
How to use morning meetings to teach SEL:
- Make room for a brief morning meeting or afternoon wrap-up in your timetable.
- Jot down a few questions you will ask related to the social or emotional skill focus.
- Select a fun way for kids to greet each other to build relationships.
- Plan an activity that builds community or reinforces an SEL skill.
- Encourage kids to say something they are thankful for and give gratitude.
- Make it a safe place for sharing by coming up with expectations together.
Social-Emotional Activity #2 – Discussions and Anchor Charts
Classroom discussions are an essential part of the day. These are the times when children can share their thoughts, ask questions, and learn new things related to the chosen topic. A lot of insight comes when social and emotional topics are discussed, and teachers can understand a child.
Anchor charts are useful in organizing the ideas and thoughts that come out of discussions. Together these are powerful components to use when teaching social and emotional skills.
How to use discussions and anchor charts to teach SEL:
- Think about the current classroom climate and brainstorm social and emotional struggles.
- Select one to focus on based on a current need.
- Jot down a variety of questions you could ask to encourage conversation.
- Select one main question to ask during morning meeting or lesson time.
- Place the question are the center of the anchor chart.
- Ask the question and record the ideas given by students.
- Let their ideas encourage a discussion of possible solutions, future considerations, or related social-emotional activity.
For example, if there is a classroom issue using polite words, ask students, “What words do we use when we want something?” or “What does a respectful classroom sound like?”. Record their ideas and have them role-play with a partner asking and answering using polite words.
Social-Emotional Activity #3 – Community Building Activities
Community building games and activities or ice breakers are effective ways to build social and emotional skills. These short activities encourage students to get to know one another, have fun, and problem solve. Here are some fun ones to try: Community Building in the Classroom: Activities that Create Smiling Kids
How to use community-building activities to teach SEL:
- Search the web for a vast number of free community-building activities.
- Select a variety of community-building activities for the first week of school.
- Continue to use these activities often to build connections and encourage relationships to form.
- Teach games that kids can use independently or on the playground.
Social-Emotional Activity #4 – Using Children’s Books to Teach
Children’s books have the power to elicit our imaginations through a story. When a child hears a situation or a problem in a story, they can relate to them, connect to the experience, and learn social and emotional strategies similar to those characters. Here is a list to help you build your social-emotional library of books.
How to use children’s books to teach SEL:
- Select a variety of SEL children’s books (or video versions of the books read aloud).
- Connect the books to the social or emotional skill your class is currently learning.
- Develop a collection of SEL books and organize them in one location.
- Before and after a read-aloud, display SEL books on the classroom bookshelf.
- Choose a few SEL books each week to read to the class.
- Preread the book and jot down a few questions to ask that will elicit conversation.
Social-Emotional Activity #5 – Journal Writing
Writing a reflection or journal allows children a safe place to share opinions, feelings, and reactions to a social-emotional lesson. They can reflect on what they heard and what thoughts they have about a given topic. This therapeutic exercise is one with lasting impact. Kids get into the habit of expressing their ideas, hopes, and challenges in written form. They can also draw a picture to illustrate an experience or situation they have encountered. This writing gives clarity to the teacher.
How to use journal writing to teach SEL:
- After a read-aloud about a social-emotional topic, children can reflect on the story or make a connection in their journal.
- After a discussion, they record their thoughts and take-aways.
- Provide writing prompts or sentence starters that make it easier for kids to organize their thinking. (i.e., “I am a leader when I...”)
- Encourage kids to share something they are thankful for in a gratitude journal.
- Create a safe place for kids to manage their emotions and share their feelings openly in a feelings’ journal.
Social-Emotional Activity #6 – Role-Play
Role-play is an excellent way to practice social skills. They practice a skill by acting out situations given to them. Opportunities to “try out” experiences offer children the practice they need to feel confident and ready in the future. Role-play is especially beneficial for our students with special needs and learning difficulties. It allows them time to practice skills and the strategies they may not have naturally.
How to use role-play to teach SEL:
- Stick to real-life situations that kids are relatable. Be specific.
- Always role-play the positive side to the situation or skill.
- Allow kids to choose their roles, given the context of the situation first.
- Practice role reversal so all parties get an opportunity to experience different points of view.
- Guide students as they navigate through a given scenario, asking questions, and encouraging problem-solving.
- Ask, “What would you say next?” or “What could you do now?”
- Say “Tell them how this made you feel.” or “Show us how you could react to this positively.”
- Reflect afterward as a group and encourage kids to share what they learned and how they felt.
Social-Emotional Activity #7 – Partner and Group Work
Students need plenty of chances to work with partners and in groups. These interactions build communication skills and community, as well as provide problem-solving opportunities. Being able to work cooperatively in a group is a skill they will need throughout their lives. Kids will learn who they are, what skills they bring to a group, and how to express their thoughts and opinions while working closely with others.
How to use partner and group work to teach SEL:
- During a lesson, pause the discussion and have students “pair-share” with a partner.
- After a lesson, provide directions for students to work together on a task.
- Encourage productive group work with these suggestions.
- Be clear about the purpose of the group work and set clear expectations.
- Be mindful of groupings to meet students’ needs.
- Encourage kids to work closely with a partner to complete an assignment.
- Organize group games where kids interact and share with others.
- Facilitate and guide partners to solve problems when they arise.
Social-Emotional Activity #8 – Play
Play provides opportunities for children to get to know each other and connect to their surroundings. It teaches communication skills, open-mindedness, compassion, and problem-solving, all of which are essential skills to have for success in school. When kids are allowed to follow their path and make choices, natural learning occurs.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that “Play is integral to the academic environment. It ensures that the school setting attends to the social and emotional development of children as well as their cognitive development. Play and unscheduled time that allow for peer interactions are important components of social-emotional learning.”
How to use play during social-emotional learning activities:
- Reframe from overscheduling the classroom day.
- Leave time for unstructured exploration of classroom materials.
- Have a variety of “centers” or areas of the classroom that are set-up for free-play.
- Provide open-ended learning activities that kids can experience on their own.
- Allow ample time for kids to prepare to head out for recess and outdoor breaks.
- Click here for 10 Ways to Incorporate More Play in the Classroom.
Social-Emotional Activity #9 – Kindness Challenge
Kindness is one of the most important social topics we can promote in our classrooms. When children lack the social skills to show or understand kindness and empathy, they may struggle to navigate through situations that arise at school. Kindness starts with us! When children see us act with kindness when we interact and behave, this has a powerful impact!
We should encourage them to find opportunities to show each other kindness in random, unexpected ways. A kindness challenge is an excellent opportunity for this! Organize a challenge during one week or month of the school year. Plan the challenge together or in small groups. Come up with different ways to show kindness. Execute the plan and complete the challenge.
How to promote kindness and use a kindness challenge:
- Greet the class each morning with a smile and a kind word. Have them return it.
- Ask kids and discuss “‘What is kindness?” and “How can we be kind?”. Brainstorm different ways they can be kind each day.
- Read books and show videos about kindness.
- Challenge kids to complete RAK daily and keep track on a kindness calendar.
- Encourage kids to fill each others’ bucket using bucket filler activities.
- Have students write “thank you” letters or “kind” notes.
- Model giving compliments daily. Share them during classroom meetings.
- Role-play kind acts that are simple to perform in the classroom.
- Reinforce kindness in your classroom decor: Hang posters, bulletin boards, and banners with kindness messages.
Social-Emotional Activity #10 – Promote a Growth Mindset
Growth mindset is the belief that intelligence comes through effort. How much a child thinks they know or what they have grown to believe about themselves affects how they perform in school. We have an excellent opportunity to teach and encourage our students to develop a growth mindset. Here are 9 powerful ways of teaching a growth mindset in the classroom.
How to promote a growth mindset in students:
- Discuss the differences between a fixed and growth mindset. Brainstorm what we can say that speaks growth and practice.
- Allow students to make mistakes and learn from them.
- Encourage the word “YET” to end sentences, such as “I can’t…” or “I don’t…”
- Set goals, create a plan to work towards, and check progress.
- Read books where the characters overcome challenges after developing strategies.
- Avoid praising intelligence and focus on effort instead. Be specific and highlight using different strategies.
- Ask questions about students’ processes to encourage self-assessment.
- Participate in project-based learning, where kids face real-world obstacles.
- Reinforce growth mindset in your classroom decor: Color and hang these free posters, bulletin boards, and banners with growth mindset messages.
Social-Emotional Activity #11 – Using Self-Regulation Tools
Children often come into our classroom lacking self-regulation skills. They may lack the ability to manage their emotions or behave appropriately. They lack self-control during their interactions with classmates or struggle to get the help they need when facing something difficult. These kids need our help. Teaching them how to identify and express their emotions is an essential first step to emotional intelligence.
How to use self-regulation tools to teach SEL:
- Teach the names of different emotions, what they look like, and how they make us feel.
- Practice breathing strategies that can help a child calm down. Try this balloon breathing strategy for free!
- Read books and show videos of characters using self-regulation strategies.
- Practice mindfulness activities with kids throughout the day.
- Model ways to calm down and handle stressors.
- Create a calm-down kit for kids to use independently.
Testimonials of Teachers Who Have Used Social-Emotional Learning Activities
“My class last year was filled with students who had poor self-regulation skills. At the beginning of the year, they could not identify what emotion they were feeling nor what triggered it. I had outbursts and emotional chaos daily in my room. I began morning meetings and direct modeling of emotions and the body’s reaction to those emotions. We began every problem-solving conference with identifying what emotion each person was feeling, what response they were having to it, and what triggered it. Then using positive language we discussed and acted out how to solve it. By the end of the year, my students were able to name their emotions and had begun to issue positive self-regulation in response to their triggers. SEL is VERY important in the primary classroom!” ~ anonymous
“I read the story Each Kindness to my class after noticing that a new girl was not being included during recess. The new girl was off working with a resource teacher, and I asked them to think about how she would feel if she left our school like the girl in the story. Would she remember them kindly? Would she remember being invited to play? That afternoon almost everyone in class invited her to play at recess.” ~ Sabrina, 2nd Grade Teacher
More Testimonials from Teachers
“Fill my bucket read & the juice box bully read aloud. We created our own promise that we repeat every morning like in the juice box bully to be a kind and caring community and we do fill our bucket Fridays where students can put positive notes in each other’s buckets. Students became more kind, caring and stood up for one another.” ~ Angela DuBose, 2nd Grade Teacher
“Morning meetings were very successful. We had a character trait each month we focused on. We discussed what it looked and sounded like and looked for examples. Students were eager to come to the meeting place and gradually took over the running of the meeting. They decided how students would greet each other, a question to ask and what activity we would do.” ~ Patricia Antus, 2nd Grade Teacher
“After a growth mindset lesson, some students were able to recognize when others were experiencing fixed mindsets during a task. They encouraged their friends to think about it in a different way and ‘grow their brains’!” ~ Kayla Borges-Vaz, 1st Grade Teacher
Free Social-Emotional Learning Ebook
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Social-Emotional Learning Lessons and Activities
The following social-emotional learning resources are filled with games that build important skills, as well as lesson plans, activities, discussion starters, and so much more.
Teach children in K-2 the most essential lessons in life when they need it the most with units and activities on emotions, self-regulation, growth mindset, empathy, and social awareness, friendship, kindness, respect, and responsibility. Click here to learn more.
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