Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a topic that has gained in popularity over the years. Since the pandemic surfaced, SEL seems to have taken center stage. With research continuing to be available from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL)  and other researchers, SEL skills are strongly linked with academic achievement and improved participation in school, work, and life.

CASEL offers a framework that is widely respected for the identification of five core competencies of social-emotional learning: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. SEL curricula and assessments are gaining much attention. Some are being implemented at the elementary levels and others at the middle and high school levels. Still other schools are preparing to be attentive at all levels. To my observation, it seems that teachers and administrators are now recognizing the long-term value of SEL strategies being embedded across the curriculum and associated with academic success. However, one thing for certain is that educators need support with professional development to improve their capacity to effectively integrate SEL into their everyday practices. Before educators can promote SEL with students and families, I strongly believe there is a need to strengthen SEL skills within the teachers themselves.

In-School or At-Home Activities

Social-emotional activities can help students cope with emotions and learn social skills. Many teachers are integrating and designing activities to easily fit into daily routines. Since SEL is not limited to the classroom settings, here are seven SEL tips to implement in school or at home.

1. Take Brain Breaks.

Learning to pause and practice breathing or stretching either individually or with a group can help students increase self-awareness and self-management of their emotions. Teacher-directed or self-directed brain breaks guide students to prepare their bodies and minds for learning whether it is virtual or in person. The incorporation of SEL transition exercises can also help students remain engaged in learning and refresh the mind when experiencing strong emotions.

  • Belly BreathingCentervision offers ideas for improving SEL skills including Belly Breathing. In this exercise, students learn a coping strategy to help restore calmness during stressful situations (e.g., being teased, receiving criticism, or experiencing anger).Once students learn how to appropriately belly breathe by working in partners, students are ready to apply this coping strategy. When students independently recognize feelings of anxiety, they learn to manage those feelings by taking deep breaths and slowly counting to 5. The procedure requires students to say the number out loud, inhale deeply, and then slowly exhale or push the air out. Repeat the procedure until you reach the count of 5.
  • Finger-Thumb Exercise – Have students make fists and place their fists together. Direct students to point the index finger on one hand and raise the thumb on the other hand. Then have students switch. Repeat this movement, and increase the speed at which students perform the movement with accuracy.
  • Step Away – Allow students to use a nonverbal signal to indicate the need for a break and to move to a quiet or designated area in the classroom. This exercise gives the student time to collect his/her thoughts, unwind, and get emotions regulated. Use a timer for the quick break to establish a time period for the student to step away from the activity or classroom situation and re-establish focus.
  • Mirror Movement – Help students shift focus for a few minutes by forming partners who stand up and face each other without any talking taking place. With each group, determine a leader who will move one hand at a time with the follower mirroring the movement. Instruct students to take turns being the leader.
  • Exercise for One – Invite students to stand in place and engage in a sequence of movements called out during a 1–2-minute period: run in place, hop on one foot then the other, jumping jacks, high knees, and hand clap.

2. Create a Giving Thanks Journal.

Encourage students to reflect on their lives and focus on positive happenings to reinforce self-awareness and self-management. Encourage deeper thinking by using questioning prompts to guide students to be specific about why they are grateful or thankful.

  • What do you feel thankful for today?
  • Who is someone you are thankful to for being a part of your life?
  • What are you able to do that makes you thankful?
  • What skill are you most thankful to have?
  • Name two things you are most thankful for in your life.
  • What positive change in your life are you most thankful for?
  • What food are you most thankful for?
  • Share a type music are you most thankful that you can listen to.
  • What are you most thankful for about your home?
  • Make a list of things you most thankful for in nature.
  • What part of your life are you most thankful?

3. Embrace Diversity.

Guide students to appreciate diversity through activities and literature. Use questioning and books to prompt discussions about how differences make the world better. During discussions, remind students to avoid interruptions, to take turns sharing, and to actively listen to each other. Sample questions to ask that promote the SEL core competency social awareness are: Who do you value the most and why? If you could travel anywhere, where might it be and why? What could you do to lift your spirits when you feel sad? Books that celebrate differences within us include It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr, The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler & David Lee Csicsko, and Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. Allow these ideas to encourage the exploration of other books and activities that promote the celebration of diversity in our life.

4. Connect with Others.

Relationship building is an essential social skill that students need to develop to strengthen collaboration with peers. Positive relationships contribute to increased participation and a sense of belonging in the classroom. Activities that foster and support positive relationship development promote student engagement and school attendance. When students feel isolated at home or feel all alone in the classroom, it is important to take time for students to work together and form connections. This can be accomplished whether they are physically present in the classroom or in a remote learning environment.

  • Similarities and Differences – With a partner, complete a Venn diagram. Partner 1 writes personal interests on the left side and Partner 2 writes interests on the right side. Afterwards, students write their matching interests in the intersecting or mid-section. If partners have no shared interests, prompt them to talk about what they might do together that they both could enjoy.
  • Find Me Boxes – Students draw a 3 x 3 board and write a different descriptive statement in each box as shown below. Direct students to mingle and find a different friend to match the description written in each box. As students locate a person, write the name of that person in the box and ask that person to explain how he/she matches the statement in the box. An option is to ask the named person to share something else about him/herself if time permits. Then, direct students to move to find another friend who matches the description in another box.
I have a pet. I have never been to a beach. I have a favorite movie.
I cannot swim. I like sports. I have a hobby.
I like listening to music. I do not like spaghetti. I was born in the winter.


5. Learn to Handle Conflict.

Making decisions and learning how to deal with conflict helps to promote positive behavior in school. It also teaches students a lifelong SEL skill about discussing their thoughts and feelings when a conflict occurs. BrainPop features a conflict resolution video that presents three steps (calm down, share feelings, and choose a solution) that students can use to resolve conflicts.

  • Students can complete prompts to recognize their feelings when they are in conflict with another and to choose a resolution:
  • I feel ___ when you ___ because ___ . So, what I would like is ___.
  • Think about a time when you had a conflict with a family member or a friend. What happened? How was the conflict solved? Create a comic strip or illustration to show the problem-solving process. Share with a friend.
  • Use classic fairy tales to encourage students to think about conflict(s) that appear in the story and how to bring it to resolution in a better way. Students might also compare actions they have taken that might be similar to those of characters in a fairy tale. Then, they can discuss better ways to resolve such situations if they happen again in the future.

6. Engage with an SEL app.

Check out SEL apps, such as Wisdom: The World of Emotions by Better Kids to empower students ages 4–8 to follow along and learn to regulate their emotions. In this app, there are educator and parent paths that provide tools to help children increase their SEL skills. Teachers will have access to numerous activities and tools that support SEL for in-classroom, virtual, and hybrid settings. Parents will see how digital games and engaging Augmented Reality features can increase SEL skills. Wisdom (main character) helps guide children to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, build healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions.

7. Use a Choice Board.

Art teacher Ava Cotlowitz from PS32 in Brooklyn, New York, created an art choice board for her students. Ms. Ava, as students know her, shared a couple of ways for use. “You could have students close their eyes and drop a finger on the board at random to determine which activity to do. Students can also check off boxes as they complete them. The purpose is to provide a range of activities in a variety of modalities for students to engage in SEL experiences. Giving students a choice in how they learn goes hand in hand with how successful SEL works.” The SEL choice board is available for free download on Ms. Ava’s Teachers Pay Teachers site. Ms. Ava posts other resources on Instagram @msavasartroom.

While these seven tips feature a range of SEL activities, by using CASEL’s five competencies as a guide, additional social and emotional learning activities can be designed to provide students with skills they need for success. Help students succeed in the classroom and in life by weaving both SEL and academics into everyday instruction.