Social-emotional learning (SEL) is one of the most promising frontiers in educational research. Because intellectual and social-emotional development are linked, teaching both is the best way to promote lifelong success. But many schools don’t know how to ensure that their social emotional learning activities are focusing on the right skills.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading expert in integrating SEL into school curriculum, has compiled a list of core competencies for students to learn. These five key skills are:
- Self-awareness: the ability to identify and assess your thoughts, feelings, and values, as well as how they intersect with your behaviors
- Self-management: the ability to not only identify but regulate emotions, thoughts, and actions
- Responsible decision-making: the ability to make positive, constructive choices about your behavior
- Social awareness: the ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, as well as learning social and ethical behavior
- Relationship skills: the ability to get along and make meaningful connections with people in their life
Helping your students learn the CASEL competencies can be as easy as reading books about diversity or holding a class service project. Try these fifteen fun class activities to help your students develop strong SEL skills at school.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness, the ability to focus on the present and accept one’s circumstances, is a self-awareness skill that can significantly reduce stress and anxiety. To teach mindfulness in class, put on a guided meditation recording or read one aloud to your students. Encourage them to put their thoughts and feelings aside and focus on the meditation as much as they can.
For younger students, try simpler breathing exercises to help students develop mindfulness without overextending their attention span.
2. Reflective Writing
Reflective writing not only helps students develop self-awareness but empathy and compassion, too. Start each day by giving students five to ten minutes to write about a prompt that encourages self-reflection. By practicing reflective writing every day, this can help students learn to consider their thoughts and feelings in a self-aware way.
Not sure what questions you should give your students? Here are a few prompts that encourage self-analysis:
- When was the happiest moment in your life? Why was it so happy?
- What is your wildest dream?
- Who is your best friend and how do they make you feel?
- Why do you think it’s important to be kind?
- What are some things you like and dislike about yourself?
3. Emotional Vocabulary Lists
Self-awareness activities are a great way to help students understand emotional cues. Include several words that describe emotions to your class vocabulary lists, like “joyful” or “scared.” Whenever you introduce a new emotional vocabulary word, take time to discuss what it means and how students can recognize this feeling in themselves and others.
For older grades, try complex emotional vocabulary words like “jubilant” or “apprehensive” to broaden their emotional understanding.
4. Grounding Techniques
Grounding techniques are a stress management exercise used to orient someone in the present when they’re emotionally overwhelmed. By focusing on their senses instead of their thoughts or feelings, grounding techniques can teach students how to calm down and manage their emotions when they are upset. Teach grounding techniques as a class and help students practice them when they feel stressed.
Here are a few grounding techniques for you to try out with your students:
- Name five different things you can see around the room
- Listen to energetic or relaxing music for one minute
- Hold an object in your hands and focus on the color or texture
- Take ten deep breaths, counting each one as your chest rises
- Eat a piece of candy and choose three words that describe its taste
5. Self-Management Party Games
Plenty of popular children’s games can teach children how to regulate their behaviors. Turn on some music, sort children into groups, and play any of these well-known games that model self-management:
- Musical Chairs
- Follow the Leader
- Red Rover
- Mother, May I
- Simon Says
After playing these games, bring your students back together for a class discussion on what they learned about listening and being respectful to others.
6. SMART Goal Challenge
Self-motivation is an essential component to social-emotional learning. If you’re not sure how to self-motivate your students, try challenging them to reach their potential by setting SMART goals as a class.
At the beginning of the month or quarter, work with each student to set a SMART goal for themselves. SMART goals must be Specific, Measurable, Agreed-Upon, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Check in with your students several times throughout the month to measure their progress and support them if any challenges arise.
If your students meet their goal by the agreed-upon end date, give them a piece of candy or other reward. If they don’t, offer encouragement and work with them to accomplish their goal.
7. Class Contract
One way to encourage responsible decision making is by collaborating with your students to create a classroom contract. An effective classroom contract should contain two things: your expectations as a teacher and your students’ own hopes and needs for the school year.
Putting a contract together with your students can help them feel like their voices are heard and that you’re willing to listen. To make this activity interesting for your students, you can even include “exciting” information like class parties or rewards for meeting academic goals. It’s fun and, more importantly, establishes your classroom environment as one where everyone’s choices matter.
8. Student Council
Depending on your needs, you could involve your entire class in student council or have them elect representatives. By bringing your students in to discuss classroom needs and upcoming events, student councils can involve your class in the school community while teaching them responsibility.
If you’ve never held a council before, hold a discussion with your class to decide which student council ideas would work best.
9. “What Would You Do?” Activity
Practicing how to make tough decisions can help your students learn how their actions affect others. Give your students a list of situations in which they would have to make an important choice. Have them write down an answer to each situation by themselves, then discuss their answers as a class.
Here are a few problem-solving scenarios to get your students started:
- While playing with your little brother, he accidentally breaks your favorite toy. What do you do next?
- You see a new girl playing by herself at recess. What do you say to her?
- You’re eating a sugar cookie and your friend asks if he can have a bite. How do you respond?
10. Classroom Service Projects
Service activities are a fun and meaningful way to connect your students to the word around them. By helping others, a class service project can also help students develop empathy. Here are a few service project ideas you can do as your class to make your community a better place:
- Hold a clothing, books, or canned foods drive for a local shelter
- Visit a local nursing home as a class
- Clean up litter around your school or at a nearby park
- Create care packages for families in need around the holidays
- Raise money for your school or a charity through a bake sale
11. Listening Circles
To begin this activity that teaches active listening, separate your class into groups of four or five students. Have students take turns answering a get-to-know you question. If any student interrupts the person talking, remind them that everyone gets to a turn sharing their answer.
Here are a few question ideas:
- Where would you travel if you could go anywhere in the world?
- What makes you feel happiest?
- If you were an animal, which one would you be?
- Who do you look up to the most and why?
- When you grow up, what do you want to be?
At the end of the activity, come together for a class discussion about what they learned in their groups. To make sure every student feels included, try pairing students up and having them share one thing about their partner after the activity.
12. Diversity Story Time
Teaching diversity in the classroom is an essential component of social awareness. During read-aloud story times, try to pick books about people of different cultures, race/ethnicities, religions, and other backgrounds. After reading one of these books to your students, discuss how differences make the world a better place and ask what they learned from the story.
Here are a few popular children’s books about diversity to get you started:
- It’s Okay to Be Different by Todd Parr
- Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes
- The Skin You Live In by Michael Tyler & David Lee Csicsko
- Families, Families, Families! by Suzanne Lang
- Marisol McDonald Doesn’t Match by Monica Brown
13. “Make New Friends” Bingo
“Make New Friends” Bingo is a fun and interactive game for developing social skills, particularly verbal and nonverbal communication. You can play it at the beginning of the school year or anytime you want to have a get-to-know-you activity in class.
To play, make a bingo card with generic traits in each box, like “I have a pet” or “I was born in the summertime.” Have your students try to find a different person for each square until they get five in a row. Then, ask each student to share something interesting about themselves that correlates to a box with the class.
14. Team Puzzle Game
Put students into teams of three to five and give each one a jigsaw puzzle to put together. Instruct them that to complete the puzzle, they need to work together as a group. For an added challenge that encourages teamwork, try giving your students a time limit for completing the puzzle.
When students work together, even younger grades can put together complex puzzles. Your students will be amazed by how much they can get done with a little collaboration!
15. Conflict Resolution Read-Along
Helping children resolve conflicts teaches them skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. And, thanks to the timeless lessons they teach, fairy tale read-alongs can help your class get a discussion on conflict resolution skills going.
Choose a beloved fairy tale to read as a class, like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Little Red Riding Hood, or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. As you read the story to your students, ask them the following questions:
- What is this story’s main conflict?
- What do the main characters want to happen?
- How can the characters work together to make everyone happy?
Then, turn the discussion to recent conflicts students have had in their life. Have your children share about times when, like the fairy tale characters, they felt conflict with another person. Ask them how they worked with that person to make the situation better, as well as any advice they have to share with the class.
Why Teach Social Emotional Activities?
Research suggests that the cognitive processes that control social-emotional and intellectual development are interconnected. This means that providing both SEL and academic lessons in class is the best way to help students succeed. Students who attend SEL programs at school are more likely to:
- Achieve high grades and test scores
- Have high self-esteem
- Develop positive coping mechanisms
- Graduate from high school
- View teachers and classmates positively
With the five CASEL competencies as a guide, educators can make sure that they’re providing effective and well-rounded SEL programs in their classrooms. Use these social and emotional skills activities to give your students the tools they need to thrive in school and everywhere else, too.
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