TeacherLists Blog

Social-Emotional Learning in Your District

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a hot topic in schools right now. Understood.org defines SEL as “the process of developing and using social and emotional skills”. They also list a wide array of benefits to SEL, some of which include:

  • Less emotional distress
  • Fewer disciplinary incidents
  • Increases in school attendance
  • Improved test scores and grades


And what’s more, children who learn social-emotional skills early on grow up to be adults with a strong sense of self, empathy, and who are good at making decisions as well as setting and achieving goals. If your districts haven’t started integrating these values into the classroom, now is a good time to start thinking about it. The good news is, there are plenty of ways to work these into your curriculum—many of which the students will enjoy!


There are 5 types of social-emotional learning to familiarize yourself with as you start to plan:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making


We’ve broken up ideas based on each type of social-emotional learning, but you’ll notice quite a bit of overlap between them. Most activities and exercises check off multiple boxes at once! These serve as a great jumping off point for the teachers in your district.


For self-awareness learning:

Goal: To have students identify and understand their emotions, thoughts, behaviors, etc., and how they affect others

  • Ask students to fill out emotional evaluations before and/or after tests, presentations, group activities, etc. Talk with them individually about what they’re feeling.
  • Work “feeling” words into your vocabulary lists (synonyms for happy, sad, etc., with more complex words for higher grades such as nostalgic, melancholic, 
  • Create an Emotion Wheel to refer to with your students if they have trouble articulating their feelings.
  • Have students make a list of things they like about themselves—focus on the inside!
  • Designate class time to write in a journal. Give students prompts such as “who is your best friend and what do you like about them?”, “how do you like to express yourself?”, etc.


For self-management learning:

Goal: Build students’ ability to control and regulate their thoughts, emotions, and actions

  • Play games such as musical chairs, Simon Says, and others that require attentive listening and following directions
  • Set goals for your students in the classroom. Whether it’s reading a certain amount of pages in their book or handing in their homework on time, allow them the autonomy to accomplish the goal on their own.
  • Hand out rewards for accomplishing goals. Smaller, individual goals can earn rewards like picking a trinket from a prize box while bigger, class-wide goals can receive extra recess or no homework.
  • Have students write about the process of accomplishing goals. Help them out by asking questions like, “what was the hardest part of the process?” and “what would you do differently next time?”. Avoid yes or no questions.
  • Assign weekly class jobs to your students, and allow them space to finish the job on their own. Reminders that they have until Friday to complete the job are okay, but make sure they’re given they recognize the responsibility is theirs. If they seem to forget, occasionally ask if there’s something they should be doing.


For social awareness learning:

Goal: Teach students how to be aware of the feelings and needs of those around them, as well as how to handle conflict in a mindful way

  • Read a book or watch a movie with the class, and ask your students questions about the characters as you go. Ask about the character’s goals, actions, and feelings.
  • Have students match emotions to images of faces and actions. For example, print out an image of a kid dropping their ice cream cone. Have your students write down what they think the kid in the picture is feeling. Provide a multiple choice list at first, and slowly move away from it as they start to get better at it.
  • During conflict resolution between students, calmly ask what they think each student feels in the situation.
  • Hold Open Circle with the class using an object like a plush animal or ball to determine who has the floor to speak. Encourage honesty, kindness, and empathy as they talk about their thoughts and feelings.
  • Give students more time to work on collaborative projects with their peers.



For relationship skills learning:

Goal: Students will learn how to make new friends, set healthy boundaries, and resolve issues effectively with compassion

  • Play games in class that require teamwork. Collaborative puzzles and Jenga are great ways to get students working together!
  • Facilitate small-group reading circles. Encourage students to take turns reading aloud to each other and have them answer questions about the story as a group.
  • Play a game of Guess Who? With your students. Every card is describing a student, and everyone has to guess which student is being described
  • Many of the social awareness activities will build relationship skills too!


For responsible decision-making learning:

Goal: Teach students the importance of choosing their actions and words wisely. Emphasize the importance of thinking things through before committing to a decision.

  • Play “would you rather” but with a decision-making question. Give students a hypothetical situation where they have to choose between two solutions. Ask why they chose what they did.
  • Watch a movie as a class and discuss the main character’s problem. Ask your students what they think would be a good solution to the issue.
  • As a teacher, say your decision-making thought process out loud when applicable. For example, if a student asks to use the restroom, say “yes, because you need to and I can catch you up on the lesson when you get back.” This sets the example to think things through, and they’ll also understand why you made the decision you did.
  • Teach students to use decision-making tools such as pros/cons lists and simple decision trees.
  • Roleplay with your students common problems for their age. For example, grades K-2 can roleplay problems around sharing, grades 3-5 can roleplay the balance between outside school activities and homework.

What does this look like in real districts?

If you’re not sure where to start with all this information, here are examples of how real districts are embracing social-emotional learning:

Cleveland Public Schools transformed rooms for students with in-school suspension into mental health rooms–  somewhere students could go to talk to a counselor, do homework quietly, or take a breather in a beanbag chair. Shifting the focus from discipline to intervention meant that they were addressing the root of the problem, rather than punishing a single behavior. They also provided planning centers to address problems that get in the way of learning.

Hopkinton Public Schools have an ABC program for every school to follow:

  • We Are: Mindsets and Implicit Bias, Brian Science and Trauma, Mindfulness Practices
  • We Belong: Trauma Informed Practices, Relationship Building, Community RP Circles
  • We Can: Culturally Responsive Practices, Academic/SEL Integration

They also integrate school-wide monthly SEL themes, assemblies, restorative practices, and family engagement opportunities.

Davis School District has an extensive informational SEL page on their website with a teacher toolkit, resources for home (including articles, apps, and printables), and mindful videos. They also link to Davis Behavioral Health, where they host a library of mindful practices like guided breathing and meditation along with establishing healthy thinking habits.

Originally posted 2022

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