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10 activities to integrate SEL in your classroom

Here are several ways to help students develop social-emotional learning skills

Students are at their best in environments that focus on respecting and educating them as whole people. Research shows that students whose social emotional learning (SEL) needs are prioritized and consistently met do better long term in not only academics but in overall personal and professional growth and success.

If you find yourself wondering what that means for teachers or how you can integrate SEL activities into your curriculum and classroom, these 10 activities are a great place to start.

10 low-tech ways to bring SEL into your classroom

1. Games

Gamified learning activities help build and strengthen cognitive abilities such as memory, decision-making, and logic, but they can also be viewed as fun activities to promote SEL in the classroom. Playing games in your classroom encourages students to interact with peers to achieve an objective, either collectively or competitively. Make your own question-and-answer games with students working individually or in pairs or groups to answer questions about lessons or play Pictionary or Charades and have students draw or act out elements from the curriculum.

2. THINK-ing about our words

One of my favorite acronyms for teaching the responsibility of our words is T.H.I.N.K. It promotes kindness in the classroom by considering if the words we speak to others are:

  • True
  • Helpful
  • Inspiring
  • Necessary
  • Kind

In addition to teaching students to be kind to others, it is important to teach them to be kind to themselves. Introduce positive alternatives to common negative phrases students use when speaking about themselves and repeat them often. Correct and model these phrases for students: “Instead of ‘I’m not good at this’ we say, ‘Learning takes time.’” Post the phrases around the classroom and encourage students to review them when discouraged about their learning.

3. Partner and group work

Group/partner projects are important to encourage communication, emotional awareness, teamwork, and accountability. Working with a partner or in small groups encourages mindfulness in students of their own emotions and communication, especially when feedback is given correctly, as Elena Ontiveros points out in this blog post: “When feedback is conducted in groups, it’s easier to demonstrate what students can learn from one another, and talk through the reasons certain suggestions are made.” Partner projects also create opportunities for students to observe and gain an understanding of how other people work and communicate differently and develop empathy and respect for others.

4. Roleplay

Roleplaying activities can teach compassion and perspective. By acting out scenes from the viewpoint of someone else, students are pushed to view scenarios from a perspective outside their own and use critical-thinking, decision-making, and even conflict-resolution skills. Activities where students are encouraged to act out scenarios involving being both the bully and being bullied help students learn cause and effect as well as empathy. You may even ask your students to roleplay as you to see how they view your teaching practices!

5. Peer mediation

Another activity to facilitate healthy communication among students is peer mediation. When there is a conflict between students, or even if a partner/group project creates an impasse, you can encourage social emotional skill development by encouraging peer-to-peer communication to resolve the issue. Students benefit from being entrusted with the responsibility to work through their own communication barriers with peers, with the guidance of trusted adults. Social emotional learning in the classroom involves learning to be open and honest, to talk through conflicts and to compromise to achieve goals.

6. Class discussions

Creating conditions for students to voice their questions and concerns, give feedback, and be heard by teachers and one another is an important SEL objective. Asking students to share their favorite/least favorite part of a lesson, encouraging them to provide a summary of what they learned, or inviting them to express something they would have liked to learn more about are all ways that you can open the door to class discussions and encourage students to engage more fully with their lessons.

7. Cross mentorship

Partnering younger students with older schoolmates for mentorship is another great SEL development tool. Cross mentorship encourages a sense of responsibility and purpose in older students and fosters a sense of support and belonging in younger students. Students who feel supported and embraced by their teachers and classroom environments and as though they have a voice and opportunity to use it have been shown to have greater confidence, which leads to academic success and a healthier sense of self.

8. Classroom jobs

Similar to cross mentorship, classroom jobs create a sense of belonging for students and empower them with a degree of control over and responsibility for their environment and education. In addition to the individual SEL benefits to each student, classroom jobs serve to create structure and aid in maintaining classroom routines. Structure and stability are vital. Talk with your class to develop a list of “jobs” and then use chore charts, sign-up sheets, or draw straws/popsicle sticks to assign them. Rotate jobs daily, weekly, or monthly, but be consistent. Students thrive in environments where they know what to expect.

9. Daily check-ins and check-outs

All students have things going on in their home lives that will affect their learning on varying levels. Students who have more tumultuous home lives will feel that impact even more. Performing daily check-ins and -outs serves the double purpose of allowing you to understand where your students are mentally and emotionally and what factors may impact their behavior and engagement levels, as well as giving students a safe space to be heard and validated regarding their social and emotional needs. Start class with a “Today I feel…” prompt and encourage students to share their feelings. End class with, “Before, I felt… Now I feel….” to find out if their mental emotional state has improved or “Today I learned…” to find out how well learning objectives were met.

10. Art

With their capacity to allow for free expression, create an outlet for emotions, and communicate when words fail, art activities remain unmatched in their benefits as SEL activities. It is important to distinguish the difference between a project and an activity. Projects are product oriented; activities are process oriented. Art activities empower students to express themselves in the ways most beneficial to them by being permitted to explore the mediums, styles, tools, surfaces and other elements of their choosing on their terms.

Developing SEL skills

Students who experience educational environments that prioritize SEL have greater long-term success in their education, careers, and personal lives. The skills students learn through social-emotional learning activities empower them to communicate effectively, build and maintain healthy relationships, set and respect boundaries, display empathy and compassion, and so many other vital skills necessary for living the rich full lives we want for them and that they each deserve.

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