How to Apply Social-Emotional Learning Activities in Education

Social-Emotional Learning ActivitiesAs a teacher, you may have found that your training focused more on academia than teaching social skills.

Now in the classroom, you face the challenge of implementing social-emotional learning (SEL) to help children build the social-emotional skills needed to be “ready to learn.”

But how can you embed SEL skill building into existing classroom routines and lesson plans with efficiency? How do you know if your efforts are working? How do you make adjustments?

We all want to support student learning from a position of safety, responsiveness, inclusion, and connectedness. Strong social-emotional skills, including our own, provide the foundation.

In this article, we will navigate through the skills that we as teachers need, social-emotional learning activities that can make a difference, and assessments that can show if we are on track.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

3 Interventions & Skills for Teachers in the Classroom

For a refresher on SEL theory, the five core competencies of social emotional learning, examples of evidence-based SEL curricula, and training and certification opportunities, check out our article What Is Social-Emotional Learning? + Training Courses by educator Dr. Tiffany Sauber Millacci.

In your classroom, you are the driver of SEL. This is true whether you are implementing an SEL program selected by your state or school district, or independently integrating SEL into your lesson plans.

The Social, Emotional, and Ethical (SEE) Learning (2019) framework encourages teachers to approach learning experiences with a three-role mindset. You are a facilitator, you are a model for students, and you are also a learner.

1. Build your own social-emotional competence

Your interactions with students are one of the most powerful contexts in which SEL skills develop. Use the strength of your own social-emotional competence to create an emotionally healthy classroom for students.

Start by reflecting on your own SEL skills. Identify your strengths and challenges with this Personal Assessment and Reflection Tool developed by the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning.

Complete the tool individually for self-reflection or with a group of colleagues to discover school-level patterns and attitudes that may influence interactions with students.

Brainstorm ways to model your strengths for students throughout the day. Analyze how your strengths can be leveraged to solve specific challenges in the classroom. Continually problem-solve your own self-care practices as you deepen relationships with students.

If you’d like to start out more gently, listen to this Audio-Guided Mindfulness Practice from Panorama designed specifically for educators focused on self-compassion and building relationship skills.

2. Build trauma-informed skills

Early childhood adversity in the form of poverty, racism, psychological maltreatment, parental depression and addiction, and exposure to violence can cause excessive activation of the stress system that interferes with learning (National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, 2020).

Schools and educators play a vital role in supporting children who face adversity, from identifying children in need who may otherwise be overlooked to creating healthy classroom environments where children feel connected and safe.

Extending trauma-informed practices into schools is part of a multi-tiered system of support for children (Chafouleas et al., 2016; Thomas et al., 2019). Intentionally building schools into trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed environments is one way to address the effects of adversity on learning and long-term health.

Trauma-informed training may also alleviate teacher burnout and stress associated with chronic behavior problems in the classroom. Teachers who received trauma-informed training alongside a mindfulness-based SEL program reported feeling more capable of meeting the demands of students who have experienced trauma and had more favorable attitudes about managing their own personal wellness in order to help their students (Kim et al., 2021).

Take a moment to watch this TED talk by educator Syndey Jenson as she describes the powerful role teachers play in the lives of their students and the secondary trauma teachers may experience.

How can we support the emotional wellbeing of teachers?

Find actionable steps to support children experiencing trauma in the Trauma Toolkit for Educators available for download by the National Education Association. To build your trauma-informed skills, review these 11 trauma-informed practices used by educators.

Keep SAMSA’s Understanding Childhood Trauma handout readily available to recognize the signs of trauma in children of different ages and how to respond supportively to a child in the moment.

3. Build an SEL community of practice

Communities of practice (CoPs) are groups of people who share a common interest and choose to learn together on a regular basis as they pursue that interest (Merriam, 2017).

Connect with like-minded colleagues with a shared passion for using SEL in the classroom. Dedicate a set meeting time and set objectives. CoPs are rich resources for encouragement and team-oriented problem-solving about social-emotional learning activities that benefit the entire group.

As a start, download this CASEL playbook designed to support teams in building and sustaining powerful SEL-focused CoPs.

Download this CASEL Circle Discussion Guide to create a safe space for collaboration in initial team meetings.

To identify colleagues who share your interests or to ensure everyone in your CoP shares the same understanding of SEL, consider enrolling in the free Introduction to SEL course from CASEL.

8 SEL Activities, Worksheets, and Games for Kids

SEL ActivitiesSo how do you get started right now? CASEL encourages the purpose, alignment, transparency, target (PATT) model as a starting point (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, 2019).


What is the purpose of the activity? Is there a challenge in the classroom you would like to address by building SEL skills in your students?


Identify the specific SEL skills you want to target in order to meet your purpose. Operationalize them to communicate them to students and measure them. To get you started, this video describes the five key competencies common to SEL along with specific SEL skills you may choose to target.

SEL 101: what are the core competencies and key settings? - CASEL


What do you want students to know about your purpose or about the SEL skills you are targeting?


Determine who is the focus of the activity. Student-to-student interaction, pairs, triads, teacher-to-student interaction, an independent activity, or a mix?

Based on the results of the PATT method, consider these SEL activities as potential starting points:

  • Wish, outcome, obstacles, plan (WOOP)
    This method helps to build self-control in kids to achieve personal goals. Students specify a wish, identify and imagine the best outcome, identify potential obstacles, and form a plan. Watch the WOOP video introduction and download the educator facilitation guide, exercise templates, and social-emotional learning activities from Character Lab.
  • Emotions and feelings games
    Use this crossword puzzle, pairing emotion words to their definitions. Also from Better Kids, use this word search to introduce new emotional words, followed by a circle-time discussion about different intensities of particular emotions.
  • Emogometer
    In this embodied activity, children identify an emotion they are feeling, how big they are feeling the emotion, and demonstrate to others the emotion they are feeling. It is an ideal activity to start the day. Watch a video demonstration of the emogometer from Move This World.
  • Flower worksheet
    Children identify people in their lives who support them and describe how they feel supported. Each petal of the flower represents a person in their support system. Learn more about the benefits to children of knowing who to count on, along with activity instructions and a downloadable flower worksheet from Better Kids.
  • Community-building circle
    Circle discussions provide a physical setting and a structured process to improve communication and build community among students in the classroom. Step-by-step instructions for opening the circle, doing the work, and closing the circle along with sample scripts are provided by CASEL.
  • Focusing on me and you
    Children engage in mindfulness practice, active listening, and perspective-taking exercises to learn to appreciate differences in others and build empathy. Educator instructions and presentation slides are available from Soar with Wings.
  • Problem, options, outcomes, choices (POOCH) protocol
    The POOCH protocol is a method for walking through the steps of making tough decisions that require judgment, assessing risk, or may not have an answer that benefits everyone equally.
  • Time to play
    Children explore responsible decision-making in the context of building a board game with others. Educator instructions and presentation slides are available for download from Soar with Wings.

As you select, facilitate, and adapt SEL activities to meet the needs of your students, use four characteristics of effective and evidence-based approaches to SEL that align with the acronym “SAFE” (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, n.d.).

  1. Sequenced
    Connect and coordinate multiple social-emotional learning activities to strengthen targeted skills.
  2. Active
    Keep learning active with physical movement, conversation, and learning materials.
  3. Focused
    Establish dedicated time and attention for developing social-emotional skills.
  4. Explicit
    Communicate to students the specific SEL skills you are teaching as you are teaching them.
3 emotional intelligence exercises

Download 3 Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients understand and use emotions advantageously.

5 Online Games and SEL Activities for Virtual Classes

You can also teach SEL skills in virtual classes with online games and apps. Options range from simple SEL games played in small groups to interactive games with avatars and built-in SEL assessment tools for teachers.

1. How we feel

How we feelHow we feel is an app-based emotional intelligence journal for high school students.

Track emotions throughout the day, find the words and feelings to describe emotions, and try strategies to help regulate emotions. This app was developed by researchers at the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence.

Available on iOS.

2. Wisdom: The World of Emotions

Wisdom appWisdom: The World of Emotions is a game-based SEL app for children aged 4 to 8. Students navigate the Kingdom of Anger to earn superpowers as they complete challenges in recognizing emotion and mood of characters.

Available on iOS.

3. MyPeekaville

PeekavilleThis digital interactive learning game incorporates the Peekapak SEL curriculum. Gamers navigate various spaces in Peekaville to help citizens solve problems through challenges and quests. Teachers can access student statistics and identify areas of challenge.

Available on Google Play.

4. Classcraft

Classcraft AppClasscraft is a game-based tool to build student engagement and classroom collaboration using the motivation of story-based gaming. Integrated classroom management tools track student engagement and identify students who may need additional support. Watch this trailer of a Classcraft Quest.

Available on iOS and Google Play.

5. Virtual read-alouds

Use video call software for interactive class read-alouds. Pause to allow students to identify, imitate, and predict character emotions, propose solutions to social problems, and take different perspectives. Recommended SEL-focused books:

Best Assessments: 3 Questionnaires & Questions for Students

The best student assessments are selected with purpose. To guide your selection, ask yourself:

  • Is the assessment informational to track student progress?
  • Is the assessment going to be used to communicate with parents, other teachers, or school administrators?
  • Will the assessment be used to track accountability required of your school, district, or funding organization?

Ideally, an assessment should be selected before implementing the activity or intervention to ensure you are measuring the student skill or outcome you intend to improve.

1. Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Survey

Questions for students in grades 3–5 and 6–12 to assess:

  • Competencies and skills (e.g., grit, growth mindset, self-regulation, self-efficacy)
  • Student support and environment (e.g., sense of belonging, school safety, engagement)
  • Student wellbeing (e.g., positive feelings, supportive relationships)

Response format is Likert scale and free-response.

Access the survey here.

2. EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Wellbeing

This is a free student report assessment of five positive characteristics that support higher levels of wellbeing in adolescents: engagement, perseverance, optimism, connectedness, happiness.

Modified from Seligman’s (2018) five-pillar PERMA model of adult wellbeing, this assessment can be used as a before-and-after intervention measure of adolescent wellbeing and happiness (Kern et al., 2016).

Access the assessment here.

3. Prompts

Use prompts, questions, and check-ins individually or in a group setting as an informal assessment of social-emotional competence and student wellbeing.

  • Describe a time when you felt really proud of yourself.
  • Describe a behavior you are working to improve.
  • What is something you take for granted that someone else may not have?
  • Where is a place you would love to visit?
  • If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
  • What is something that calms you down?
  • How have you been sleeping lately?
  • How included in class did you feel today?
  • What emotion are you feeling the most today?
  • What would you be known for if you were famous?
  • If you could travel back in time to X grade, what advice would you give yourself?
  • If you could make one rule everyone at school had to follow, what would it be?
  • What does a typical morning look like for you?

For additional assessments of SEL and student wellbeing by grade and outcome, review this comprehensive SEL assessment toolbox from the American Institutes for Research.

Building an SEL Curriculum and Lesson Plans: 3 Tools

SEL CurriculumWith so many SEL programs to choose from, how do you begin your search for the program that meets your needs and objectives?

1. CASEL Program Guide

The Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) provides a comprehensive program guide to walk you through the selection of an effective SEL program from start to finish.

All CASEL-recommended SEL programs are evidence-based. The end-to-end tool involves three steps:

  • Identify your SEL goals.
  • Identify features of SEL programs you want to prioritize to meet your goals.
  • Explore SEL programs and compare your top selections.

Filter programs by approach (such as free-standing lesson, integrated lessons, or classroom management), outcome (such as improved academic performance, social behaviors, reduced problem behaviors, or reduced emotional distress), student characteristics (such as low-income, multi-race, Hispanic/Latinx), school characteristics (such as urban, suburban, or Midwest) program support offered, and training offered.

Download the Quickstart Guide for a summary of the CASEL tool.

2. Navigating SEL From the Inside Out

This comprehensive SEL guide (Jones et al., 2021) includes an evaluation of 33 evidence-based programs for kindergarten through elementary school-aged children. Get a birds-eye view of each program individually and collectively on three metrics in easy-to-read tables.

Once you have a few programs in mind, dig into the snapshot summary of each program, which describes program effectiveness, grade range, duration of program, and unique features.

3. Explore SEL

Explore SEL is an evidence-based interactive tool to navigate widely used nonacademic frameworks of SEL. Begin by browsing through the different SEL frameworks to see which you recognize. Get a feel for the complexity of SEL that comes from differences in how we define, teach, and measure it.

Next, use the tool to select the framework that will guide your SEL work and reduce the complexity.

  • Compare frameworks across different domains of learning (e.g., cognitive, emotions, social, values, perspective, identity).
  • Compare SEL skills targeted by different frameworks (e.g., overlapping SEL skills targeted by the CASEL framework vs. P21’s 21st Century Learning framework).
  • Identify related SEL skills used across frameworks,

Ideas for Social Emotional Learning Activities for Adults

Play! Games and group SEL activities are rich contexts for adults to practice a wide range of social-emotional skills. Most involve some form of active learning about yourself and others, embodied action, social interaction, competitiveness, and creativity.

1. We’re Not Really Strangers

We’re Not Really Strangers is a multiplayer card game to learn about yourself, strengthen your relationships, and get to know new people. Check out versions for first dates, couples, families, and self-awareness.

What will you remember about me?

2. The Hygge Game

This multiplayer card game has interesting and entertaining questions to bring more joy to your life based on the Danish concept hygge.

The hygge game - cozy conversation in pleasant company

3. Organized group activities

Get involved with a group that meets regularly for a specific purpose. For example, join a choir, knitting group, running club, book club, dance group, volunteer group, or recreational sports league. For older adults, participating in choir and group exercise predicts positive emotional wellbeing (Maury et al., 2022).

4. Self-reflection

As adults, we may not be aware of the SEL skills we already use to nurture relationships, calm ourselves, and manage emotions. Bring awareness to your own SEL strengths and challenges with this Personal SEL Reflection tool. Use individually or as a community of practice activity.

17 Exercises To Develop Emotional Intelligence

These 17 Emotional Intelligence Exercises [PDF] will help others strengthen their relationships, lower stress, and enhance their wellbeing through improved EQ.

Created by Experts. 100% Science-based.

Resources From

We have a variety of resources that can supplement your academic learning, all well worth checking out.

As a start, you may be interested in our article filled with training resources: Social Skills Training for Kids.

You can also identify SEL strengths and weaknesses through self-awareness. Check out our blog on How to Increase Self-Awareness: 16 Activities and Tools.

Prompting children with more self-reflection questions is made easier with our article, Learning Through Reflection: Questions to Inspire Others.

Another brilliant article filled with activities and games: 16 Activities to Stimulate Emotional Development in Children.

Besides our blog articles, here are two worksheets that can be used in the classroom.

Increase awareness of the different emotions experienced throughout the day through simple observation with our Emotional Awareness worksheet.

Use this Conflict at School worksheet with children to bring awareness to different relationships they have at school and difficulties they have with individual friends.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence (EI), check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

So much of academic learning relies on feeling safe and accepted at school, recognizing and managing emotions, cooperating and working well with others, resolving conflict, and understanding emotions and perspectives of classmates.

The classroom is rich with opportunities to build and actively practice these SEL skills, and they go hand in hand with academic learning.

Academic mastery alone cannot lead to “student success”. We must be brave enough to believe that for each child, lifelong success is a unique combination of social, emotional, cognitive, and academic skills.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Examples of social-emotional learning activities include brain breaks, daily teacher–student greetings, journal writing, partner work, emotion check-ins, class agreements, and gratitude lists.

Activities that can help child development include pretend play, labeling emotions in self and others, joint book reading, perspective taking, mindfulness, asking for help, offering help to others, and identifying goals.

Yes, SEL can be implemented outside the classroom. Adults, parents, and caregivers can embed SEL into after-school programs, organized sports, during dinner, and at the grocery store.

  • Chafouleas, S. M., Johnson, A. H., Overstreet, S., & Santos, N. M. (2016). Toward a blueprint for trauma-informed service delivery in schools. School Mental Health, 8, 144–162.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (n.d.). Adopt an evidence-based program for SEL.
  • Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2019). Social emotional learning: 3 Signature practices playbook.
  • Jones, S. M., Brush, K., Bailey, R., Brion-Meisels, G., McIntyre, J., Kahn, J., & Stickle, L. (2021). Navigating SEL from the inside out: Looking inside and across 25 leading SEL programs: A practical resource for schools and OST providers. Preschool and elementary focus (2nd ed.). The Wallace Foundation.
  • Kern, M. L., Benson, L., Steinberg. E. A., & Steinberg, L. (2016). The EPOCH Measure of Adolescent Well-being. Psychological Assessment, 28(5), 586–597.
  • Kim, S., Crooks, C. V., Bax, K., & Shokoohi, M. (2021). Impact of trauma-informed training and mindfulness-based social–emotional learning program on teacher attitudes and burnout: A mixed-methods study. School Mental Health, 13, 5–68.
  • Maury, S., Vella-Brodrick, D., Davidson, J., & Rickard, N. (2022). Socio-emotional benefits associated with choir participation for older adults related to both activity characteristics and motivation factors. Music & Science, 5.
  • Merriam, S. B. (2017). Theories of adult learning: Evolution and future directions. PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning, 26, 21–37.
  • National Scientific Council on the Developing Child. (2020). Connecting the brain to the rest of the body: Early childhood development and lifelong health are deeply intertwined.
  • SEE Learning. (2019). The SEE Learning companion: Social, Emotional, and Ethical Learning. Emory University.
  • Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 13(4), 333–335.
  • Thomas, M. S., Crosby, S., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Trauma-informed practices in schools across two decades: An interdisciplinary review of research. Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 422–452.

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