As school leaders seek to provide for the needs of the whole child, social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a priority in a growing number of classrooms. It’s especially important now, as educators and students grapple with the changes and uncertainty brought about by the pandemic. 

Whether you’re still exploring how to bring social-emotional learning into your curriculum or looking to improve existing practices, read on for tips on how to weave SEL strategies into the school day. 

There’s been a surge of interest within the education community over the past few years concerning social-emotional learning, particularly as the research became clear that SEL is key not only to students’ development, but also to their academic success (Durlak et al, 2011). CASEL’s Ready to Lead report, for instance, cites that having high-quality SEL instruction improves student achievement scores by an average of 11 percentile points. 

In recent school years, SEL has become an even bigger priority as educators seek to support students grappling with changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“These are unprecedented times with lots of uncertainty and anxiety for our students,” says TPT Teacher-Author Counselor Keri, a current K-6 school counselor and former mental health counselor. “[. . . Focusing on SEL will allow] our students to recognize the feelings that they’re having and have the skills and tools to deal with these emotions in positive ways.”

As school leaders look to prioritize SEL programs as a part of their curriculum, one question keeps popping up: How can educators incorporate social-emotional learning in the classroom when they already have a full to-do list?

To help answer this question, the research and editorial staff at TPT drew upon industry research to help guide educators in this area. Whether you’re a school administrator providing your educators with tools to support the whole child or a teacher looking to incorporate SEL into existing lessons, we invite you to use the following strategies as a starting point for your own SEL efforts.

Weaving SEL into the School Day

Under the framework created by CASEL — one of the leading authorities in the advancement of SEL in education — there are five core competencies that are critical for success in both school and the workplace. These SEL competencies can be taught in many ways across many different settings. Here, we’ve included an overview of each competency along with specific examples of instructional strategies educators can weave into their lesson plans.

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is defined as the capacity to understand one’s own emotions, personal goals, and values. When students possess self-awareness, they’re able to recognize how their thoughts and feelings influence their behavior. In addition, they can accurately identify the things they’re good at and the things they may need to work a little harder on.

| Sample Strategy: Start and end each day (or week) with check-ins and check-outs.

Image concept inspired by Making a Statement in SPED

Commit to establishing at least one moment of connection and reflection each day with your students. This doesn’t need to be a time-consuming activity. It could be something as simple as a morning meeting or asking students a personalized question as you greet them. 

During a morning meeting, you might check in with how your students feel by having them each call out the name of an emotion they’re experiencing, or reflect on the day together. These activities can offer your students the space to think about how they’re feeling, recognize how it’s affecting their actions, and set some goals for the future.

For a weekly social emotional learning activity, help students set individual goals at the beginning of each week. At the end of the week, ask students to reflect on why they did or didn’t achieve their goals and to think about what changes they can make to overcome obstacles or improve their methods in order to achieve their goals.

TPT Teacher-Author Tip

“Provide opportunities to have a ‘feelings check’ [. . . Primary teachers can] integrate it into the morning meeting or older students [can use] a sticky note to write/sketch their mood and anonymously display it on the board [. . .] Some students may feel comfort knowing they aren’t the only one stressing about a particular issue. Likewise, it can open a door to see some classmates are dealing with some pretty heavy issues. Educators can make a point to connect with students on a smaller scale during their class period.”

— Melissa from Chick on the Run

2. Self-Management

Self-management speaks to students’ ability to successfully regulate their emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in differing situations. With self-management skills, students are able to control their impulses, effectively manage stress, and motivate themselves under pressure to achieve their personal and academic goals.

| Sample Strategy: Routinely practice age-appropriate self-management techniques as a regular part of the school day.

Life can be complicated for students of all ages, especially during these times, so it’s important for them to learn how to manage their emotions in a positive way. Incorporating brain breaks and mindfulness exercises into the day can be a great way to provide your students with the opportunity to center their minds and bodies. 

Activities like slow breathing techniques, yoga, meditation, or brief physical activity (such as jumping jacks or a dance break) are just a few examples of self-management techniques you can weave into instruction for students in elementary school, middle school, and high school.

Help students practice these techniques in a remote environment with this free calendar of brain breaks, activities, and daily prompts.

TPT Teacher-Author Tip

“I teach a few different calming down strategies: belly breathing; making your body tight, counting to 10, and releasing the emotion through the fingertips; stating your emotion; or walking away and getting a drink. Students can then choose which works for them, but I think the biggest impact happens when I actually model it in action. It sounds like, ‘Please focus on me. Boys and girls, look at me. Can I have your attention? I feel angry because no one is listening….’ Then, I belly breathe at least three times. When I feel I need to raise my voice to be heard, belly breathing helps me calm down and shows the kiddos that even adults need it sometimes!”

Debora Marines TeachMagically

3. Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making involves students learning how to make constructive choices concerning their personal behavior and social interactions. When students engage in responsible decision-making, they take actions that consider rules and ethical norms, protect the safety and well-being of themselves and others, and evaluate the consequences that their choices might bring about.

| Sample Strategy: Offer choices throughout the school day to encourage a sense of autonomy and promote decision-making skills.

Presenting students with choices in a number of different learning contexts helps them develop skills for responsible decision-making. It can be hard to imagine incorporating student choice into an already hectic classroom, especially if your school is learning virtually. Here are some ideas that may fit into your existing routine, without disrupting the class:

  • Give students the option to choose topics by creating a list of prompts they can respond to and/or having them answer open-ended questions.
  • Let students choose the format for submitting their creative work (e.g. as essays, videos, slide decks, podcasts, or blog posts).

TPT Teacher-Author Tip

“[To help students make responsible decisions remotely] have students and their families create lists of daily/weekly responsibilities and make schedules to stay on top of these things. This can help alleviate some of the worry and anxiety that come alongside the changes in day-to-day and give a sense of predictable routine to the day.”

Counselor Keri

4. Relationship Skills

Relationship skills refer to students’ ability to make and keep healthy relationships with others, regardless of whether or not those individuals are from similar backgrounds or cultures. Having these sets of important SEL skills means that students will be better able to express themselves, actively listen to and cooperate with others, resist peer pressure, and resolve conflicts.

| Sample Strategy: Give students opportunities to work together with a variety of peers on projects, either in groups or with partners.

By having the chance to work together, students can learn first-hand how to negotiate with others, and how to leverage their strengths to contribute to the team. Plus, by making group activities a regular part of your classroom culture, you may end up finding it easier to implement SEL into your instruction overall. For those learning remotely, use the breakout sessions feature in Zoom or schedule additional small-group sessions to have students discuss ideas, brainstorm, solve problems, and collaborate with each other.

Prior to starting any group work — whether it’s reading groups, science labs, think-pair-shares, cooperative learning games, or writing partnerships — take the time to review and/or model how students should be interacting with and collaborating with one another. If conflicts arise, use those moments as opportunities for your students to reflect on how their actions have consequences on others.

TPT Teacher-Author Tip

“I teach learners to write, debate, and communicate with good tone across opposing views. This is so much fun as it involves the art of kindness and the rigor of mindfulness. We tend to go deeper as we even take our robust debates online with the same awesome tone.”

Ellen Weber – Brain Based Tasks for Growth Mindset

5. Social Awareness

Social awareness involves being able to empathize with, take the perspective of, and feel compassion for others — even if the individuals are from different cultures or backgrounds. When students are socially aware, they have an understanding of social and ethical norms and can behave accordingly.

| Sample Strategy: Discuss characters in literature or figures in history to better understand their motivations and perspectives.

While discussing a passage in a book, historical occurrences, or current events, use the characters or the real-life figures to highlight and discuss social skills and behavior. Ask students questions like: “Why do you think he or she made that choice?” or “How did his or her actions affect others?”

TPT Teacher-Author Tip

“I use a 3-column chart to teach character development. We’ll take a trait such as respect and list what it looks like, what it sounds like, and how it feels (to both give and receive it).”

— Melissa Bonito of Peas in a Pod

Keep in mind that implementing social-emotional learning is not a linear process. It takes time to build in the classroom and implement across an entire school. However, even the smallest investments in teaching students SEL skills can prepare them for long-term success in life.


TPT Resources

Here are just a few popular SEL activities and resources from TPT that address these topics:

Further Reading List

Want to dive deeper into SEL? Here’s a curated reading list of the sources that we cited and referred to while writing this piece.

This article was originally written in 2019 and updated for 2022.