With back-to-school time, it’s important to integrate social emotional learning activities from the start. The good news is that there are countless activities and strategies you can use to build SEL skills with your learners.
What is Social Emotional Learning?
Social emotional learning is the process to help learners acquire necessary life skills. Those skills make up five core domains:
- Self-awareness: understanding who we are as individuals
- Self-management: learning to manage our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
- Social awareness: understanding the social world around us
- Relationships: developing meaningful connections with others
- Decision-making: Learning to make responsible choices
It goes without saying that these social-emotional skills are important for learners of all ages. When students improve their social-emotional skills, they are better able to improve their academic skills too.
With all that said, educators need simple solutions to integrate SEL skills, especially in a busy time like back-to-school. Here are over 30 social emotional learning activities teachers can use for back-to-school time:
1. Hold meaningful group chats
Class discussion time is always a valuable space to build meaningful relationships. Group chats build confidence and help kids learn from others. Choose one relationship-building question for the day and give time to share ideas. This is an activity you can come back to time after time throughout the whole year.
2. Practice positive self-talk
Positive self-talk strengthens confidence, builds problem-solving skills, fosters self-love, and serves as a meaningful coping strategy. Practice reading positive self-talk statements together. Students can then create their own individualized list of affirmations that work best for them. Learners can keep them in their desk, post them around the room, or hang in their locker.
3. Start with morning meeting
Morning meeting is one of the best times to integrate social-emotional skills. Start with greetings and introducing a SEL skill. Discuss the skill and practice together. This gives a dedicated time and space to work on the social skills your learners need such as empathy, managing emotions, friendships, decision-making, and more.
Use SEL-focused morning meeting cards to guide your morning activities.
4. Start a kindness share
For this activity, have each student add their name on a piece of paper. That piece of paper should remain at their desk. Then, students will switch seats in order so that they are sitting at someone else’s desk. On that paper, have students write one kind thing about their classmate (You are great at soccer or I love your smile!). Continue until students go all the way around the room and have written on everyone else’s paper.
Once students make it back to their desk, they will be left with a paper that says kind words and compliments about them.
5. Use journal prompts
Ask a SEL-focused question and give time for journal writing. After students write, allow time for discussion and shared learning.
Use a social emotional learning journal to build skills for empathy, choices, conflict resolution, and more.
If you work with primary learners, you can also check out this social-emotional learning journal for K-2.
6. Set goals
Encourage students to think about something they want to accomplish this month, quarter, or school year. Have them write and/or draw their goal. Next, have them list out steps they can take to get there. Add these pages into a goal binder that you and your students can check back in to review progress.
7. Design an “all about me” collage
Have students create a collage to share with the class. This project should highlight parts of them that are important from their family and friends to hobbies and aspirations.
One fun way to approach an “all about me” collage is to gather old magazines. Allow students to cut them up to create a collage or poster that represents who they are as an individual.
Collages, drawing, coloring, and other art activities can be an excellent way to integrate SEL from the start of the year.
8. Share photos
Share a few photos from your own life. These can be pictures of your dog, a trip you recently took, or anything that is important to you. Each day, give at least one student the chance to do the same.
9. Check-in with feelings
An emotions check-in is a time to pause and feel our feelings. Help students build self-awareness and self-management skills with a simple emotions check-in worksheet. Bonus idea: Use these every day to help students identify how they’re feeling and what they need before starting class.
10. Make a gratitude list
Help students boost feelings of happiness and joy with making a class gratitude list together. Ask students to share what they are thankful for in their lives. List these in a document, on the board, or in slips for a gratitude jar to review later. You can keep adding to it as the year goes on.
11. Use SEL read alouds
Books serve as a simple and meaningful way to integrate SEL skills. The idea is easy to try; Choose any picture book from your library and read it aloud. As you read, stop and discuss that characters, their emotions, the problems they’re working through, and how they persevere to meet their goals.
Build your own SEL-focused library with this massive list of over 100 SEL read alouds.
12. Assign partner interviews
Help students build relationships with a partner interview activity. For this, pair students up. Allow them to ask each other relationship-building questions. Then, partners should share out to the class what they’ve learned about their partner.
13. Practice coping strategies
Coping strategies are the skills that help us manage tough feelings. Practicing coping strategies together in the beginning of the school year sets the tone that it’s important to manage your emotions in healthy ways.
From exercising and listening to music to reading and drawing, there are so many engaging coping strategies to practice with your learners in just a few minutes at a time.
14. Implement a SEL curriculum
Social emotional learning should be taught throughout the whole year. Choose a Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum that is comprehensive, engaging, and research-based.
15. Play board games
Board games inherently work on a number of social-emotional skills such as turn-taking, conversations, sportsmanship, and problem-solving. Have your students work in partners to play any board games you have in the cabinet!
16. Create a SEL bulletin board
Use social-emotional learning bulletin boards and posters as a reminder for important skills your students are learning. One of the biggest benefits to a SEL-focused bulletin board is that you can refer back to it throughout the school year to help integrate SEL skills during the school day.
Bonus idea: Make a SEL bulletin board a group activity by having your students help you put the bulletin board pages up!
17. Practice mindfulness
Use mindfulness practices to build a more calm and focused classroom. You can give this a try with taking a mindful brain break, practicing mindful breathing techniques, or mindfully listening to music while coloring.
18. Design a calm-down corner
Develop an area in the classroom where students can go to calm-down when upset. Set your calm-down corner up with meaningful calm-down tools to help kids get back on the right track.
19. Design vision boards
Have students build their self-awareness skills by creating their own vision boards. These should be a visual representation of what students want for themselves. If students are comfortable, sharing these vision boards can also be a fantastic way to learn about each other and build relationships.
20. Color by positive affirmation
Positive affirmations build confidence and teach meaningful coping strategies to manage stress. Use color by positive affirmation worksheets to build a positive voice from the start.
21. Assign classroom jobs
Classroom jobs build responsibility. Decide which jobs you would like helpers for such as line leader, attendance taker, and computer whiz. Then, put the plan in action to build your responsible learners.
22. Design and draw kindness posters
Encourage a positive classroom climate by having students work in partners or groups to design kindness posters. Students can come up with their own kindness slogans, images, and words of encouragement. Post these posters in the classroom or around your school.
23. Perform daily greetings
Daily greetings help students feel seen. Start each morning with simple greetings when kids walk into the room. Use a daily greetings poster to give options on how students can greet you and their peers.
24. Post whiteboard messages
Each morning, try posting a question on your whiteboard. As students walk in the room, they can read the question and chat with a partner. You can even have them journal about it. This serves as a simple and predictable quick way to build social-emotional skills every day.
Come up with your own daily questions or use this list of SEL whiteboard messages to get started.
25. Practice mindful breathing
Mindful breathing is a simple self-regulation activity that can set the tone for a calm and focused classroom. Some favorite breathing activities include “cool off the pizza” and “smell the flowers.” Once you give these breathing exercises a try, you can practice them anytime with your students.
26. Discuss SEL quotes
Quotes can be a simple and meaningful way to talk about social-emotional skills. Use your favorite SEL-focused quotes and discuss. For older learners, one idea is to have students research and find their favorite quotes to share with the class.
27. Try 5-4-3-2-1 steps to start the school year
Start the year off with a SEL countdown. Have students share: 5 words to stand for the new year, 4 activities they are looking forward to, 3 calming strategies they can use, 2 ways they want to grow, and 1 positive self-talk statement to guide them.
28. Discuss “what would you do?” scenarios
Integrate social skills from the start by reading scenarios and asking students to consider what they would do. You can make up your own scenarios or use social skills scenario cards to give you some ideas.
29. Circle Share
Stand in a circle and ask a relationship-building question. Toss a ball. Whoever gets the ball has a chance to share their answer to that question.
30. Make a class dream list
Encourage students to share their aspirations for the future. These can be anything from wanting to visit another country to hoping to make the baseball team. List these in a document or on the board.
31. Talk about the ABCs of SEL
From awareness to staying zen, there are social-emotional vocabulary for every letter of the alphabet. Talk about one each day to review.
32. Help in another classroom
Students gain a lot from helping others. Consider working with another teacher to pair up classrooms and have your students help others in need. For example, if you teach 5th grade, reach out to the kindergarten teacher and see when some student readers would be helpful.
Best of all, giving back to others helps strengthen the school community as a whole.