Integrating social emotional learning skills is a critical element to any classroom. These are the skills that help learners understand their strengths and challenges, recognize emotions, become socially aware, develop empathy for others, build meaningful relationships, and make positive decisions. Truthfully, the skills listed are only a fraction of what social emotional learning encompasses, but it is enough to highlight how important these life skills really are.
In every classroom all over the world, integrating social emotional learning is a necessary method to helping kids and young adults become successful. Add distance learning into the equation and SEL takes on even more importance. Normally, in the classroom, learners are engaging with peers, starting conversations, working with partners, developing friendships, learning the social rules, resolving conflicts, problem-solving, and learning to make positive choices along the way.
This year, for many, is different. Learners won’t have access to all of those natural social-emotional situations in the classroom. And while it isn’t a perfect situation, it’s worth highlighting there are many ways to integrate social and emotional learning skills virtually.
Below is a list of over 30 strategies, ideas, links, and resources (many that are free) to build social emotional learning skills from a distance. This list is purposefully long to give lots of choices and options for educators. Instead of trying to do everything, choose a few strategies to implement and see where they take you.
Strategies for Integrating SEL Virtually:
1. Start the day with virtual greetings
Greetings are always a healthy way to start the morning with students. Teaching digitally is no exception to this! Before starting your lessons or activities, take a minute to do virtual greetings such as an air first bumps, heart hands, or an air high five. You can choose a daily greeting or let your students pick. Use this free visual with daily greetings to get started.
2. Develop a mindful morning practice.
The start to the morning can mean everything. Take 5 minutes and begin a mindful practice to help learners develop a sense of calm. You can do this with different activities, such as mindful breathing, practicing gratitude, and using positive affirmations. I developed a free mindful morning routine that incorporates these techniques and more.
3. Use break-out rooms for team-building.
Kids and teens need practice working together. This builds a number of social emotional skills, such as conversation skills, conflict resolution, problem-solving, perseverance, and teamwork just to name a few. Breakout rooms can be a great way to allow students this partner/group time. One important tip is to be explicit as to what you want students to accomplish during their group time. Have them come back and share their progress or provide you with the work to allow for accountability.
4. Start with morning meeting.
Morning meeting is a semi-structured time each day that gives students the chance to talk, share, and learn new skills. It’s intended to be fairly short but meaningful. So often, this can be one of the best times to integrate SEL skills. After greetings, discuss a social emotional skill and give kids practice with it. For example, if you are learning about self-awareness, have students reflect on waht makes them unique. Give them the chance to share some interesting things about themselves or words that describe who they are.
If you’re not familiar with morning meeting, read here about how you can get started in five easy steps.
Not only does this build on critical social emotional learning skills, but it promotes a positive community too. Every classroom (in person or digital) can start with a morning meeting. You can design your own daily morning meeting times, or use these morning meeting activities I’ve developed (and this set for elementary kids too!).
5. Use discussion starters.
One of the simplest strategies for integrating SEL skills is just talking with kids and young adults. Ask them what words best describe them, what goals they have for the future, and to describe someone important in their lives. Not only do these questions build meaningful relationships among you and your learners, but they give you valuable insight to who students are and what they need. Use these free relationship-building questions to start building those relationships right away.
6. Host a weekly show-and-tell.
Kids and young adults need to share about their own lives! During distance learning, so much “down time” is taken away, from the quick chats before class to the lunch discussions with peers. Give students some of that time back with a scheduled weekly show-and-tell. Allow time for students to share something they’ve done, a new activity they’ve tried, something they’ve learned, or anything else.
What’s important is that this shouldn’t have to be connected with academics. Allow kids to show off their dirt bike, take a tour of their house, showcase a new trick they’ve taught their dog, or talk about how they beat a level in a videogame. This share time is essential to building confidence and a positive classroom climate.
7. Use journal writing.
Journaling is a healthy way to integrate social emotional skills into the academic classroom. There are multiple options for using a journal to support SEL skills. Start with a topic your students need, such as learning about feelings or making positive choices. Create daily prompts for kids to respond to. Then, give time to discuss as a group to allow for shared learning. Use this SEL Journal to target social emotional skills throughout the entire year or make your own!
8. Schedule weekly check-ins.
While whole class and small group meetings are important, individual check-ins with students can give a great deal of insight about how they are doing. Schedule short weekly check-ins with students to ask how they are doing, what’s going well, and what they need help with. In some cases, teachers may not have the time or flexibility to meet individually with all students (especially educators teaching large groups or caseloads in the upper grades). If that’s the case, meeting individually can at least be a targeted intervention for the students who need a little bit extra support along the way.
9. Give non-digital brain breaks.
During distance learning, not everything needs to be digital! Give non-virtual brain breaks to help break up the academic work. Assign activities like coloring, journaling, making a gratitude list, taking a walk outside, going on a scavenger hunt, and doing a chore at home. Use these free printable mindful coloring activities to start!
10. Play games.
Games are another brain break that can also serve as a way to teach SEL skills. Play BINGO to work on attention and listening skills. Use charades to work on social cues. Play Simon Says to practice attention, listening, and self-control.
11. Use read alouds.
One of my favorite ways to integrate social emotional learning is using read alouds and picture books. This can be done a few different ways. First, you can choose a book using this list of 100+ read alouds for SEL skills. The list is organized by SEL skill, making it easy to target a skill your students need.
The other option is just to choose any book you want. You can almost always integrate 1-2 SEL skills just by talking about the characters’ emotions, their perspectives, what problems they are working through, and how they persevere in the end. There are a number of YouTube videos with books already read aloud for you and your students, or you can read live during a meet.
12. Watch videos.
Videos and movie clips are a fun and engaging way to work on social emotional learning skills through distance learning (and in the classroom). Just like with literature, video clips give the chance to talk about emotions, empathy, perspective-taking, problem-solving, perseverance, and more.
13. Teach SEL skills explicitly.
Teaching social emotional skill explicitly is always worth the time it takes. In a perfect world, learners would come to class with skills for showing empathy, working well with others, and persevering through challenges. As educators, we know that’s not always the case. Teaching skills explicitly means talking about a skill, teaching what it means, why it is important, and giving meaningful practice so that students can build on that skill.
I recently created a digital social emotional learning workbook for students to learn about SEL skills like empathy, respect, organization, attention, teamwork, and more. When activities are more fun and interactive, students are more likely to engage and learn.
Spend time talking about one skill each day to help cover the SEL skills your learners need for success. Just one more important note: you don’t need to be an expert on SEL skills to teach them to your students! It’s better to start and learn together than never start at all.
14. Model flexibility and perseverance.
As educators, kids and teens are always looking at us as a role model. Even in difficult circumstances (and maybe especially in difficult circumstances), it’s important to model flexibility and perseverance. Be mindful of the words and tone you use when discussing distance learning. Even though a distance learning situation is far from perfect, the mindset you start with sets the stage for how students deal with the situation too.
15. Use digital tools to help kids share ideas.
There is an endless amount of digital tools for teachers and students to use during distance learning, from Zoom to Flipgrid to Seesaw and Screencastify. Choose a program or platform that can help students share ideas and collaborate, something that is essential for kids to build relationships, confidence, and problem-solving skills. With the help of some amazing educators, I’ve compiled a list of digital tools that help students share ideas and build relationships. Rather than getting overwhelmed with all the new technology, try to start with 1-2 ideas and start from there.
16. Practice and model coping strategies.
Managing emotions is always an important skill, but probably even more important for kids right now. Spend a few minutes each day (or week) practicing coping strategies together. These are activities like listening to music, practicing mindfulness, exercising, and coloring. It’s important to give learners a variety of skills to practice. As individuals, we all have different strategies that work best for us. By practicing coping strategies together, this can help students find the activities that work best for them.
You can even help students create their own coping strategies notebook. Choose a strategy, have them list out the steps, and they can add a picture of themselves doing that strategy. This is a teaching tool, and a support for later on. Students can return back to their coping strategies notebooks to remind them of calm down skills in the moment.
17. Use positive affirmations.
Positive affirmations are the positive words we say to ourselves. These words can provide assurance, encouragement, and support through tough times. Positive affirmations can be a healthy way to start the morning or even act as a coping strategy in stressful moments. By using positive thinking, students can build confidence, calm emotions, and refocus for the day. Use this free positive affirmations list to help students develop a positive voice and make their own lists.
18. Use brain breaks between tasks.
We all need breaks sometimes, especially after looking at a screen for hours. Make sure to integrate brain breaks in between tasks to give students a quick reset before moving on. During a break, you can play a game (like Simon Says or I Spy), play a quick video, exercise together, or just have an off-topic chat. Not only are these breaks essential to everyone’s social and emotional well-being, but they also provide another opportunity to build relationships at a distance.
19. Integrate SEL skills in academics.
Every teacher is a teacher of social emotional skills! When you are intentional, it can be much easier to integrate SEL skills into what you’re already doing. Before starting group work, take a few minutes to remind students what group work looks like and sounds like. Before taking a test, practice mindfulness to help kids clear their minds and start fresh. These are just a few simple and quick examples of how you can add SEL skills into your every day.
If you need ideas for what skills to focus on, use this free printable social emotional learning skills at a glance page to help. It covers several skills for every domain of social emotional learning from self-awareness to decision-making.
20. Assign art, crafts, and other non-digital activities.
Arts and crafts are an option educators can use to break up the monotony of screen time. So often, art can be an excellent way to work on SEL skills. Have students make their own self-collage to showcase their strengths and talents. This builds self-awareness and confidence. Learn more ideas about using art activities for social emotional learning.
If you’re looking for more activities to use right away, I’ve developed a set of activities to target social emotional learning with art.
21. Host special days.
Host special days to create a positive climate for your learners. Days like “pajama day” and “crazy hat day” shouldn’t be just for the classroom. You can choose to schedule these days or add them in an an incentive along the way.
22. Allow students to share work.
Kids and young adults need time to share their work with each other. This can be a positive way to build confidence, work on public speaking, and allow students to get outside their comfort zones. Using platforms like Zoom and Flipgrid can be a helpful solution to allow student discourse and sharing of work.
23. Respect boundaries and privacy.
It’s important to mention that when educators teach students from a distance, they are in the homes and personal lives of their students. Some students may not be comfortable showing their home or even their face through certain platforms. It’s critical to respect those boundaries and privacy in a difficult time. If needed, meet privately with students via online platforms or a phone call instead of requiring students to be on camera.
24. Send snail mail.
A quick and simple handwritten message to your students can mean a lot. Consider sending out snail mail to students with a positive message to provide encouragement and confidence through their distance learning journey.
25. Assign SEL activities as homework.
Sometimes, time doesn’t allow for all the social emotional skills to be taught during school time. When that happens, consider providing additional practice as homework for students. If you are teaching about kindness, assign students to complete 1 kind act and then write about what they did. If you are learning about decision-making, have students draw themselves making a positive choice.
Use this yearlong set of SEL choice boards to provide additional practice as you need. It includes over 300 unique learning activities in the form of engaging choice boards as students learn about skills that matter most. If you want to take a peek, you can even get started with this free set.
26. Use digital task cards.
Task cards are often a favorite in the classroom. During distance learning, they don’t need to be forgotten. You can use digital-friendly task cards to work on social emotional skills. Try these free social problem-solving task cards to get started. You can read them with your students, discuss, and have students add their own individual responses to show what they’ve learned.
27. Use digital calm down tools.
Virtual calm down activities such as apps, games, and animal live cams can be a tool to help students regulate emotions in the moment. I’ve added several free links to help you get started!
One of my favorites, though, is this mindfulness digital workbook filled with activities from A-Z that help kids and teens calm down.
28. Teach about adversity.
Going through a difficult situation requires perseverance and resilience. One of my favorite ways to teach about adversity is researching famous athletes, actors, and others who have persevered through challenging times. For example, Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Imagine what might have been if he had given up! This is such an important lesson for students as they are coping with challenging times of their own. You can also explicitly teach about overcoming adversity with this free workbook.
29. Practice mindful breathing.
Mindful breathing is one of my favorite techniques for managing emotions. It’s one of those skills that kids and teens (and yes, even adults) can practice anywhere and anytime. Use fun and engaging mindful breathing exercises like “Cool off the pizza” to help these techniques stick in the minds of young learners. Learn more about breathing exercises you can try with your students in person or virtually.
30. Give choice.
Students need choices to build independence. When working on academic work, provide options for how students can show you what they’ve learned. For example, allow students to write a journal entry or create a video. You can also give options for the topics kids are covering. If your goal is for them to write an essay, allow each student what they will be writing about. These are just small examples that can have a big impact.
31. Create a kindness challenge.
Kids and young adults love challenges. Create your own kindness challenge to help students practice compassion and empathy for others. You can get started by teaching kindness with a free activity.
32. Practice gratitude.
Practicing gratitude helps boost self-awareness and positive feelings. It’s a healthy technique to teach kids and young adults to start their days in a more positive place. You can even use this as a brain break. Have students take 5 minutes and list 5 things they are thankful for. These can be silly or small things, like feeling thankful for a certain candy they like. Gratitude statements can also take on a bigger meaning, such as feeling grateful for family, friends, or a comfortable bed to sleep in. Best of all, this is a practice you can do every day or once a week.
33. Discuss daily SEL topics.
Social emotional learning skills are so important that they should be talked about every single day. Spend 10 minutes each day discussing important topics, like empathy, confidence, self-control, integrity, friendships, and everything in between.
Simply put, there are enough SEL skills to cover an entire year. I know this because I developed this yearlong set of SEL prompts and discussion starters to highlight skills from self-awareness to decision-making. It is distance-learning friendly, but can be used on the whiteboard once you are back in the classroom too.
34. Take virtual field trips.
Even if real in-person field trips are off the table, virtual field trips can be a positive experience for learners. A number of museums, farms, zoos, and landmarks offer tours that can help students see the world without ever leaving their house. Good Housekeeping compiled this list of virtual field trips from Ellis Island to Mars.
Even though the actual field trips may not explicitly teach social emotional skills, these skills can be integrated right into the discussions as you learn together. Consider what the setting is, what the social expectations might be, how students might prepare for actually visiting that place, what interactions they might have, and more.
35. Schedule weekly reflections.
Take a few minutes at the end of the week to reflect on progress, growth, and plans for the incoming week. This gives students a chance to feel proud about what they did well, own their mistakes or mishaps, and make a goal for the future.
36. Stay in touch with parents.
Keep parents involved in a positive way. Give a friendly reminder what social emotional skills you are targeting this week. You can even suggest a few activities at home kids can do to practice those skills. Most importantly, though, check in with parents to see how your student is doing at home and what they might need. That relationship (like all relationships) is going to play a huge role in student success.
37. Use apps to build SEL skills.
There are a number of interactive apps and web-based games to work on social emotional skills from a distance. Use Conversation Planner to work on building conversation skills and Stop, Breathe, & Think to work on emotions and mindfulness. These are free, but there are also many paid apps to support SEL as well. Read more about different apps to support social emotional learning.
38. Practice and model self-care.
Self-care is important for everyone, including educators. Model self-care by spending the time you need on yourself. That most likely means setting up boundaries for when you will and will not be available to support students at home. It also means giving yourself time to take a walk, exercise, read, and spend time with family. If you need more reminders, grab this free printable self-care for educators poster. You matter.
39. Use digital lessons and activities.
While I’ve mentioned lots of free (and paid) virtual lessons in this post itself, I thought it was worth sharing that I’ve got a lot more! A huge goal of mine recently has been to add digital content into my social emotional learning resources to provide extra value to educators whether they are working in the classroom or at their computers. I recently wrote another article focusing on SEL activities for the virtual classroom (and yes, it includes 9 amazing freebies you can use right away!).
This list has taken on more strategies than I had originally planned, and I’m so happy to give many options to educators working through distance learning. If you have another suggestion I haven’t written about, feel free to reach out!