Deep Dives

5 Meaningful, Standards-Based SEL Activities for the Classroom

March 28, 2023
Jacqueline Pelliccio
Sustainable Education
5 Meaningful, Standards-Based SEL Activities for the Classroom

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is everywhere—and I’m happy to see the popularity of prioritizing social and emotional needs in state standards, district initiatives, professional development goals, faculty room conversations, and social media posts. 

Whether you are rolling out SEL because of a district initiative, exploring it on your own, or have always been on board, SEL doesn’t require a time-consuming overhaul to your teaching. Take a step back, and you’ll likely see that SEL is already embedded in the relationships you’ve built, your interactions with students, and the skills you model. SEL can be integrated into everything you already do.

Effective SEL implementation also includes explicit instruction—dedicated time for students to learn about, reflect on, and discuss SEL competencies. Again, this doesn’t require a major time investment. In this blog, I’ll share five simple but effective SEL activities that I’ve used in the classroom.

Where to Start?

Just like with lesson-planning, we can use standards or, in this case, core competencies, to guide SEL instruction. As a Jersey girl myself, I’ll be referencing the New Jersey Social and Emotional Learning Competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. If your state doesn’t have core competencies, that’s okay—they’re based on CASEL’s framework:

Casel wheel with rings labeled by Casels core values

Here are five activities that I’ve used to introduce and teach each of the core competencies. Start with an overview or focus on one at a time. Once you feel comfortable with that competency, try out another!

Feel free to use each activity as is, customize it to fit your students and their needs, or use it as inspiration to create your own SEL activities.

1. Self-Awareness

To help students recognize their feelings and thoughts (self-awareness), I posted a question privately and provided five numbers, emotions, or images for students to identify their current mood. 

This survey may or may not lead to a discussion; sometimes it’s enough to just acknowledge the feeling. If a student identifies a severe emotion or wants to discuss further, check in with them and offer other resources as needed.  

In my experience, students often voluntarily express their emotions. Sometimes, I’d notice a pattern in the survey results, and most students felt reassured and connected hearing that many of their peers were in the same mood. 

2. Self-Management

For the next NJ SEL competency, self-management, offer a way for students to “recognize the skills needed to establish and achieve personal and educational goals.”

Near the end of each marking period, have students complete a goal-setting sheet to reflect on what they’re doing to contribute to their grade (turning in assignments on time, organizing paperwork, utilizing feedback). This reflection can be as short or long as you wish. Next, ask students to set a goal to improve, listing three specific actions to get them there.

While students can show a lot of awareness about their actions and what they need to do, consider providing examples. You can extend this reflection by conferencing with students during independent work in order to build relationships, check their goals, and provide feedback and support. 

3. Social Awareness

Social awareness includes understanding the need for mutual respect when viewpoints differ.

A low-stakes starting point to practice respectful discussion of differences is to play “this or that.” Review classroom norms for respectful discussion and begin: football or basketball? Math or English? Xbox or PC? Use a short Kahoot or list options on Google Slides for students to choose “this” or “that.” You can also collect student suggestions or have students create the slides! 

When I heard audible reactions on some heavily debated topics—for example, math vs. English—I paused to model respectfully disagreeing or repairing through an apology since I (as an English teacher) may have offended the math-lovers. Students enjoyed finding commonalities with their peers and expressing their passions with respect for difference. This was good practice for higher-stakes class discussions and real-world scenarios.

4. Responsible Decision-Making

To address responsible decision-making, I started with scenarios. Use a short, engaging video that allows students to practice making hard decisions and reflecting on potential consequences. 

I showed Heinz’s Dilemma, which shows the consequences for three choices in response to a terminal diagnosis. In a reflection, students connected the scenarios to their own problems and to what we were learning about in class.

5. Relationship Skills

As an introduction to relationship skills, at the beginning of the year, I focused on practicing how to use communication and social skills to interact positively with others and prevent and resolve interpersonal conflicts constructively.

Fun community-building games and reflection questions can help students establish and improve their group dynamics and communication. One of my favorite activities is a balloon toss. In groups of three to four, students keep the balloon in the air for one minute without holding it. Play three rounds, switching up the rules (“use your nondominant arm,” “use only your head,” etc.) Between rounds, ask the groups to discuss what was and wasn’t working. How’s the team communication? What strategy would they like to try? 

Afterward, we debriefed, and students provided insights about knowing when to speak up, making sure they hear from everyone on the team, being aware of their surroundings, taking responsibility for their own mistakes and emotions, and being gentle with delicate things like balloons!

Core CompetencyActivityTime
Self-Awarenesscheck-in survey5 minutes, beginning or end of class
Self-Managementgoal-setting sheet15 minutes, end of a marking period
Social-Awareness“this or that” and discussion10 minutes, beginning or end of class
Responsible Decision-Making
video scenario and reflection or discussion10-15 minutes, beginning of class
Relationship Skillscommunity-building game & reflection7 minutes, beginning of class

As these activities show, including explicit SEL instruction in your classroom doesn’t require a big, drastic change. Start small and stay small, with five minutes here and 10 minutes there. The small investments in SEL instruction will lead to big changes in our students, the classroom community, and ourselves.

CASEL NOTE: CASEL does not offer an SEL curriculum or specific SEL activities. If you’re interested in finding an evidence-based SEL program that best meets the needs of your community, visit our Program Guide

Jacqueline Pelliccio is an experienced high school English teacher from New Jersey now working in training in the ed tech industry. She misses her students and loves teachers. Connect with her on Instagram @sustainable_ed_ and follow her blog, where she shares best practices in reducing and preventing burnout.

The views in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

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