Social Emotional Learning Activities

“Ugh!” (and insert eye roll) “You want to talk about feelings again,” is what my 12-year-old recently groaned. I hope that as you read my site and participate in the Facebook group, that there is so much more to social skills besides exhibiting the actual traditional social skills. Social emotional learning, which is yep, talking about feelings, plays such a huge role.

Merely adding IEP goals for social skills, without digging into social emotional learning or social awareness, really is putting the cart before the horse.

several school aged kids socializing outside

Some adults in our kids’ lives will take the “fake it till ya make it” approach to social skills. I’m not entirely comfortable with that. For one, if the child can exhibit the desired skills, it’s very likely that the goals will be removed from the IEP.

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And two, anyone can memorize a few interactions. But applying them across every social situation will backfire at some point.

For parents, I’m just going to say this here and get it out of the way. We have to be the ones to take control of this. It’s on us. Yes, please fight the battle with the IEP team if you get resistance. Yes, per IDEA and all case law, schools are responsible for teaching this to our kids.

But we don’t have time to sit around and wait for them to get it right. Take a two-pronged approach. Get the appropriate goals and supports added to your IEP. And, find or create programs and situations where your child can practice this. It is essential that if you want your child to have friendship vs acquaintances, you’re going to have to provide opportunities to practice these skills.

Social and emotional learning also doesn’t end in the classroom. We use them forever. Life SEL skills can help students pursue further and higher education, achieving career goals, and developing better relationships with family and friends.

By prioritizing the happiness and wellbeing of students, social-emotional learning offers an approach to education that values their autonomy and gives students from all backgrounds the opportunity to create positive habits; allowing them to grow into healthy and fulfilled adults. This is something we reviewed recently in a Facebook Live chat. You can watch it below.

Also Read: Life Skills for Teens

What is SEL Social Emotional Learning?

To fully understand Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), it’s useful to begin with a clear definition. SEL is the framework through which people of all ages acquire skills in working towards their own unique goals, comprehending and managing their emotions, nurturing positive relationships, making informed choices, and feeling and exhibiting empathy.

Social emotional learning activities are good for both students who have underdeveloped SEL skills, and those who have overdeveloped SEL skills. Overdeveloped may not be the right word–but I’m talking about the kids who feel every little thing, take many things personally, and get overly emotional about situations. It’s still social emotional learning and regulation, just opposite ends of the spectrum.

Learning SEL provides students and young people with the abilities required to succeed in life, both within their school and beyond. SEL is becoming more of a trend in schools, but it is still often overlooked. In my experience, school IEP teams are still largely only focusing on social skills. Social skills are the end product of a child who has successfully attained social-emotional learning and social awareness.

SEL chart

Think of it as “show your work” that teachers require for math. Once a math teacher knows you can solve the math problem, he/she may not require you to show your work. But, until you get there, they want to see all the steps in your thought process. This usually is not to “force” a child to think a certain way, but to ensure that their problem-solving steps are applicable to all scenarios.

Children, families, schools and communities all benefit when a child has a solid SEL foundation. And it’s never too early to start.

There are many agencies–both for-profit and non-profit, that provide frameworks and curricula for social emotional learning. However, it is not necessary for the average parent to purchase anything. I don’t want anyone to feel intimidated from getting started because of this. There are many everyday activities that we can practice these skills, in the child’s natural environment.

Social Emotional Learning Activities

First, I wanted to provide a list of activities that can be modified for any age group and any location.

  1. Reading with Leading Questions: Read or be read to, or audio books. Ask leading questions such as ‘What do you think about the face he’s making? Oh yeah? Why do you think he’s mad?’ Pepper your story time with questions about the characters’ emotional states, the clues to those emotional states and why.
  2. Daily Check Ins: We all ask our kids the same question every day–“How was school?” Ok, let’s kick it up a notch. Ask in the morning–What are you most looking forward to today? Ask in the afternoon–What was the best part of today? What happened today that was a challenge? How did you feel about it? What did you do? Bring emotional awareness into the conversation.
  3. Centering Techniques: Do these yourself and role model for your kids. Daily walks, yoga, deep breathing…what are some of your centering techniques?
  4. Attitude of Gratitude: Families don’t say Grace at the dinner table as much as they used to. But, even if you’re not religious, take a moment of gratitude. Thank the Earth, Mother Nature, or even credit yourself (you deserve it!) for providing for your family. Again, keep the focus on the emotional feelings and what brought you there.
  5. Watch a Soap Opera or Novela: As you’re flipping through the channels, pause on one of these if you come to it. Turn the sound down. Ask your child about the faces, mannerisms and behaviors on the TV. Relate them to emotions. Have them guess the emotion. Make up crazy stories as to why you think the person feels that way.
  6. Games: Board games, card games, 1:1….any type of game you play will have lessons to be learned. Whether it’s winning gracefully, losing gracefully, a cooperative game…games are something just about anyone can do.

Middle School Social Emotional Learning Activities

Middle schoolers can be so tough! Whew! But, that doesn’t mean that there are not opportunities for SEL all around us, at home or at school.

  1. Sports! Sure, some sports like Major League Baseball are experiencing a decline in viewership (Gallup 2017). But, despite that, more than 70 million Americans report that they follow one of the 4 major professional sports. And nothing gets folks more emotional faster than talking about their favorite team. Engage your tween in conversations about this, with some of the leading questions mentioned above.
  2. Mindfulness Activities: I have a whole separate post about getting into mindfulness with your kids. If your tween gives you resistance on this, try to find someone they admire who does this–like a sports figure or rapper. Many do!
  3. Old Photos: Look through old photos with your child. Either baby pictures of them, or ancestors. Talk about how they might have felt when that photo was taken.
  4. Reflection: Whether it’s the end of a day, or end of the week, have your child reflect on the activities and what stood out. And why, and how they felt.
  5. Talking and/or Listening: Yes, talking! Sure, many teens and tweens don’t want to talk to their parents. I get it. But some situations, like the dinner table and the car, are really conducive to both talking and listening. If your child isn’t in an “open up” phase right now, you can still talk to them about SEL, situations, etc. Even when we think they’re not listening, they often are.

High School Social Emotional Learning Activities

By the time some students are in high school, they may be ready to work as a peer mentor to others. Even if they have not perfected their own SEL skills, we learn by doing. Any of these can be adapted for the home or classroom.

  1. Visualization and Mindfulness: Try to pinpoint a distant sound and focus on it. Talk about what some emotions might look like if they were a person or character. (Yes, like Inside Out, heck, watch it!)
  2. Brain Break: Also known as a sensory break. But make sure that your teen is taking them. And, talk about the before and after. How do you recognize when you need a break? What happens when you don’t take one?
  3. Overcommunicate: Even if our teenagers won’t talk to us, doesn’t mean we cannot talk to them. My own parents felt that too many conversations were “only for the adults” then miraculously expected us to have these coping skills when we were adults. You know your own child and what they can handle, but bust through your own stereotypes and stigmas about what is appropriate to talk about with your teenager. Because, they learn from us even when we’re not teaching.

I hope that these lists of social emotional learning activities are enough to get you started. I’m a Gen Xer who was raised by boomers. We didn’t talk about feelings or emotions in my house. I think many parents who are in my generation are so afraid of doing the wrong thing, that we are frozen in indecision. But, our kids are learning all the time–whether or not we are actively teaching them.

So talk! Talk about emotions, talk about struggles. Talk too much, I mean it. If we teach our kids that they can’t come to us with the little stuff that happens in their days, they’ll never come to us with the big stuff.

More Social Skills

More Social Abilities Information

  1. 25 Games to Help Teens Learn and Develop Social Skills
  2. 78 Social Skills IEP Goals for all Ages, including Autism and High School
  3. 5 (free!) Evidence-Based Games and Activities to Learn Social Skills
  4. What are Social Awareness Skills? | Definition | Examples | EQ
  5. What is Social Emotional Learning? A Guide for Parents
  6. The Impact of Socialization in the Digital Age (video): FaceTime vs. In-Person Interaction with Dr. Stephanie Fields
  7. 10 Free Apps for Emotion Regulation and Social Interactions
  8. How and Why to Build Social Capital for your Disabled Child.
  9. Social Emotional Learning Activities | Middle School | High School

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