George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Social and Emotional Learning

13 Powerful SEL Activities

Build social and emotional skills into any class.
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Summit Preparatory Charter High School in Redwood City, California, uses a variety of activities in the weekly, 90-minute Habits, Community, and Culture (HCC) class, where students learn Habits of Success and develop social and emotional learning (SEL) skills. The school has developed an HCC curriculum for grades nine through 12 and hired two full-time teachers for HCC, but Summit’s academic teachers also use some of these activities to build SEL skills and deepen their relationships with their students. Cady Ching, a biology and AP environmental science teacher at Summit, incorporates opening activities into all of her classes: “In my freshman classes, we do them every class period.”

Here are some of the opening, group sharing, and closing activities that teachers use at Summit:

Opening Activities

1. Mindfulness: The benefits of mindfulness range from improved working memory to stress reduction. Here are two ways Aukeem Ballard, an HCC teacher, facilitates mindfulness:

  • Visualization to release stress: Have your students imagine what stress looks and feels like inside their body, and then ask them to release it. “The mindfulness practice makes you think the stress is coming off your body,” says Geoffrey, a 12th-grade student.
  • Noise isolation: There are a variety of sounds that your students hear when they’re in your classroom, from students walking in the hallway to outdoor construction noise. Have your students focus on one noise and describe it to themselves and recall the last time they interacted with it.

To get more tips, check out Ballard’s “When Mindfulness Feels Like a Necessity."

A close-up on high school students standing back-to-back with their eyes closed.
A close-up on high school students standing back-to-back with their eyes closed.
Summit students practice mindfulness.

2. Name the emotion you’re bringing to class: Have each student call out the emotion they’re feeling. This helps each student know how they and other students are feeling, what different emotions look like, and how to better interact with their peers based on how they’re feeling. 

3. Write down, rip up, and throw away your stress: Have your students write down their expectations and insecurities, rip them up, and throw them away. This emotional check-in takes about three minutes. By acknowledging how your students are feeling at the start of each class, you’ll acknowledge their barriers to learning and create a safe space for your students to overcome them.

Eight high school students are standing in a row at the front of the class, each ripping a small piece of paper.
Eight high school students are standing in a row at the front of the class, each ripping a small piece of paper.
Ching and Summit students rip up their stress.

4. Growth mindset vs. fixed mindset share-out: Have your students share moments when they have demonstrated a growth and fixed mindset.

5. Quote of the day: Introduce a quote relevant to what your students are learning or to a shared experience—for example, an act of violence in the community. You can facilitate a whole-class discussion, group students into pairs, or have each student share a one-word response to the quote. This gives students the space to reflect on their beliefs and experiences and whether they agree or disagree with the quote and other students’ opinions, and it gives them insight into their peers’ perspectives and feelings.

6. Where we came from: Collect baby pictures from your students. Project one baby picture at the start of class, have your students guess who it is, and then have the featured student share something about their childhood.

7. Starting positive: Have each student tape a sheet of paper to their back and then walk around and write positive qualities about their peers on their backs.

8. Motivational moment: Have two students start the class with a three- to five-minute presentation—and come up with two or three discussion questions—based on their interests. The presentation must be related to the course content in a real-world context. “Many students include a video for visuals and increased engagement, but it’s optional,” says Ching. Have the rest of the class partner up to discuss their questions for one minute and then give them the opportunity to share out to the whole class. This exercise gives your students insight into their peers’ interests.

Group Sharing

9. Circle sharing: To encourage active listening, create small groups. Have your students position their chairs in a circle so everyone can make eye contact. To strengthen empathy, you can facilitate deeper discussion around what a student shares by asking, “Why did that student share what they did?” or “What perspective is that student coming from?”

When discussing emotionally charged topics, it’s important to have guidelines to foster a safe space. Summit uses the Courageous Conversation protocol created by Glenn E. Singleton when discussing race. The protocol is guided by four agreements—stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, and expect and accept nonclosure. Here is an example of elementary school discussion guidelines from School 21. 

Summit students sit in a circle for a whole-class discussion.
Summit students sit in a circle for a whole-class discussion.
Summit students sit in a circle for a whole-class discussion.

10. Write a poem from someone else’s perspective. Have your students choose someone they don’t know. This helps them to understand that they don’t “need to be best friends with someone to empathize with them,” explains Ballard.

11. Have a conversation with someone you don’t know. Have your students pair up with a student they don’t know and provide the pairs with five questions to ask each other. Each student introduces their partner to the class, speaking as if they were their partner, while the rest of the class looks at the student being introduced. “We don’t see people sometimes,” says Ballard, “and this exercise helps students to see each other more deeply.”

12. Play interest and identity-related bingo. Instead of squares filled with numbers or vocabulary words, create cards with information relating to your students. Summit’s Bingo cards have things like “‘I like to read’ or ‘I was born in a different country,’” says Armando, a ninth-grade student.

Closing Activity

13. Appreciation, apology, aha: Have your students get in a circle and share an appreciation, apology, or realization with the group. Students in Ballard’s class have shared things like:

  • I would like to appreciate Brenda for facilitating the conversation in our small group.
  • I would like to thank everyone for taking this class seriously.
  • I apologize to everyone for having my headphones in for half of the time.

Encourage authentic and timely apologies. Apologizing for something that happened a long time ago has less impact than apologizing for something that happened that day or week. Let your students know that they don’t have to name who they’re apologizing to when they apologize for what they did.

Help students share helpful, not harmful words. “I often say, ‘Appreciations, apologies, and ahas should be something that you genuinely think will be useful for people to hear,’” says Ballard.

Have your students snap, clap, or shake both hands when they hear something that resonates with them. “We snap to let people know that we hear them without exerting our own voice in their narrative,” explains Ballard. Students shake their hands when peers share things that are emotionally charged. Ballard often gets this started by saying, “Let’s shake it up for that.”

“When you pay attention to each other, not only does it build a sense of community, but we’re more able to understand other people,” says Janet, a 12th-grade student. “If you're able to understand people at a younger age, you could work better with them as adults. That changes how the future generations will be. People can be more accepting, more helpful towards each other.”

Why We Chose Summit Prep for Our Schools That Work Series

Summit Prep is a high-performing charter high school that leverages a personalized pedagogy and smart use of technology to help a largely underserved demographic achieve impressive results and success in college. With 68 percent minority enrollment and 41 percent eligibility for subsidized lunch, the school boasts a 95 percent graduation rate, which is 12 points higher than the national average for all students. And Summit Prep has a 99 percent four-year college acceptance rate.

In 2015, 58 percent of 11th-grade students in Summit’s district, Sequoia Union, scored proficient or above on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for English language arts. At Summit Prep, 82 percent of students scored proficient or above on that test. Summit students similarly outperformed both Sequoia and the state of California on the Smarter Balanced Assessment for math in the same year.

Furthermore, the school has a replicable model of instruction, as evidenced by its continued expansion—there are now eight Summit schools in California and three in Washington, and more communities have requested that Summit open schools in their areas. And Summit makes its innovative personalized learning platform available to other schools for free.

View a transcript of this video

Aukeem Ballard: Today we’ll be having some conversations that are going to take some courage for us to participate in.

Student: Some kids get out of school, go home, just to strictly do work. I don’t have the same privileges, because I need to go help my parents. Having this responsibility is kind of harder on me just because I have to worry about grades and getting into college and going to work just to actually help my parents out.

Aukeem Ballard: We have put a stake in the ground around building the whole student. Once a week students go through a curriculum meant to build out their capacity for emotional intelligence, habits of success, community, and building culture. Once we have those tools we are better equipped to navigate the next part of our journey as well as right now.

Penelope Pak McMillen: Our school’s mission is to prepare a diverse student population for success in a four-year university, but it isn’t just about making sure that our kids have content knowledge, that they can critically think. To truly be a thoughtful, contributing member of society you need to be able to have emotional intelligence, to understand people who are different from you, to have a wide perspective.

Aukeem Ballard: What is your story? What are stories that others have told about you?

I teach “Habits, Community, Culture”.

All right. What did we discuss?

This is essentially a course that seeks to grow students’ capacity to own, understand, articulate, and practice emotional intelligence skills, critical habits of success, as well as build a thriving community.

Aukeem Ballard: We’re going to do mindfulness practice. You’re going to want your feet shoulder-width apart. It’s going to start with breathing exercise, but then it’s going to go into a little bit of, like, mindful movement practice. Eyes closed.

Kiran: We usually open up the class with a five- to ten-minute exercise in mindfulness.

Aukeem Ballard: The mindfulness practice is more of the concrete practicing of some of the emotional intelligence skills.

Take a deep breath in.

Especially self-awareness and self-management.

And out. You’re just going to focus on your breath and trying to hold the focus.

It’s more about giving the students space and opportunity to kind of quiet down for themselves and reflect on where they’re at with things.

Whatever you’re feeling simply acknowledge it without judgment.

Kiran: The ability to step back from our day-to-day rush and, like, really reflect into ourselves about how were we feeling, are we okay with how we’re doing?

Aukeem Ballard: Because we’ve given time to this, students come in and say, “Mr. B, tell me we’re doing mindfulness, because I got some stuff I need to think through.”

That’s the goal: You can recognize and manage your emotions!

We’re going to do some group in small works and really hear people’s stories and give space for their stories. Make sure your chairs are actually in a circle as long as everyone is facing everyone.

Aukeem Ballard: Those small group conversations that we have, part of the background intent is strengthening the empathy ability because one of the emotional intelligence skills is being able to recognize the emotions of others in the room.

Geoffrey: When I go into a store a person told me to empty out my backpack, because he thought I stole something. But I didn’t have anything at all. And then I had a police stop just asking me what am I doing. I would just be like, “I’m just coming back from school.” And it’s kind of hard to see how, like, even when someone’s dressed differently how, like, you can get judged on that, even though you try to do your best. You know?

Geoffrey: It’s important to talk about, you know, the struggles in life, because it clears the mind and then you feel like you’re ready to start again.

Kiran: You really do need a lot of emotional intelligence for that class, because these are all, like, a lot of personal stories coming out about people’s identities. Because of the social and emotional awareness that we are taught in HCC, I’m able to develop stronger relationships with my peers at Summit.

Aukeem Ballard: Now stand in a circle while we do our brief shout-out. It’s appreciation, apology, or aha. My aha is that a lot of folks in here have pieces to their story that they may think aren’t important parts, but actually are important parts.

We usually have some sort of closing activity and it really plays a special role when you’ve gone through something that is emotionally difficult for some people in the room.

So, can we get a few people to shout-out an appreciation, apology, or aha?

Student: I’d like to appreciate Brenda for facilitating the conversation in our small group.

Student: I’d like to thank everyone for taking this class seriously for all the stories.

Carlos: I apologize for having my headphones in half of the time to everyone.

Aukeem Ballard: Thanks a lot of that, Carlos. That means a lot.

Those types of appreciations or community recognitions can go a long way to build the bonds.

Janet: We all are striving to, like, become good students and, like, just do well in our community. If you’re able to understand people at a younger age, you could probably work better with them as adults. That kind of just changes how the future generations will be. Like, people can be more accepting, more helpful towards each other.

Aukeem Ballard: They are going to the outside world, which I have no control over, and I want to give them every chance possible to soar and swim and play around in the pool if they want to.

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Yanglish's picture

Those ideas are very useful and important for educational success. Wonderful advice and tips for any educator.

Bob Bowman's picture

I am assisting my school in piloting SEL approaches. Before we begin, we want to gather data so later on we can validate whether SEL has made an impact, and if so, how. Are you aware of any pre and post assessments that are being used to help us in our project?

Thanks in advance!

Youki Terada's picture
Youki Terada
Research and Standards Editor

Hi Bob,

Anchorage School District has an excellent tool for measuring SEL skills in students: http://www.asdk12.org/media/anchorage/globalmedia/documents/sel/SEL_Stan...

If you want an idea of what kind of standardized data to collect, check out CORE's tool. The last chart of the document lists useful SEL indicators (such as chronic absenteeism, climate surveys, etc.): http://coredistricts.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/CORE-informationshee...

More info on CORE: https://edpolicyinca.org/sites/default/files/SEL-CC_report.pdf

Finally, you'll definitely want to check out CASEL's District Resource Center: https://drc.casel.org/
CASEL is a leader in SEL implementation and can be a valuable source of information and support.

Good luck, and let us know if there's anything we can do to help.

Peter Poutiatine's picture
Peter Poutiatine
Senior School Selection Coordinator

Bob - great question. I concur with Youki above. The only other things I can add are:

1) WestEd's Healthy Kids Survey is excellent. They have a number of different modules, including a Social & Emotional Health module for both elementary and secondary levels. http://chks.wested.org/ It was developed for California but there is good info on the site about administering it outside of CA.

2) Youth Truth (http://www.youthtruthsurvey.org/) does a great job with a number of different kinds of surveys. A call or email to either or both of those orgs would likely yield a terrific solution.

Would love to hear how it goes. It is so important to measure the outcomes you intend!

Gagan's picture
Gagan
A junior high math, science and physical education teacher.

Great share! This reminds me of the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. I absolutely agree that there is a need for students to develop social and emotional literacy. Teaching this in schools is important because it is a precursor for success in learning. It emphasizes a holistic approach to education. I haven't considered how to implement this in my classroom, but our school has weekly health classes during which we address different topics on personal and social wellbeing. SEL would be a great topic to bring into health class (and let it spread from there)!

Gagan's picture
Gagan
A junior high math, science and physical education teacher.

Do you know of any training or professional development opportunities that help teachers gain proficiency in leading SEL in schools?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi, Gagan! Depending on your grade level, I'd suggest checking out Responsive Classroom (Elementary), Developmental Designs (Middle), or the Critical Skills Classroom (k-12). All three are easy to Google and may be just what you're looking for!

Tinnycua Williams's picture

This was an awesome video. I work with after school programs and am wondering what recommendations you have related to conducting the activities for a younger age group like Elementary or Middle School?

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Tinnycua, many the activities listed can be adapted to younger grades, especially mindfulness, naming emotions, the write-rip-throw, quote of the day, baby picture, starting positive, poem, conversation with someone you don't know, and appreciation-apology-aha. You'll likely need more scaffolding than you would for high school, but they're all doable.

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