Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Role-Play as an SEL Teaching Tool

Skills connected to social and emotional learning can be taught using situations drawn from students’ lives.

March 30, 2017
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Before young people can begin to apply social and emotional skills in their daily lives, they need time to practice these skills and get feedback on their practice. Research tells us why: Social and emotional learning takes place in the brain’s limbic system, which learns best with practice, one-on-one feedback, and positive motivation. Role-plays are an excellent way to build practice and one-on-one feedback into our SEL pedagogy, and they are so fun that they usually help with motivation as well.

In addition to being aligned with limbic system learning, role-plays have many of the same benefits as other integrated arts and/or modal learning approaches: They help students process new information, deepen their understanding, and synthesize complex ideas quickly. When integrated into the teaching of SEL skills, role-plays can even provide scaffolding for higher-order thinking skills like analysis, prediction, comparison, and synthesis.

An effective role-play activity is different from “putting on a show,” in which performers are separated from a passive audience. Well-constructed role-plays are an exciting form of modal instruction that engage everyone in the class in all the learning modalities: kinetic, auditory, visual, and tactile. But to achieve this, we need a clear, conscious protocol for how to run a role-play and how to take advantage of each moment.

Make It Real

Invite students to share various conflicts they’ve experienced. Chart their answers and look for similar themes. Then choose one of the situations to role-play. Discuss what the people involved were feeling, and what SEL skills might have helped them.

Here’s an example: A chart of students’ recent conflicts might include the phrases “fought with brother over remote,” “fought with sister over whose turn it was to do dishes,” and “felt left out at recess when I couldn’t play dodgeball.” From this we can observe a common theme of disagreements with siblings. We might then choose to role-play the disagreement over washing dishes, asking the student who shared this example to talk about their feelings, and imagining the feelings of their sibling. Then we can brainstorm some SEL strategies that could have been used to solve the problem.

Make It Clear

Make sure everyone understands the scenario that will be explored in the role-play. Restate the problem and clarify what outcome the class hopes to see. Then decide which SEL skills the characters could use to try and solve the problem.

The adult leading the exercise can set it up in this way: “We will role-play the disagreement about two siblings fighting over whose turn it was to do the dishes. We hope to see the siblings resolve their conflict in a way that is satisfactory to both. The characters will use I-messages—which begin with ‘I’ and state the speaker’s feelings, beliefs, or values—to try and resolve the problem, and the audience will observe the characters’ feelings and the effect of the I-messages.”

Everyone Has a Job

Assign the actors character names and make sure they understand their roles. Even if students are role-playing a situation that’s based on real life, it’s important that the real names of the participants not be used. This will help everyone focus on the problem being explored, not the people involved, which is a key component of conflict resolution.

The job of the audience is to quietly observe the actors and think about the SEL learning targets. Making fun of actors, calling out while the role-play is in progress, or talking among themselves during the role-play are not acceptable.

Role-Play Basics

Have students call “Action” to begin the role-play. As you watch the role-play, keep the problem, the proposed solution, and the SEL learning targets in mind. Watch the actors’ bodies closely and call “Freeze” at a moment of heightened physical expression. This will create a visual tableau of the action, a visual learning moment. Use this tableau as a support for asking higher-order thinking questions.

For example, as the actors role-play the scenario exploring whose turn it is to do the dishes, one actor raises her voice and points at the other, saying, “You always leave it to me!” At this precise moment, the teacher calls “Freeze” and then asks the audience questions such as:

  • “Look at the characters’ bodies. What do you think they are feeling?”
  • “Based on what you see, what do you think will happen next?”
  • “What could these characters do differently, if they want to de-escalate the problem?”

After engaging in a back-and-forth dialogue about audience observations, predictions, and analysis, you can incorporate their ideas and restart the action. Finally, students can call “Scene” at the end to signal the conclusion of the role-play.


Once you and the students get the hang of role-plays and their attendant discussions, you can replay the same scenario with different actors, different approaches, and different outcomes. You can ask more higher-order thinking questions that invite students to analyze and synthesize the information. For example:

  • “How might this go if the characters used self-talk?”
  • “How might this go if the characters used I-messages earlier in the conflict?”
  • “How might this go if the characters used a softer tone of voice?”

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  • Teaching Strategies

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