5 Back-to-School SEL Activities for Promoting Student Well-Being

Two teachers working with a variety of kids at a round table.

The first few weeks of school can be stressful for students – especially younger ones who need to get used to new routines, teachers, and classrooms. While you are trying to teach classroom procedures and introduce foundational ideas, they are wondering who they will play with during recess and when they get to go home.  Consider implementing a few SEL activities to help students regulate themselves during stressful times. 

You might notice that students act out more during the first few weeks of the year. Some students are still settling into the classroom environment after summer break while others are expressing their anxiety, fear, and stress. If you plan to make social-emotional learning (SEL) part of your classroom experience this year, it’s never too early to introduce it. Here are a few things you can do to kick off the new year. 


students learn differently when they feel differently


What is social-emotional learning? 

Before we dive into SEL activities, let’s look into what social-emotional learning is and why it’s worth introducing this concept to students. SEL is a practice to improve life skills for students to better understand their emotions and the emotions of others while controlling how they react to different parts of the world. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) breaks SEL down into five skills:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Responsible decision-making

Your students might combine these skills throughout the school day. If the cafeteria runs out of cookies before a student can have one, he can use self-awareness to identify disappointment and anger. His reaction to this is self-management. When a student considers stealing a cookie that a friend received but decides against it, he is practicing social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible-decision making. As students hone SEL skills, they can create a better classroom experience for their peers and for their teachers. 

Below are a handful of SEL activities that you can introduce to grow emotionally intelligent kids.   


1. Introduce the Feelings Wheel

Focus: self-awareness

The Feelings Wheel is a chart that breaks down emotions into seven categories: bad, fearful, angry, disgusted, happy, and surprised. From there, students and adults can dive deeper to give names to their feelings. Let’s look at this in action. 

  • A student says they feel sad. 
  • Looking at the wheel, a sad could feel lonely, depressed, or guilty. These are a few different sub-emotions they can choose from. 
  • If a student feels lonely, they could feel isolated or abandoned. 
  • This is how you learn that a sad student feels lonely because their friends played together at recess but ignored them. They feel abandoned by the people who were supposed to care for them.

Consider developing activities that introduce students to the Feelings Wheel. When a student is able to identify how they feel, they can better communicate their experiences to you and others.  


2. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation

Focus: self-management

This is an activity you can introduce to any age group without any supplies or budgetary needs. Spend five minutes each day walking your students through a guided meditation. You can turn off the lights or ask students to close their eyes to center themselves. 

The goal of this self-care activity is multi-fold. You want students to calm down after the excitement of arriving in the classroom or from lunch or gym class. You want them to identify how they feel, even if they only know that they feel good or bad today. Finally, you want them to build a habit of stopping before they get overwhelmed. By practicing meditation when they feel good, your students can tap into this skill when their emotions overpower them.  


3. Create Classroom Jobs 

Focus: social awareness

Your classroom is a small city and everyone works together to help it function. Consider developing a list of classroom jobs so every student has a task or responsibility to help their peers. The team at Truth for Teachers created 38 potential jobs for students, some of which require multiple helpers. You can choose which jobs are relevant to your classroom and how often you want to change them. 

For example, the recess monitor packs up the toys and balls to bring outside and collects them to bring inside. Without this student, the class won’t have games to play during their free time. By taking on different tasks, students can see how their role in the classroom matters. They can also see how each job is valuable, from the soap helper to the errand-runner. 


4. Play “Get to Know You” Icebreakers

Focus: relationship skills

Icebreakers are a great way to introduce students to each other on the first day of school. If you teach young students (like Kindergarten) they might be meeting each other for the first time. Even if your students know each other, there might be some new faces from kids who moved districts over the summer. 

Icebreakers contribute to relationship building because they teach kids to ask about others. They help kids learn that every person has similarities and differences between them. We are all unique, but we can still find common ground. 

There are dozens of icebreaker activities to choose from. One game is called Find Four. Students find four classmates that have dogs, or are born in October, or have blue eyes, or have younger siblings, or various other criteria. You can also ask students to form groups based on different criteria, to see which groups are small and which groups are large. 


5. Build Decision-Making Into Your Classroom Experience

Focus: responsible decision-making

Kids aren’t allowed to make many decisions throughout the day. They have to follow the school schedule, complete your lesson plans, and sometimes have to wear uniforms or the clothes their parents picked out if they are young. This makes it hard to practice decision-making and feel empowered to make choices. 

Look for ways for students to make decisions as a group and as individuals throughout the week. As a group, students can choose by voting between two books for a read-aloud. Individually, students can choose between three assignments and pick the one they want to complete the most. Even small decisions have benefits and drawbacks, so daily decisions show students how to weigh their choices. 

Another activity you can introduce for making larger decisions is the Pugh Matrix. Students list out their possible choices, highlight the pros and cons, then add up the points for each choice. The choice with the most points is the best decision. Here is a PDF with a sample chart.  

The goal of teaching responsible decision-making is to help students understand that what they want to do isn’t always the best thing to do.   


SEL Activities Can Be Big and Small  

You make develop a social-emotional learning lesson plan that lasts through the afternoon or you can build small SEL activities throughout the day. Teachers often introduce a big concept – like decision-making – through a detailed lesson plan and then reinforce it through small opportunities during the year. 

The ultimate goal is for students to practice skills like social awareness and self-management outside of the classroom. When kids don’t realize they are practicing SEL, they are more likely to carry these skills into their home lives and after-school activities. 

Ready to see student-centered learning in action?