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9 social and emotional learning activities to help kids thrive

Try these everyday social and emotional learning activities that parents and caregivers can use to help children develop key life skills.

9 social and emotional learning activities to help kids thrive

Social and emotional learning (SEL) may sound like a technical term, but its principles are simple. Broadly speaking, it’s the process through which people develop key life skills for managing emotions, working towards goals, managing emotions and maintaining healthy relationships. The good news is, anyone — including parents, caregivers and school staff — can teach and model this educational method, and the experts we spoke with say it’s essential that we do.

“Parents and educators worry about whether we have enough time for social emotional learning activities because we need to close that achievement gap,” says Michael Allen, a Chicago-based educational leadership consultant and former principal. “But we don’t have the time to not prioritize it. It saves time with discipline — if there’s a lack of empathy, that gets expressed in aggressive behaviors in school.”

“It’s really powerful,” Allen adds, “to see how social emotional learning can help us not only to make space for kids to become more academically sound, but to become healthy human beings who are able to enter the world and treat others with respect and dignity.”

Below are nine activities that you can initiate to help children with their social and emotional skills, beginning with those you can use beginning at toddler age.

Specific social emotional learning activities for kids

1. Discuss characters in stories

Helping kids of any age develop social and emotional skills can be as simple as talking to them while watching a movie or reading a book, says Cailin Currie, a developmental psychologist and researcher for Second Step, a social-emotional learning program used in Pre-K-12 schools. By encouraging them to imagine what’s going on in a character’s mind, Currie explains, you’re giving them practice with taking others’ perspectives — a key SEL skill.

Currie suggests asking kids questions that help them practice verbalizing emotions and analyzing others, such as:

  • “What do you think that character is feeling?”
  • “What clues help you figure out how they’re feeling?”
  • “What would happen if the character did X, Y or Z?”

2. Play feelings charades

Acting out feelings can be a way to help young kids recognize others’ emotions, says Amanda Justice, a licensed clinical social worker.

She says that beginning around kindergarten age, you can modify the classic game of charades. Using “feelings cards” that show pictures of people expressing various emotions, (which you can purchase online or make yourself), have one person act out a feeling while one or more other people tries to guess what it is. If they’re having trouble guessing, that helps you assess what they know and gives you an opportunity to help them learn.

“You can help to expand their vocabulary so they have more words to describe what they’re feeling,” says Justice, who often uses the activity with kids and says they really enjoy it. 

More advanced games that focus on developing social and emotional skills are available online through blogs such as Pathways 2 Success, though these are more appropriate for slightly older elementary school students (recommended age levels are listed on the purchase pages).

3. Mirror back emotions using words

Help children understand their emotions by simply watching their physical reactions and mirroring those back to them by using words and expressions. Justice uses the following examples to explain how this works:

  • “If their eyebrows are furrowing and [their eyes are] getting red, that might be a sign that they’re sleepy. So then you would mirror back to them by describing what you’re seeing, saying, ‘You must be sleepy right now.’”
  • “If you notice their cheeks are getting red, and they’re balling up their fists, you could say, “I see that your cheeks are getting red. You’re balling up your fists. You must be feeling really angry right now.”

By describing their physical actions with accurate emotional language, you’re helping them label their feelings. The goal is that as time goes on, they’ll be able to recall those conversations and make the connection themselves, thinking, “Oh, my fists are tight, my cheeks are red … Mommy or Daddy told me last time I felt that way it meant I was angry. I must be angry right now.” 

4. Lead guided breathing exercises

A big part of SEL is managing your own emotions and stress, and mindfulness exercises like slow, deep breathing can help kids as young as 5 practice this.

“An adult can lead a young person through it,” says Allen. “Have them breathe through their nose and hold it for a second, then breathe out through their mouths, counting down three, two, one.”

Practicing mindfulness can be a powerful way to help kids calm down, even if you only have a couple of minutes. It helps them develop self-awareness for when they feel overwhelmed but don’t have the language to describe their feelings. 

This skill can spill over into relationship building and even academic success, says Allen, who uses the example of a student feeling a surge of anger when a teacher picks up their test before they are finished. If the student can learn to manage their emotions, they can learn to articulate that they need a little more time rather than, say, flip over a chair.

5. Practice feelings check-ins

You can make “feelings check-ins” for both adults and kids part of the daily routine to promote self-awareness, empathy and relationship building. Regularly incorporating these kinds of conversations at moments like mealtime or bedtime are important, says Justice, because children learn by watching the adults around them and taking their lead.

“If a parent says, ‘I was sad today at work, and this is what I did,’ you’re normalizing that feelings are OK,” Justice explains.

She suggests telling children something like, “Here are some coping skills and strategies that I use.” 

6. Teach the benefits of journaling

“Journaling is an excellent way for kids to process and reflect on their feelings and emotions in a private, low-stakes way,” says Currie. “It’s a simple strategy to help kids feel calm and take control when they’re experiencing a strong emotion.”

Journaling can be a useful coping mechanism to help people of all ages learn to be more reflective versus reactive, or, in other words, to think through difficult situations before acting, explains Currie. She says this is key to impulse control and emotion regulation.

This strategy can even work for children who are still learning to write. “Just getting their emotions out of their bodies and onto paper, whether with words or pictures, can be a positive outlet, regardless of age,” says Currie.

7. Propose activities that challenge kids

Endeavors that require kids to get out of their comfort zone can provide opportunities to talk about skills such as perseverance, problem-solving and emotional management. Activities can vary widely depending on a child’s age and interests, including sports and other extracurriculars.

For kids old enough to draw, you can have them hold a pencil in their nondominant hand and try to sketch something, suggests Steve Mesler, a former Olympic gold medalist and co-founder of Classroom Champions, a nonprofit that supports schools in teaching social-emotional learning to students. This will likely be frustrating to them, so you can then guide them through talking  about what that feels like. 

“Struggle can be OK, and if you can empower kids — and honestly, adults — to understand this, then all of a sudden, anxiety issues go down because you don’t feel like a failure.”

8. Offer guided goal-setting

“It’s one thing to tell a child that goal setting is important,” says Mesler. “It’s another thing to actually help them learn how to set and work towards goals.”

You can adapt goals to be age-appropriate — a 3-year-old might want to learn to put on their shoes themselves, and supporting them may just be a matter of emphasizing the goal and encouraging them to stick to it. As kids get older, they may have bigger projects like a school test, and coaching them may involve helping them break down their goal into smaller steps like doing homework and studying.

9. Build empathy through hypothetical scenarios

Another journal activity Allen suggests is to give young people prompts that help them visualize what it may be like to be in another person’s shoes.

For instance, you could talk about a person being mistreated and invite kids to write down their thoughts to questions, such as: What would it feel like to be them? If you were them, what would you feel like you need? How could other people support you?

“The goal is to build empathy and compassion,” says Allen. “This helps young people get more proximate to the social or physical conditions that may impact another person.”