How To Teach Social Emotional Learning To Young Students

social emotional learning in the classroom

Emotion drives attention, attention drives learning”
-Tim Shriver, co-founder and board chair of CASEL

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social emotional learning (SEL). “The process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

CASEL gives five competencies or skills necessary for resiliency and problem solving.


Relationship Skills
Responsible Decision-Making

Each of these competencies is broken down into interpersonal, intrapersonal, and cognitive examples.


The ability to know your emotions and recognize your strengths or limitations.

A child with strong self-awareness has confidence to approach a task without the fear of making a mistake. Because they have a “growth mindset” approach helping them know that they won’t master the task on the first day, but they’ll keep trying until they do. As a result, they are gaining the skills they need to succeed when faced with problematic situations.

Teaching Self Awareness

Maya Dorsey, the Director of Family Engagement and Community Partnership suggests honesty as the best policy with your children or students. They see adults as invincible. Communicating with students about the troubles you face will help them see that it is normal to struggle with uncertain circumstances. Use honesty so your students will use honesty.

As knowing your emotions is a component of mastering self-awareness, children need to be aware of the vocabulary associated with the different levels of emotions.

As a first grade teacher, my students often understand that they’re feeling uncomfortable, but knowing why is difficult. They’re capable of knowing if they’re mad. But they might actually be feeling frustrated or disappointed. 

calming strategy cards thumbnail

In an elementary classroom, showing pictures or photographs of children with specific emotions will help students make a connection to their own feelings and circumstances. Students can control their emotions because they understand their emotions.

Click to see my Social Emotional Learning products on TpT

emotion wheel

In upper grades allowing access to emotion wheels to explain the more complex feelings helps them specifically pinpoint their feelings accurately.

Once we teach our students about the different types of emotions, we can help them understand what led them to that feeling and the action they can take. For example, if a student is feeling frustrated with an assignment, they might think they’re feeling angry and throw their pencil on the floor. We can help them identify that they’re actually feeling frustrated. We can give them methods to alleviate that feeling, such as taking deep breaths, taking a brief break from the assignment, or asking for help. The goal is to model and guide your students through this process so they will be able to attain it on their own.


The ability to show empathy for others, including those from a different perspective as yours, and understanding ethical norms for behavior.

A child with strong social-awareness looks at others from a different background as their own and show empathy and respect toward them. They recognize social cues and behaviors in others such as facial features or body language. They understand how to approach a situation with another person based on the feelings they have.

Teaching Social Awareness

Intentionally modeling and practicing ways to identify emotions in others leads to students understanding appropriate behaviors toward their classmates. This can be done in conversations about conflicts on the playground or during a lesson in your classroom. It’s not necessary to have a separate lesson on social-awareness.

Picture book characters yield opportunities for younger students to notice emotions in others. Questions such as “What is making her feel that way?” during an interactive read aloud helps students practice empathy. Older students reading from the young adult fiction genre gain the same opportunities to identify with the character’s perspectives.

The Wall Street Journal states that fiction can be enjoyed on its own, but also allows us to have a sensitivity toward the characters in a book.  Empathy by the Book: How Fiction Affects Behavior

In younger grades, being very explicit in pointing out facial expressions and body language is beneficial to avoid misinterpretation of emotions. Their friend might be sad and withdrawn, but if they do not understand their emotional clues, they may confuse that behavior with anger and respond inappropriately. Older students benefit from role-playing and more in depth conversations about the different ways that people from other backgrounds or diversities react.

Relationship Skills

The ability to establish and maintain relationships with others.

Mastery of this skill means that students can communicate with their classmates, resist negative peer pressures, and handle conflict in a healthy manner. This promotes to leadership skills and future success in the workplace.

Once a child begins learning about self-awareness and social-awareness, then building relationship skills by interacting and engaging with each other is the next level.

Teaching Relationship Skills

Assigning partner based learning to your class is an effective way for students to practice communicating and problem solving with their peers. Rather than explaining what the end result should be, a teacher explains and models what an effective group looks like. Explicitly teach methods of solving conflict such as one partner not staying on task. Model what each role you would like the child to take. Pose a real-world problem to a group that they work together to solve. Teach “turn and talk skills” to younger children and model how to take listen and respond to their partners. These techniques foster trust with each other.

Besides partner based learning, teachers who meet their students at the door and call them by name are building trust. Telling the student “I believe in you” builds trust. You are doing these things already. Being aware of the positive impact of the simple things that you do on a daily basis helps you see their importance and continue to build that relationship with fidelity.

Responsible Decision Making

The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions. Being able to make a choice that positively impacts both yourself and others.

Students who master responsible decision making analyze the decisions they have made, understand the ethical implications, and evaluate possible consequences. They know their decisions affect their own well being and as well as others.

Teaching Responsible Decision Making

Using role playing and examples in your everyday lessons about choices people make can introduce responsible decision making. Children who are given the opportunity to think and reflect about what the consequences of their actions are, or how people may react are able to decide paths that benefit themselves or others.

Teachers who support children in their decision making instead of making their decisions for them are providing a learning experience for them. Brene Brown, author and speaker tells about a time that she gave her daughter the choice of swimming in a really hard event where she knew she would come in last, or “scratching” the event and not showing up at the blocks during the event’s start. She gave her daughter the choice, saying “You absolutely can choose. You have the power to do either. But let’s talk about what you’ll feel like afterward.”

Her daughter swam the event, hated every moment of it, but was incredibly proud that she was brave enough to get into the water.

How To Handle Responsible Decision Marking After It’s Over

After a poor decision has been made, conversations about their intent can help you understand what the child intended. What happened? Why did I do that? How did I make people feel? Can I do something to make it better? This helps the student realize that his or her decisions impacted not only himself, but his classmates, and teacher. This builds off social-awareness as it promotes empathy.

Was there something enticing about their choice? If so, you can choose a different way of presenting information to them. I had a student who loved to sharpen pencils. He would constantly get up and try to sharpen pencils in the middle of class. Instead of yelling at him and insisting he sits down, I told him if he could sit down during our math lesson, he could be the first one to have the job of pencil sharpener in our room. Changing my perspective helped. I first thought he was being defiant.

Turns out he was so enticed by the pencil sharpener, that nothing else could hold his attention. So when he knew that when he finished his math lesson, he could sharpen more than one pencil, it held his interest. This helped him make a positive decision instead of me making it for him, with no ownership on his part.

Consequences for student making negative decisions do not always need to be a removal from the room or missing a recess. Rather, giving a time to reflect and analyze their behavior helps them make a plan for the next time they are in this situation. Keep in mind that this technique is meant for small conflicts, and not dangerous decisions where the student needs to be removed for their safety and those around them.


The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in difficult circumstances. Effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself to work toward a goal.

Many teachers have a “calm corner” or a “zen-den” in their classroom to provide a safe place to practice self-regulation. Sensory items can be placed in this area. But students who are taught to “stop, think, and act” with visual clues like posters and breathing exercises are more likely to manage their stress in a short amount of time and return to their desks.

Given the opportunity, older students will cooperate. Ensuring their voices are heard gives them ownership of the situation.

These methods give the child responsibility and control of their behavior. Establishing these norms and routines as an alternative for shouting out eliminates classroom disruptions once they become a habit.

Teaching Social Emotional Skills

When I began my teaching career in 1998, social emotional learning was not a blip on my radar. I taught the curriculum, and if there was a conflict, I would separate my students and explain that I expected them to be kinder to each other. It didn’t occur to twenty-two year old rookie me that I had to teach them the skills they needed. I was always good with classroom management. But these conflicts kept happening. I found taking away recess didn’t help. And since I didn’t have an effective consequence, the behavior problems became a vicious circle.

Now, twenty-one years later, I’m more patient because I’ve had practice. I’m also more quiet and introspective. I’d rather look into my students motivation, rather than focus on their behavior. I’ve been practicing this for a number of years now, so it’s nearly second nature. I’m also human however, and it’s not easy to keep that stamina up. I still have moments of impatience when I don’t stop, think, and act. But when I look back at my first year of teaching to now, there’s a big difference. Even with a big increase of the problems children face, I know I’m more effective now than I was in the beginning of my career.

Where Do I Find The Time To Teach Social Emotional Learning?

This is my first complaint with ANYTHING new I have to teach. But understanding that the lessons I already plan yield to conversations about the competency skills takes the pressure off of my schedule.

Where Do I Start?

Visit www.casel.org. There are short videos explaining the competency skills in more depth than I have written here. You will find other resources to help you integrate social emotional learning into your classroom.

Work on building a classroom community with activities that your students enjoy, such as sharing with a Q Ball, or playing games to get to know each other

What’s My Buy-in?

As Tim Shriver stated, “Emotion drives attention, attention drives learning”. Students who are in a social emotional practice are learning to be at ease within themselves and in the classroom. When they’re not anxious, they will be able to concentrate on their lessons. When we, as educators meet their social-emotional needs first, we will be able to ready them for whatever academic goals they are striving for.


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