Planning Social Emotional Learning Activities for Early Childhood

social-emotional learning activities

Social-emotional learning (SEL) plays a crucial role in the development of young children, teaching them the skills to navigate their emotions, build healthy relationships, and make thoughtful choices. As educators, it’s essential to incorporate intentional social-emotional learning activities into our classrooms to foster a positive and supportive learning environment and help all our students develop important social and emotional skills. In this blog post, you will learn the importance of planning social-emotional learning activities, different approaches to teaching SEL, and get practical strategies for effective lesson planning.

When to teach social-emotional learning activities

social emotional learning activities

Let’s talk about WHEN we teach these social-emotional learning activities and skills. It is important to frequently teach social-emotional lessons throughout your year – ideally, you could set aside thirty or so minutes (or more!) once a week for explicit social-emotional lessons. These would be lessons that you know students will need. You also shouldn’t wait for these blocks if an issue is arising in your class. If you are noticing that students really need help in a certain area, switch out an academic lesson for a social-emotional learning activity to help them with that skill. After all, students can’t effectively learn if they are struggling with their social-emotional skills. Remember too that you will address a lot of social emotional skills during morning meeting. This is a great time to practice the skills you have been learning about.

Social-emotional lessons can also naturally arise during moments of conflict. These moments offer powerful teaching opportunities because children are actively invested in the scenario. You can turn these moments of misbehavior or conflict into teachable moments by supporting students through the conflict. Also, you can use this exact scenario to then teach the class about this social-emotional problem area. You can read more about that here.

When NOT to teach a social-emotional lesson

When students are in crisis – when they are in an elevated and dysregulated state – this is NOT the time to teach them a social-emotional skill. Children (and adults) can not take in new information when they are extremely dysregulated and upset. Help them through this moment of crisis and then later, when they are calm, take the time to teach them the skills they will need. Find moments throughout the day, again, when they are calm, to practice these skills. The goal is for students to eventually be able to use the strategies on their own when they are in a crisis state, but they need to have learned them prior to that moment and had plenty of time to practice.

social emotional learning in the classroom

Planning for your social-emotional learning activities

I used to struggle with what to plan for teaching social-emotional learning. My schedule had time set aside for social-emotional learning and I would get to that block and find a blank box in my plan book every single time. Maybe I’d grab a book to read or think of a game to play. Or, I’d just let them play, because that’s social-emotional learning right?! Well, I decided enough was enough. I spent a summer planning out the social-emotional units I wanted to focus on in the year, and now you can use it too!

social emotional learning in the classroom

To guide my planning on what social-emotional skills to teach my students, I relied on Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) and their five areas of social-emotional learning. This is a fantastic resource for understanding all the many components that make up social-emotional learning. I took these 5 SEL areas and thought about what my students typically needed support with throughout the year and when. Each month I have a different focus. This helps me remember the social-emotional learning activities and skills I want to focus on and help my students with. No more blank pages in my plan book. No more purposeless activities. Now this time of my week is my favorite lesson to teach and I see the progress my students can make just from having purposefully planned out social-emotional lessons and time to practice those skills.

Here are my 11 key social-emotional learning activities focus areas:

1. Listening: Showing others we are listening and understanding the importance of active listening.

2. Feelings: Identifying feelings and regulating emotions.

3. Independence: Encouraging children to try things on their own.

4. Kindness: Promoting positive interactions and fostering strong relationships with friends.

5. Problem-Solving: Teaching children how to solve small problems independently and react appropriately to different problem sizes.

6. Persistence: Cultivating a positive, growth mindset and instilling the importance of not giving up in the face of challenges.

7. Thoughtful Choices: Encouraging expected choices and discussing their significance over unexpected choices.

8. Bossing My Body: Teaching self-regulation strategies to help children manage their behavior.

9. Cooperation: Guiding children on how to work and play harmoniously with others.

10. Respect: Defining respect, demonstrating ways to show it, and emphasizing its importance.

11. Empathy: Encouraging empathy by exploring its meaning, demonstrating empathetic behaviors, and highlighting its positive impacts.

HOW to teach social-emotional learning activities:

Now let’s talk about how to teach social-emotional learning activities! We want to make sure to explicitly teach the social-emotional skill and why it is important, give a model for this skill, either with a book or a video, and give children time to practice using this skill. In my free Guide 5 Steps to an Effective Social Emotional Lesson I go over the steps to an effective SEL lesson. I love using books to showcase characters using the social and emotional skill. It’s often easier for students to talk about the social-emotional skill if it is happening to someone else, rather than themselves. I have a whole list of my favorite social-emotional books related to the 11 skill areas. You can check them out here! Or you can skip the post and go straight to my Amazon list!

social emotional learning activities free guide

The real key to effective social emotional lessons is giving children lots of time and opportunities to practice the skill you are teaching them. I love to use puppets or let my students role-play to practice the skills. I also let them play with the focused goal of the social-emotional skill and I make a point to reinforce this skill in their play.

Want more help in planning you social-emotional learning activities? I have a whole bundle of activities, lessons, resources, family letters, visuals, and more for each of the social-emotional skills listed here!

The Power of Positive Reinforcement in SEL:

social emotional learning example

Positive reinforcement plays a crucial role in reinforcing the social-emotional skills you have been teaching them. By praising their social-emotional skills, we can motivate them to continue using them! When we see something we want our students to do more of, we should say what they are doing well! Here are some strategies to incorporate positive reinforcement into your classroom.

Use social-emotional challenges and stickers to showcase the specific skills you have been teaching them in their social-emotional learning activities. I have a few up in my classroom at a time to help focus me on what skills I want to specifically look for and reinforce. When I see a child using that skill, I give them a sticker and tell them exactly what they did and why it was important. You can read more about these stickers here!

Capture prosocial moments through photos and videos and discuss them with children. You can use them as examples for how to use the skills you have been teaching. You can also have students recreate these moments for the class and act them out for everyone. Either way, showcasing the students in your class in front of other students is a huge reinforcer for the students! It really shows everyone, this is what you want to see from them!


Planning social-emotional learning activities is an essential aspect of early childhood education. By incorporating intentional SEL lessons, we can help children develop vital skills that lay the foundation for their social and emotional well-being. Whether through predetermined planning or spontaneous teaching moments, it’s important to address social-emotional skills proactively and reinforce them consistently. Remember, the power of positive reinforcement and creating a supportive classroom environment can enhance children’s social-emotional growth and make a lasting impact.


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