Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Activities in Early Childhood

Understand the benefits of social and emotional learning and how to incorporate it into your classroom.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Activities in Early Childhood

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Activities

As children grow and develop in school, most milestones focus on academic success. Teachers record or track when children have mastered certain skills, like learning the alphabet or understanding math concepts like addition and subtraction. But those academic milestones only tell half the story; the other half is about how children develop their self-confidence, sense of identity, relationships with others, empathy, and decision-making ability. These skills are honed through social and emotional learning, also known as SEL.

What is social and emotional learning?

These abstract concepts can be more difficult to track than concrete concepts, like math and science, that can be measured through testing. Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process of developing certain social and emotional skills that enable a child to succeed in school, work, and life. Those skills include comprehending and understanding one’s own emotions, having empathy for the emotions of others, self-awareness, self-control, making good decisions, having a positive mindset, developing a positive self-image, creating goals for their future, and more. SEL encompasses all the facets of emotional intelligence that make an adult capable of living a happy, healthy life. It’s the counterpart to their social and emotional development.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) was formed to incorporate evidence-based social and emotional learning into education from preschool through high school. The CASEL framework, or the CASEL wheel, provides the basic structure teachers and schools can apply in their education systems. It can also be used to provide learning standards and inform teaching strategies. The CASEL wheel can be applied to communities, caregivers, families, schools, and individual classrooms. The framework includes five broad categories of social and emotional learning:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

The skillset and growth provided by social and emotional learning extends to more than the five categories of the CASEL wheel. SEL is a broad concept, operating more as a perspective or philosophy. It also includes things like having a persevering attitude, a sense of belonging within one’s community, and a mindset focused on growth and positive change.

two girls sitting on a bed play holding a dinosaur toy


Why is social and emotional learning important?

The social and emotional aspect of learning is important for every part of a child’s development. Using SEL strategies in the classroom provides children with a safe learning environment to learn about themselves and how to treat others—something they will carry with them outside of school. The way that SEL teaches children to foster positive relationships with others and with their own identities can equip them with skills to succeed in the workplace and society. It gives them the confidence, emotional strength, and initial desire to continue learning, achieve goals, and continuously improve relationships. It allows them to reach their full potential as adults in their personal lives and career.

SEL is not only important for children on an individual level, but it’s also of great benefit to their larger communities. When more children are equipped with social-emotional skills, it creates a better environment for all children, teachers, and staff. Families can also benefit by forging deeper, more meaningful bonds with their children. Stronger families and stronger schools combine to create whole communities built on emotionally intelligent growth.

Research has continuously proven over the years that social-emotional learning benefits children. When the CASEL framework is incorporated into classrooms, it has frequently shown that negative behaviors decrease and the overall well-being of children increases.

How to use social and emotional learning in the classroom

Education focused on SEL can be weaved into every part of the school day. There can be activities that are specifically created to be SEL focused, as well as academic lessons that have SEL incorporated into them. 

The start of class can become an SEL moment with an inclusion activity that brings the class together. In lessons, it can be self-delegating roles or groups for activities or acting out scenarios with role-playing. The classroom should also have an area children can go to, like a calm-down corner, when they are experiencing big emotions or need a space for quiet reflection. 

At the end of class, focus on the importance of the classroom community the children are building and check in with how they’re feeling at the end of the day. Also, try to give them a sense of accomplishment after a long day at school. CASEL’s 3 Signature Practices Playbook offers more ways to incorporate SEL into the classroom.

Pros and cons of social and emotional learning

The goal of early childhood education is to help children learn and develop skills in four key areas—cognitive, language, physical, and social-emotional. Because of this, it’s hard to believe that there are pros and cons to social and emotional learning in the classroom, but there are advocates and critics on both sides of the argument. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant increase in SEL in education programs as nationwide, school, and district spending grew approximately 45% between November 2019 and April 2021. With this increase, critics would argue that SEL is best left to parents in the home while advocates believe that children need the support in the classroom now more than ever.


Advocates of SEL in the classroom believe in its ability to help children manage their emotions and promote academic success. Research shows that, when children experience negative emotions (e.g., stress, anxiety, fear, or sadness), it can negatively impact their ability to learn. Social and emotional learning helps build resilience in children

Emotional resilience is the ability to regulate emotions during times of stress. Not only does it help children understand why they experience particular feelings, but it also helps them successfully manage their emotions in healthy ways. For example, a child might talk their way through a problem instead of throwing a tantrum. Social and emotional learning helps children develop the emotional intelligence to understand and manage their emotions, leading to fewer behavioral problems. 

Social and emotional learning also helps children develop skills that are directly tied to academic success. When children experience positive emotions (e.g., happiness, safety, motivation), it can enhance their academic skills. These skills include confidence, verbal communication, and perseverance.


Some believe that a focus on SEL in early childhood education programs takes the focus away from academics. By building a curriculum that includes social-emotional skills, children are spending less time on subject-specific standards. Some social and emotional skills that preschoolers are introduced to in early childhood programs include knowing their gender, following rules, avoiding danger, managing emotions, and forming positive relationships with others. Critics of SEL believe it’s used to push progressive ideas on topics—including race and gender—that should be left to parents. 

Another critique of social and emotional learning in the classroom is that it decides which values matter. SEL is built on the five core competencies mentioned earlier—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. Critics are worried about who decides the meaning of these competencies and how they’re being taught to children. If a teacher uses personal religious values in responsible decision-making, does this create an opportunity to pass them along as they help children develop this skill? It could. Critics worry about how these skills are taught to children and how personal thoughts and biases may seep into the curriculum. 

Social and emotional learning activities

Children of all ages can participate in SEL activities, and there are plenty of simple yet effective ways to incorporate them into your preschool lessons. Activities should focus on the skills that SEL is meant to teach—games that encourage self-reflection, emotional growth, and increased understanding. For instance, for the “Describe Me” game, ask a child to share about who they are. Remind them of things you’ve seen them do and make suggestions; for instance, they may be helpful, generous, or patient. This type of game will build a child’s confidence by illustrating their positive traits, helping them to build a good self-image.

For preschool-age children, social and emotional learning activities will look like play. This makes it easy to incorporate them into their day because it may even be games they already play. SEL activities for young children will often focus more on their interactions with others than on self-reflection. A few examples are:

  • Play take-turn games: This may be any variety of sports or ball games, but taking turns initiates an acknowledgement of the emotions of others
  • Make emotion masks: With halved paper plates or other materials, have children draw on masks what emotions, such as happy and sad, look like from the nose down
  • Storytime: Read children’s books that include a variety of emotions and interactions that display social and emotional skills 
  • Focused breathing: Choose a short routine, such as a walk along a certain wall or tracing a finger along a certain table, and have children take deep breaths along the routine and then repeat it
  • Color-emotion matching: Have children assign colors to different emotions so they can use color association to remember those emotions

SEL is essential for child development

As part of a child’s larger development, their social and emotional growth should be equally prioritized. It may not be concrete like math, science, or history, but it can impact each part of the school day. The social and emotional skills children learn early on can benefit them far beyond school and support them throughout life.

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