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Candra McKenzie

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Social-Emotional Learning Theory

The priorities and practices of the education system have been shifting for decades. These shifts revolve not only around the curriculum and classes schools offer students, but also around mental and emotional development and support. We’ve come a long way since the days of corporal punishment and dunce caps being used as teaching moments in schools—thank goodness!

So, how exactly are schools and other educational institutions changing their methods? This question can’t be answered without mentioning social-emotional learning theory (SEL).

The social-emotional learning theoretical framework has a large presence in many schools nowadays, and it aims to help students develop and excel at their intersocial and personal skills. 

Programs and lessons that focus on social-emotional learning for kids often concentrate on understanding and managing emotions and reactions to both their internal and external world. They may also revolve around the way we empathize with one another and on maintaining and building healthy relationships.

In terms of specific goals, SEL efforts are aimed at teaching children of all ages how to respond and interact, including:

  • How to treat others
  • How to control impulses
  • How to solve problems and get over hurdles
  • How to manage emotions
  • How to form positive relationships

In recent years, social-emotional learning has become increasingly popular in teacher and parent circles, as its primary goal is to help kids and young adults learn their role in the world while developing crucial personal skills that will help them as they age. 

Many previous generations had to learn these lessons the “hard way”—through trial and error in real life, with guidance from parents, friends, and mentors. Of course, today’s generations learn lessons in the same ways, but with SEL becoming popular in the mid-1990s, another useful tool was added to the mix.

Many teachers are looking to adopt the social-emotional learning theory into their classrooms and lesson plans to give their students the best possible chance for success in life. One of the best ways to pique the interest of younger students is with social-emotional learning activities for kids, as it makes lessons feel more like a game than a boring school subject. 

If you’re still wondering: “what is SEL?”, or if you’re interested in getting some ideas for SEL learning activities, keep reading. This article will share activities, cover SEL competencies and learning theories, and take a deep dive into a few controversies that surround them.

SEL Competencies

There are five core SEL competencies, or SEL skills, that outline the goals of teaching within this framework. SEL competencies activities are intended to provide a straightforward way for students to learn essential skills that will benefit them in real-life situations at home, in school, or in the workplace. Just like writing skills and mathematics formulas help students succeed in life, so does social-emotional mastery.

The five social-emotional learning topics that the competencies revolve around are: 

  • Self-awareness: The ability to understand and consider your own values, emotions, and thoughts and how they relate to your choices and actions. By improving their self-awareness, students will be able to identify their strengths and weaknesses and learn how to manage situations according to that knowledge.
  • Self-management: Here, the focus is on learning how to manage and regulate your emotions, thoughts, and behavior. Mastering this competency can help a person improve their stress management abilities and better their self-discipline and impulse control. 
  • Responsible decision making: With this competency, the aim is to teach students to make excellent and constructive choices that are based on their goals, values, ethical standards, and social norms. It’s focused on making children consider the consequences or benefits of their potential decisions and actions.
  • Social awareness: In other words, learning how to empathize with others and put yourself in another person’s shoes. Its purpose is to teach children how to look at things from others’ perspectives and understand the world from more than their own point of view.
  • Relationship skills: Without the ability to form healthy relationships, life is difficult. This topic is focused on teaching kids how to create and maintain positive connections with other human beings by learning about empathy, respect, boundaries, etc.

A fantastic graphic representation of these core competencies comes in the form of the SEL competencies wheel, which displays each topic clearly. Learning about SEL can be jumpstarted with the wheel to familiarize kids with each competency and what it means early on. This can also help you form a list of appropriate social-emotional learning questions for students based on their understanding of the concepts.

There are also many programs and curriculums that can be found online for those that are interested in implementing social-emotional learning in schools. With these, you can get inspiration to build your own SEL learning plan that fits your students’ age group and ability to understand and grasp the material.

Social-Emotional Learning Activities

With the rising popularity of SEL in schools, an abundance of social-emotional learning activities and social-emotional learning curriculum outlines have been developed for students of all ages. Some activities can even be done entirely online, meaning that the pandemic won’t get in the way of students’ SEL development!

With that said, let’s look at some social-emotional learning examples that you can adapt for students of all ages. 

Art lessons 

Creating art is a great way to relieve stress and express both positive and negative feelings in a healthy way. For example, play your students a song and ask them to recall how it made them feel as they draw or paint. Or, give students a fun writing prompt such as making a journal entry and switching out the color of pencils or pens they use to match the emotions they feel while they’re writing. 

The great thing about art activities is that you can adjust them according to the age of the class. Older students can do more complex exercises like discussing and creating poetry, while younger students can draw and paint. 


Developing a growth mindset is a crucial part of the social-emotional learning curriculum, and kids need to understand the importance of setting goals from a young age. Make goal-setting a regular occurrence in your classroom by letting kids define what objectives they want to reach every month and encouraging them to set small and achievable goals every day. They can track their progress in a journal.

Reading books

Reading can teach kids to put themselves into someone else’s shoes and empathize with a character’s situation and emotions. Discussing books and characters in a classroom environment is a great way to teach children important life lessons while showing them exciting stories that might make them fall in love with reading. Following a reading schedule can also help students learn about self-management.

Writing (and reviewing peers’ writing) can also help students relate to one another and better understand their own emotions. There are tons of creative ways to publish your students’ writing to make it more “real” to them and give them an outlet into the world. Six in Schools is an excellent option for classrooms that want to share and memorialize their writings while exercising their social-emotional learning muscles.

Creating an online community

It can be challenging to engage with students on topics that aren’t directly related to the classroom, especially if you’re teaching remotely. Providing an online community where kids and parents can ask questions or discuss fun projects and challenges gives the class a chance to build better relationships. You can also host fun online activities like trivia games to further deepen the feeling of camaraderie between the students.

Bandura's Social Emotional Learning Theory

Many social-emotional learning websites are dedicated to explaining Albert Bandura’s SEL theory. To put it simply, the theory’s main idea is to emphasize the importance of observing, modeling, and imitating attitudes, behaviors, and emotional reactions. 

Bandura argued that people could learn new behaviors and information by observing others. This type of learning is often called observational learning and can explain a wide variety of behaviors. Bandura stated that most human behavior is simply modeling and applying what you have seen someone else doing in situations you deem suitable. 

In one well-known psychology experiment, Bandura demonstrated how children imitate and learn behaviors they see in other people. As part of the experiment, the kids were shown adults that act violently towards a Bobo doll. Later, when that same group of children was allowed to play with the doll, they started imitating the same aggressive actions they observed from the adults before.

Bandura’s social-emotional learning theory can be seen in action in schools, homes, and on the playground. Children look up to adults, older peers, and even same-aged kids and imitate behaviors in different situations. This is one of the many reasons educators need to act as role models for their students.

Social-Emotional Learning Controversy

Though this article has focused on the positives associated with SEL, there are some arguments against social-emotional learning, most of which are based on the idea that teachers may be biased while teaching SEL lessons. 

Because there are so many curriculum programs and frameworks, it’s hard to know exactly how a teacher will implement SEL into the classroom and what effect that might produce on students. 

Some parents argue that it’s their job to help their children grow emotionally and develop social skills rather than the school’s job. Many parents say they don’t want a government program to teach their kids ethics and morals or directly impact their emotional development. There’s also a growing social-emotional learning controversy centered around the concern that SEL can be used to push an agenda towards children.

Further problems with social-emotional learning have come from studies that show it may be biased against Black students and other children from racial minorities, especially if the SEL lessons are part of the graded curriculum. As a result, some think that the SEL framework should only be implemented in schools when it is certain that students from different racial backgrounds won’t be subjected to unfair bias from teachers. 

There are pros and cons of social-emotional learning, just like with any other developing framework. Whether or not SEL is implemented in the classroom is entirely up to the teacher, the school board, and the parents. If you're a teacher that wants to add some social-emotional learning activities in the classroom, it may be a good idea to notify or discuss them with the students’ parents first for full transparency.

Real Classroom Success

“I’ve used Six-Word Memoirs in my class for many years and the limitation of six words forces students to break big ideas down to smaller bites, think deeper about their stories, and unlock personal expression. In my classroom, I’ve seen kids work through writer's block; in just thirty minutes they feel like they have accomplished something.”


“The six-word approach was a way for my students to express themselves without writing a long narrative, one that may not speak to the reader as strongly as their Six-Word Memoir. Above all, they thought hard about their word choice, punctuation, and how they could illustrate the emotion/tone they wanted to express.”

Ginger Giessler, M.Ed & teacher
New Tech Academy
Fort Wayne, IN 

"I’ve long been enamored with the Six-Word Memoir project. I’ve read all the books, written a pile of my own Six-Word Memoirs, and sometimes do my best reflecting in six-word increments. Six-Word Memoirs are a masterful way to tell a story and was the perfect way to have our students be part of an all-school writing project. As a staff, we believed a single writing project was a wonderful way to capture the voices, stories, and reflections of all our students. When we compiled all the student writing, we had 700 student stories told — in just 4,200 words — and every child could quickly and easily read the stories of their friends and peers. I'm not sure how we could have accomplished such an admirable feat without the gift of Six-Word Memoirs."

Jennifer Schwanke
Deputy Superintendent, Dublin City Schools

The day I used Six-Word Memoirs was the day my students came alive. Finally, being free to not only write long narratives helped them to discover the essence of themselves and the heart of their writing.”


Six-Word Memoirs bring out the best in my students. They are able to showcase their creativity and personal experience in a humorous, fun-loving way, but may also choose to display deeper, more complex emotions if they so choose.”

Sarah Nguyen, 6th grade English teacher
High Point Academy
Pasadena, Ca

“We often think of creativity as being open, free of rules with room to explore. But one thing that struck me when writing Six-Word Memoirs is that having strict parameters can sometimes lead to even more creative thinking!”

Paul Ackers, English teacher
Year 3 Brookes Moscow International School
Moscow, Russia

“Six-Word Memoirs is the perfect site to be ‘published’ while being creative.”

Hannia Dergongan Marohombsar, Year 8 and Year 10 First Language English teacher
National High Jakarta School of Piaget Academy
Jakarta, Indonesia

"The Six-Word Memoir is the perfect instrument for students to exercise their self-awareness in meaningful ways. Having this type of personal success on the first assignment of the school year sets the tone of the year on a positive and productive path."

Elizabeth Kennedy, 7th grade Academic Enrichment instructor
Riverwatch Middle School
Suwanee, GA

They feel liberated by having to only produce six words in a concise, poetic format. This is especially important to dyslexic students as they have experienced angst and ridicule surrounding written expression and quantity has been an encumbrance.”

Kat DeWees, teacher
Rawson Saunders School for Dyslexic Students
Austin, TX

“Six-Word Memoirs has just taught me that if you sit long enough with a kid and you ask the right questions and you challenge them in the right ways, you will hear a story that you probably never would have imagined."

Tabitha Cooper, Senior English teacher
Metamora High School
Metamora, IL

“Many students in our class shared deeply personal experiences in their Six-Word Memoirs, and sharing them helped to bring our class closer together and build a team spirit.”

Leah Ruediger, teacher
NYC’s P.S. 86
The Bronx, NY

“Six-Word Memoirs taught us a lot about our students and also taught the kids that efficiency of language can be a powerful way to make a point or share something poignant about themselves.”