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Teaching Tips

7 Creative Ways to Boost Social-Emotional Learning at School and Home

November 24, 2020

by: Cheryl Lundy Swift

7 Creative Ways to Boost Social-Emotional Learning at School and Home


During the past several months, teachers and families have been creatively meeting the many challenges brought on by the pandemic. Regardless of whether children are learning in-person, remotely, or a hybrid of the two, teachers and families are doing their level best to cultivate learning environments where children can be curious learners who feel supported.

Despite their best efforts, adults and children alike are under immense stress during these uncertain times. Finding ways to promote social-emotional learning of young children is vital now, more than ever before. To ensure that PreK children are confident and ready to successfully transition to Kindergarten, social-emotional learning must be a key focus for both teachers and families.

Check out our webinar to learn more about social-emotional learning in Pre-K

In this webinar, we explore five ways to keep Pre-K social, even in today’s unique environment. Learn how social-emotional learning can be a focus of both teachers and families as they help children build their readiness skills, developing the confidence they need to transition into kindergarten.


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What is Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)?

The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning (SEL) as the “process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships and make responsible and caring decisions.”


SEL is particularly important during a child’s early years because the skills are essential for long-term success in school and in life.  In fact, research studies show that children who have well-developed social-emotional skills are more likely to have better grades, fewer behavioral problems, and healthier relationships with others.

Here are 7 creative ways to boost social-emotional learning at school and at home.


1. Dedicate time to build social-emotional skills daily at school and home

Regardless of whether you are teaching in person, virtually, or a hybrid of both, it is important to build community through morning meetings. Morning meeting allows the teacher to greet each child by name and check-in to see how the child is feeling. During this time, children should be encouraged to share their feelings along with any other news or fun facts they want to share. During the morning meeting, teachers prepare a song or a fun learning activity to start the day. Learning Without Tears (LWT) has lots of fun songs and activities that are great to do during morning meeting. The song, "I’m Happy to See You" from the Sing, Sound, and Count with Me CD is a great morning meeting song and activity. Both the English and Spanish versions are available on the CD. As you sing each child’s name, consider displaying the child’s name on a nameplate or a virtual whiteboard or interactive whiteboard. Ask children what letters are in the name and if anyone else has those letters in their name. This will help to build social-emotional skills as well as alphabet knowledge and name recognition.

Families can do a variation of morning meetings with their children when they wake them up and help them get ready for their day.  Asking them how they slept, how they are feeling, and what they are looking forward to are great ways to help children communicate their thoughts and feelings. Other times that families can dedicate time to SEL skills is during or after mealtimes. Some children’s shows and cartoons are great at showcasing SEL skills. After the show or cartoon, talk about the characters, their emotions, and their actions. Check out this awesome clip of Janelle Monae on Sesame Street. They talk about the incredible “Power of 'Yet'” when learning a new skill.

2. Use music and movement to help children learn social-emotional skills, academic and readiness skills, gross and fine motor skills and to boost mood.

Music and movement are great ways to build social-emotional development, increase academic and readiness skills, improve gross and fine motor skills and boost your mood, especially during this time of social distancing. Set aside time during school and at home to sing and dance even if it is only for just one or two minutes. Consider dancing to popular songs like the "Cha Cha Slide" by DJ Casper, where children can learn directionality and learn to follow directions as they move to the beat. Or try fun songs like "Can’t Stop the Feeling," by Justin Timberlake, which encourages children to just have fun and dance, dance, dance.

Learning Without Tears also has some really fun songs that teach children important social-emotional and readiness skills while they dance and sing. The "Hello Song" from the Get Set for School Sing Along CD teaches children how to greet one another and to be social while helping children learn directionality. Be sure to modify the greeting when children are in a socially distant environment. The "Pattern Dance" song from the Sing, Sound, and Count with Me CD is also a fun dance song that teaches Pre-K children early algebraic and pattern skills. Dance parties are great to have at home, too. Play your child’s favorite songs and share your favorite songs too. Teach one another different moves to your songs. Consider making a cool dance video and record it on your phone. When moving to and singing with fun music, children release stress, build fine and gross motor skills, and learn important social-emotional and readiness skills. Be sure to have fun with it!

Our Get Set for School Pre-K Curriculum is right-sized for little learners

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This complete, research-backed Pre-K program combines purposeful play with multisensory experiences to provide children with an engaging, developmentally appropriate introduction to school.




3. Read a variety of books and discuss the emotions and actions of characters.

Books are a great way to help children talk about emotions and social interactions among characters. Books are powerful tools to teach children SEL concepts like empathy, gratitude, kindness, sharing, taking turns, and more. Teachers can read books that highlight interactions or emotions during circle time or dedicate a specific time of day to read an SEL book. Books are a great way for schools and families to partner. Sharing the titles of books that are read in school or at home are a great way to reinforce skills at home and at school.

While reading books is powerful, the discussion and conversation afterward can also be incredibly impactful. Ask open-ended questions before, during, and after the reading to get children to predict what is going to happen, to check on their comprehension throughout, and to find out what they learned after the reading. Be sure to explicitly teach important social-emotional vocabulary words so that children can use them when they express themselves. There are tons of SEL books to help teach children to learn how to identify and manage their emotions as well as how to interact with others and resolve conflict. Some great books include Jabari Jumps by Gala Cornwall, which teaches children how to overcome fear and Should I Share My Ice Cream? By Mo Willems.

In our new, complete Get Set for School Pre-K curriculum, we incorporate tons of books and fun read-aloud activities for teachers and families that reinforce a variety of concepts and skills, including social-emotional learning. Here is a list of books from our Get Set for School curriculum.

4. Allow children to draw, color, and act out their emotions

Giving children the opportunity to express their emotions in a variety of ways can be helpful to children who are still learning to express themselves verbally.  Drawing, coloring, and acting out their emotions are all great ways to help children learn to express themselves.  All of these activities can be completed at school and home.

Help children learn to draw and color a person with one of Learning Without Tears’ most beloved characters, Mat Man. Mat Man helps children learn to draw people and gives a foundation to help children be creative when they draw. Even as you draw and color, be sure to teach and reinforce proper grip as you help children with their fine motor skills. Check out this webinar to help children get a grip on grip. As children learn to draw people, help them learn different facial expressions. Explicitly teach the matching facial expressions people make when they are afraid, sad, happy, surprised, or angry. Have children mimic the expressions in the mirror.

Another Learning Without Tears activity that helps to reinforce fine motor skills and helps children build social-emotional skills is Feeling Faces. This activity has children, color, cut out, and glue Feeling Faces cutouts to popsicle sticks. These Feeling Face cutouts can be used while you are reading. Have students hold up the face cutouts when you ask them how a character may feel. Consider asking students to make the same face. As you use the Feeling Faces cutouts, remember to have left-handed scissors available for left-handed children.

Another way to help children learn how to manage emotions is through dramatic play. Children can act out the roles of characters they read about or can use puppets to do so.  As you read a book, have children act out what is happening in the story. Children have lots of fun acting out Learning Without Tears’ Robin Story from Line It Up. Also, give children a scenario and have them role-play ways they would resolve conflict, deal with a bully, or make a new friend.


5. Leverage social stories to build social-emotional learning

Social stories are brief stories that are used to teach children a specific behavior or concept. Although social stories are primarily used for children with autism or developmental delays, they are a useful tool for all children. Social stories help children understand social situations, expectations, and social cues. Families and teachers can use social stories to help children understand expected behaviors, work through interpersonal issues, and practice conflict resolution skills. Here is an example of a social story about riding a bike.  Social stories can be used at any time at school and home to help children understand concepts like how to share, take turns, or make friends. Using social stories is also a great way to help students who are learning remotely understand what to do to be ready to learn online as well as appropriate online behavior. Reading and listening to social stories provides a model for children on how to behave or what to expect in a given situation.

Consider making social stories that support specific students by using their picture or their name. For example, if a child is having a hard time separating from his/her family member when they are dropped off. Create a story with pictures of the child’s routines including saying goodbye to the family and greeting the family member when it is time to be picked up. Use social stories along with other strategies and revisit the story often.

6. Encourage social interactions with others – even if it is at a distance 

Children are social, and being social is how they learn many critical social-emotional skills. But due to the pandemic, many children have limited access to socializing with other children in person. If children are unable to safely socialize with others in-person, leverage technology so that they can be social virtually. Try setting up regular FaceTime calls, Google Meets, or Zoom sessions with other children as well as family members.

Like any playdate, schedule it in advance and be sure to decide on a start and end time. Practice using the meeting platform with your child, and teach him/her how to use the controls so they are more comfortable during the call. Consider using social stories to demonstrate how to interact appropriately online.

There are lots of fun playdate activities that your child can do virtually. Try some of these activities:
  • Dance off – Put on music that both children can hear. In Zoom, you can play the music through the platform so that children can hear it at the same time. Have children dance together or pass off the dance to have them dance one at a time. This can be a great time for children to follow the leader.
  • Share a Good Book – Children can share a book with one another. They can both pick the same or different books and follow-along. Consider an online book that is being read by someone else and sharing it on the screen.
  • Show and Tell – Have children share something that has been working on with their friend–like a Lego construction or a picture they have drawn.
  • Scavenger Hunt – This can be led by family members. This can help children share their favorite things. Children will be asked to go off-camera to find their favorite toy or a red item. Be sure to give children a time limit to find the item.


7. Incorporate brain breaks and mindfulness activities throughout the day

Brain breaks are helpful to children and adults; they allow children to take a break from thinking about a particular task whether at home or at school. When children are allowed to take a break, they are better able to refocus when they return. Brain breaks are a great time to allow children to move their bodies to stretch and reenergize. It is also a great time to get the sillies out by dancing or moving.

Participating in mindfulness activities are a great way to help children manage their stress and anxiety and feel calmer. Research studies indicate that mindfulness techniques can improve a child’s ability to focus and self-regulate. Breathing and visualization exercises are great ways to help children relax and be more present. Yoga and meditation can support children in being more aware of their own bodies and feelings. The following games can help children learn to self-regulate - Simon Says; Red Light, Green Light; Mother, May I; and Freeze Dance.

No matter whether children are learning at home, school, or some combination thereof, it is imperative that families and teachers dedicate time to incorporate social-emotional learning throughout the day. Families and teachers should explicitly teach SEL skills and allow children multiple opportunities to identify their own emotions and the emotions of others. Families and adults should use a variety of modalities to teach SEL skills like music, movement, books, social stories, and drawings. They must also remember that children learn from adult models and are constantly watching how we manage stress, conflict, and interactions with others.

Learning Without Tears has proven methods to help you develop children’s social-emotional skills.

Children need to feel safe and accepted in the classroom. Activities and literature included within our Get Set for School Pre-K curriculum focus on self-concept, self-regulation, personal initiative, empathy, and relationships with adults and peers to help children develop these social-emotional skills.

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