I know there are many teachers who just don’t have the time to read anything extra right now, but would love to include more social emotional learning into their virtual week. For those teachers, I have pulled together all of the student activities in one place. In order to not feel overwhelmed, I would recommend choosing just 1-2 activities to include in your curriculum this month!
These activities are organized by topic, so you can find them in the following order:
Curiosity, Mindsets, Self Awareness, Social Awareness, Self Care, Emotional Regulation, Calming Mind and Body
Feelings Board: Make a feelings board for your own students. You can do this using Padlet as I did, using your own digital tools…or simply make it an activity at the start of classroom chats, having every student share with one word how they are feeling.
Exit Slips: Use digital exit slips in your next class session to ask students what they most want to learn about a specific topic. Try to incorporate their ideas in your next unit.
Personal Projects: (Not a typical curriculum item, but especially helpful for emotional regulation and coping during this time of high stress) If your teaching team agrees, you could reduce workload for each course and jointly allow students to come up with their own project, something they would like to spend their time doing. Each teacher could take charge of one component – helping students set goals, make a plan, and checking in to see how it is going and if adjustments need made. I did this with my own kids over Spring Break – one chose to create a website for collecting people’s experiences during COVID19 (covid19capsule.org), one chose to study neuroscience, and one learned Scratch programming. It was a great form of mental engagement and inherently motivating.
Gratitude Journal: Begin a gratitude journal with your class. You can do this in numerous ways – you can use digital learning tools, ask them to complete one at home in a journal, make it simple or artistic. The practice of writing down what we are grateful for each day helps us to focus our attention on the positives in our life. A positive attitude helps us cope, and makes it easier to avoid excessive worrying.
Here is a link to one on teacherspayteachers but it costs money – fairly simple to make your own.
Gratitude Read-a-Loud: Choose your favorite picture book about gratitude and read it to your students, or record yourself reading it and post it for them. If you can find your book on Storyline Online, it will be read aloud by a celebrity and have beautiful illustrations to accompany it.
One book that works well for this is ‘Please, Please the Bees’ by Gerald Kelley – you can find it on Storyline read by Rashida Jones. It is an excellent story of gratitude and appreciation.
Everyday Heroes: For very young students, you could use this game to discuss gratitude for our everyday community heroes.
Mastery Orientation: Ask students about a time they did something well. Ask them to write a few sentences about what rewards they received. Ask them to think about what external praise they got for their work, and what internal rewards they felt. Ask them what else makes them feel proud inside themselves.
Growth Mindset Charts: Ask students to list sentences they have said or heard about their ability, and have them classify each as growth or fixed mindset on a chart. Have them convert fixed mindset expressions to growth mindset ones.
Growth Mindset Discussion Question: Ask students about something they used to struggle with, but now are good at. What are all of the things that helped them to improve?
Self Check-In: Using the Starfish/Tornado visual below, ask your students to check in about how they are feeling. Are they calm as a starfish, or agitated like a tornado (or have fun making up something in between!). Brainstorm a list of ways to calm back down when they feel agitated inside. Ask them to stop and think a few times each day about how they are feeling. It helps to give them a place to make a tally (worksheet, digital document) each time they remember to stop and check in with themselves.
Emotional Vocabulary: Ask students to process one emotional vocabulary word each week. Ask them to define it, comment on times when they have felt it themselves, and times they have seen others exhibit it. For example – ‘What is courage? What is a time when you felt courageous? When have you noticed others being courageous?’
Identity: For older students interested in personality as a component of identity, a basic starting point is on the topic of extroverts/introverts. This is an often misunderstood dichotomy, and it can help students to understand themselves better. Many are surprised to learn that being an introvert is not about being antisocial…it is about where we get our energy from. An interesting discussion point: many argue that these days, our society more publicly rewards people for being extroverted. Being in quarantine, we are seeing introverts thrive (relatively) and extroverts have a much more difficult time.
One of my all-time favorite TED Talks is this one, on the Power of Introverts.
Coping Skills: Take a ‘Coping Skills Inventory.’ Give students a list of activities that are often useful for coping with big emotions. Explain that people all around the world are feeling complex emotions – for example, a child may be happy they are getting to play more games with their family, but sad that their birthday party is cancelled. Ask them to check off which coping strategies most help them, and to brainstorm others that may help as well.
Sample List: Going for walks, Music, Sleeping, Family Movies, Online Communities, Connecting with Friends, Puzzles, Comedy, Audiobooks, Books
This site has some great printables.
Sesame Street and Big Emotions: For very young students, Sesame Street continues to have wonderful content about understanding and processing our feelings. Here is a very sweet song with Abby Cadabby about big emotions. Here is a link to activities and other Sesame Street videos on emotions.
Calm Down Spot: If possible, ask students to create a place that is just for them to sit and be calm. This is a great place to have ready for later in this course, when students will practice going there to cool down when their emotions become overwhelming. For now, it can just be a place to sit and think about how they are doing, and what they might need at that moment. They can keep a few books nearby, perhaps some coloring, or even a water bottle can be helpful. A favorite stuffed animal is always nice to have. My daughter keeps her ipod and headphones there to listen to some music when she wants to relax and reset and think about life.
Empathy and Appreciation: One fun way to build empathy is to give your students an ‘Acts of Kindness’ challenge. Explain that to do effective acts of kindness, students need to observe others and think about what would make the recipient happy – not what the student themselves would want. Ask students to document their acts of kindness, ideally in a way that can be shared with their classmates. For example, you could ask students to create short videos about their act of kindness using FlipGrid or to create Padlets. For older kids, share the Berkeley study on acts of kindness and their impact on happiness. The study discovered the greatest benefit to self came from doing 5 acts of kindness all on the same day, once a week every week for 6 weeks. Teenagers could even do my #fiveacts challenge on Tik Tok!
Social Detective: You can teach students active listening and observation of others by playing ‘social detective.’ Ask students to think of a situation coming up in which they will be interacting with others. At this time, it will most likely be other family members in their household. Have students draw the anticipated scene and place each family member in it. Then ask students to give each person a thought bubble, and to write in one thing that person might be thinking – something the person might be feeling strong emotions about or hoping for.
Another way to play social detective is to use picture books. Stop at an interesting scene and ask students to notice everything they can about the scene and the people in it. This can also be done with movies. Here is a sample worksheet from the Michelle Garcia Winner Social Thinking series.
Cry Baby: This is a simple ‘social detective’ type activity as well. Show students a picture of a crying baby, and ask them to think of all the reasons a baby might cry. This is particularly effective as young babies can not yet talk to communicate their needs, and so students must work hard to be observant and practice empathy skills.
Turtle Time: Ask students to sit and observe people by acting like a turtle. They should move their head around in a slow, exaggerated fashion. Ask them to write (or draw) everything they notice. Then ask them to think of a behavior that would be appropriate for them when entering that scene…and one that would be inappropriate. For example, if their brother is having a school video chat, it would not be appropriate to be loud as they enter that scene.
(They do not have to be turtles. They could be spies with binoculars, or anything else they can come up with!)
The Main Point: Host small group virtual chats, ideally with 2-4 students per session. Ask students to take turns sharing a short story about their day, and ask other students to listen carefully. Then have each student practice showing they were listening by identifying what they felt was a ‘main point’ in the story, along with an appropriate emotion word. An example might be, “It sounds like you felt really scared when your sister got sick.”
Same But Different: Tell your students a statement in a neutral tone, and then practice saying it in different tones of voice. Ask students to differentiate the possible emotions and thoughts of the speaker.
Feelings Cards: There are countless online resources for creating a stack of ‘feelings cards.’ These are simply a collection of photos of people expressing different emotions. Ask students to identify what they notice in the photo, helping them make careful observations. Then ask them students what they think the person is feeling. I enjoy doing this activity with gifs, as they show a bit more of the natural movements of a person’s body and face.
Whichever images you choose, please don’t use emojis for your feelings cards. They teach very little, as they are not realistic expressions and have no body language.
Connection: Students are in need of connection to their peers, and as teachers we can serve as facilitators for this. Schedule video chats with students in small groups of 2-4, and send out a sign up sheet ahead of time. This allows students to sign up for slots with friends they are missing. If that does not work well for your schedule, you can also create ‘break out rooms’ in Zoom chats to allow a few students to be together during a full class video chat.
Some ideas for games students can play together virtually are Simon Says, Guess Who, I Spy, and Twenty Questions.
Vulnerability and Belonging Discussion: For older students, just a great TED Talk that can be spun off into a discussion about connection: Brene Brown and the Power of Vulnerability.
Simple Self Care Practice: One very simple activity is to ask students to print out this handout, or something similar, and ask them to check off each item across the week.
Piloting Your Plane: This activity is a complex metaphor, but tends to resonate very well with young students. For a fun example of how to explain this analogy to students, watch my own videos here: Piloting Your Plane. (I made these today quickly to give you an example – the sound quality is not stellar. If anyone wants a better quality version to actually use in class, let me know and I can remake it.)
You’ll need to give kids some way to keep track of checking in with their bodies all day. Here is a sample worksheet you could ask them to use for this activity. Some other ideas: you could ask them to check in on a spreadsheet or document in Google Classroom, or use Padlets.
The script goes something like this:
“Imagine your body is a plane, and your mind is the pilot. Your mind is in charge of keeping the plane flying smoothly, without crashing. When you have tantrums, overreactions and large emotional outbursts, that is like your plane crashing. If you pay attention to piloting your plane, you can fly it smoothly all day.
Just like a real pilot, there are important gauges you can check to make sure you are flying smoothly all day. It is important to stop and check on your gauges all throughout the day. These gauges are:
Temperature: When you are feeling calm, you are in the green. If you check your gauge and it is green, you can go back to your normal activities. If you are in the red, that means you are very angry, frustrated, or upset for some reason. It is important to stop what you are doing and calm your body back down to green. Blue means you are feeling sad, or lonely, or disappointed, and perhaps could use a hug or something that makes you feel happier.
Fuel: Your fuel gauge measures if you are hungry or thirsty. Take a minute to check in with your body, and if you are running low on fuel, fill it up! Being hungry or thirsty can actually make our emotions overreact to situations.
Energy: Your energy gauge tells you if you are too full of energy, or perhaps too low on energy. If you are too full of energy, do some exercise and movement to help release it. If you are not getting enough exercise and movement in your day, then your energy gauge is going to get too full and could cause a crash. If you are low on energy, allow your body some rest – if not a nap, then perhaps reading a book or just relaxing on the sofa for a bit.
Weather: Your weather gauge tells you if your plane is going to run into some turbulence ahead! Think a little forward in your day – is anything coming up that might cause your emotions or body to not fly smoothly? Something exciting, or difficult, or a change of routine? Preparing for bad weather ahead can help you to handle it better.”
This analogy can extend further than teaching kids to check their gauges. Here are some additional pieces you can add on to this activity.
The Watchtower: The Watchtower is essential to flying a real plane, because there are events or conditions that a pilot cannot detect by themselves, even if they are very good about checking all of their gauges. Let’s take a moment to think who acts as our watchtowers? Often, this can be your parents or teachers, and perhaps even siblings. It is important to listen to our watchtowers about our emotional well being, because they often see things we don’t see ourselves.
The Rocket Ship: When something really big or exciting is going on, sometimes our everyday plane turns into a rocketship!! When this happens, it usually means our emotions are turbo charged!! This means we have to be even more careful about checking our gauges often, and taking care of our bodies all day. When we blast off for a big event, we have to look out for not only bad weather turbulence, but also asteroid fields and meteors!! When in our rocket ship, we fly fast, and that also means we can crash fast! It can be really helpful to take extra good care of your body when you are flying in a rocket ship.
Habit Tracking for Older Kids: Older students may not need the full ‘piloting your plane’ analogy, but they do need to learn about taking care of their bodies. For teens, a helpful activity is to ask them to track for themselves:
3. Screen Time (non academic)
4. Socializing Time
5. Outdoors Time
Ask them to draw connections between their activities and their feelings/energy levels. What is one habit they want to keep in their daily life to feel better? Have them set a personal habit goal and check in on it weekly.
Mindfulness – Nature Walk: One mindful activity that is often satisfying for young children is going on a nature hunt. Ask them to take a magnifying lens if possible, and to walk slowly around their yard or neighborhood looking for nature. They can analyze leaves, look for insects, find snails, notice spiderwebs…there is so much to discover. Ask them to remember the things they are seeing and to come back and journal them.
GoNoodle – not just for movement!: GoNoodle has a number of video series that are helpful for self care, beyond their movement and exercise videos. One that is good for self care is: Take on the Day,
Movement and Exercise: Since movement and exercise are so critical to emotional regulation and sleep quality, it would be beneficial to offer students ideas for how to stay active at home. To get you started:
Station Rotations (sit ups, jumping jacks, push ups, plank)
Games (tag, Simon Says, hide and seek, freeze dance, animal workout)
Dancing – zumba videos, Kidz Boop, Just Dance
Cosmic Kids Yoga or simple yoga on own
Mental Enrichment: Students may need mental stimulation beyond school work. It could be fun to brainstorm a list together of things students can do to stay busy beyond school, ideally without devices. To get you started:
Board Games and Cards
Helping parents with tasks or chores
Learn a new skill
Writing stories, poems, comic strips, etc.
Building (Legos, scrap materials)
Acts of Kindness
Problem Solving Wheel: Teach students to stop, calm down, and then think. Use this wheel to help them make a good choice for what to do next.
Bending the Rules: Try playing games but changing the rules of the game. This might be met with resistance, but if you can come up with rules that make the game slightly more fun, eventually it may be met with joy and curiosity.
Three Solutions: Students often come up with one answer, and then dig in their heels defending that answer or way of doing things. Ask students to come up with three possible answers to various questions or riddles. This is a very important skill to hone for group work.
Breathing with Cookie Monster: For very young kids, they might enjoy watching Cookie Monster use breathing to calm down and increase his patience while waiting for his cookies to be ready.
Yoga/Stretching: There are many printables available online of ‘animal yoga.’ These stretches are relaxing to the body. You can also find great story-telling style yoga at Cosmic Kids Yoga.
Calm Down Spots: I mentioned these earlier, but having a spot that students are used to using as a ‘calm’ area will also help them when agitated. Students can be asked to go to their calm down spots until they are back in the green, or at least the yellow. It should be explained to students ahead of time that this is not a punishment, being ‘sent’ to their calm down spot. It is merely a strategy that is very helpful for avoiding poor behavior when agitated. In this article, I give lots of advice for how we made a calm down spot at our home for my son. This includes building a ‘calm down kit‘ to keep nearby.
Breathing Shapes and Props: A unique way to practice breathing is to ask students to choose their favorite breathing shape. I have included one example here, but there are many different ways to practice deep breathing – often one style will suit a particular student better than another. Ask students to practice this daily, so that they build their muscle memory. Students who attempt to do deep breathing when agitated, without practice, often end up breathing far too rapidly and feeling more frustrated. This site also includes props, such as breathing with bubbles.
Exercise and Movement: As discussed in the unit on Self Care, exercise is great for emotional regulation. While a child who is very upset won’t likely be in the right state to go for a bike ride, taking a little walk or doing some movement in place, such as jumping jacks, might help them to work out some of their energy. Whatever movement they choose should not be one that requires much coordination. My favorite is to keep a balloon around, and to ask them to bop the balloon in the air and keep it up for at last 10 iterations. This helps their mind focus and clear, while also giving them an opportunity for safe movement. If something more aggressive is needed, students could try ripping up a pile of junk mail paper.
5-4-3-2-1 Grounding: For children who struggle with anxiety, it can be helpful to teach them grounding activities. 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding is a method in which you use all your senses to ground yourself in the moment. Ask students to list:
5 things they can see
4 things they can touch
3 things they can hear
2 things they can smell
and 1 thing they can taste
Here is a graphic you could use while practicing.
Accomplishments Box: Celebrating accomplishments can help build confidence, self esteem and optimism, all of which are helpful to staying regulated. Here is a fun activity for building an accomplishments box, which will help keep students motivated as well.
Finding Humor: Humor is often the secret key to help students return to a state of calm. Keep some joke books, comics, or even comedic audiobooks handy for when a child needs a pick-me-up.