Quick Tips for Including More SEL With Ease

How do teachers create a safe, nurturing, relationship-based environment for students when we have so little time to invest in it? Using “SEL Hacks!” SEL Hacks are stand-alone curricular components that can be easily incorporated into the classroom with minimal effort. Start by choosing just a few of these to begin with. As each component becomes ingrained in your curriculum, visit the MUSE website to find new ideas and learning units. The following ideas can be implemented in either virtual or in-person classrooms.

Feelings Board


Here is a feelings board that was created using padlet. This board could be part of any classroom environment, and you could invite kids to place their name under the emotion they are feeling each morning. Make sure you include your own name on the board each day, and teach students not to comment on each other’s entries. Having a feelings board shows students you care about their emotional health, and allows students to see that they are not alone in feeling anxious, stressed, sad, and lonely. It also increases student awareness of their own resiliency as they notice their moods shift back to the positive, which can help increase optimism. Lastly, this gives you the opportunity to quietly note which students seem to be struggling more frequently. These students would likely benefit from a one-on-one check-in. You could accomplish this virtually by private chats, phone calls home, or using apps like Seesaw that allow you to communicate with your students individually.

Classroom/Community Rules


Another great ‘first week of school’ activity is to discuss a set of classroom rules or community standards. The emphasis you place on this discussion will help you set up a safe learning environment for the school year. Use your preferred digital tool to collect a class brainstorm on the topic, allowing all students’ voices to be heard. For younger students, you might have them take turns offering suggestions. For older students, you might use a digital tool that allows for anonymous submission, allowing students to feel safer sharing their needs. You could compile these into a set of classroom values, and use those values to moderate classroom discussion boards.

Student Choice


One model example of student choice is Genius Hour, inspired by Google’s policy of allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on side passion projects. During Genius Hour, students are allowed to pursue their own learning objectives. The rules are simple: a) the student must develop a question; b) the question cannot be answered by a simple Google search, and c) there must be a final deliverable product.

Mindful Moments


Take a minute to practice deep breathing, guided imagery, sensory integration, mindful music, or movement. Mindful moments allow your students to check in with their emotions and their body throughout the day, an important step towards building emotional regulation skills. You can find meditative music in our calm zone!

Exit Slips


Exit slips can be used as a simple tool for seeing how students are feeling about class, or in general. Exit slips can also be a useful formative assessment tool for teachers, allowing insight into whether or not each student is understanding the concepts being taught. Offer students a few prompts at the end of the day, and have them log off only after selecting and answering one. The online learning tool Socrative offers many forms of quick engagement and on-the-fly assessments.

Virtual Classroom Etiquette


If your district is doing distance learning, one practical way to start off the school year is to have a conversation about virtual classroom etiquette. Here is an infographic you are welcome to use:

Teach children to show respectfulness and kindness to their peers, even via video conference. This means using non-disruptive signals, being on time and prepared as they would be to a normal class session, and respecting each others’ privacy.

See-Through Mask


If you are teaching in person, these masks that allow students to see your facial expressions will help greatly with creating connection.

Greetings at the Door


Practice greetings by the door, if possible, though without the hugs and fist bumps. Make mornings fun and relationship building — for example, you could ask students to do a little dance move that you mimic as they come through the door. Look each student in the eyes to help you gauge how they are doing that day.

Attendance Questions


If you are teaching virtually, smile and greet each student every morning by name. Ask attendance questions to get students sharing and connected to the classroom right from the start of class. An attendance question is a question you ask the entire class, that each student answers as their name is called for morning attendance. 

Morning Meetings


Having morning meetings is just as important now, if not more than ever.

"Morning Meeting is an engaging way to start each day, build a strong sense of community, and set children up for success socially and academically. Each morning, students and teachers gather together in a circle for twenty to thirty minutes and interact with one another during four purposeful components:

  1. Greeting: Students and teachers greet one other by name.

  2. Sharing: Students share information about important events in their lives. Listeners often offer empathetic comments or ask clarifying questions.

  3. Group Activity: Everyone participates in a brief, lively activity that fosters group cohesion and helps students practice social and academic skills (for example, reciting a poem, dancing, singing, or playing a game).

  4. Morning Message: Students read and interact with a short message written by their teacher. The message is crafted to help students focus on the work they’ll do in school that day."


Visit Responsive Classrooms for inspiration for morning meetings.

Relationship Building


Create break out rooms and pair students with random “recess buddies” — you could allow them to play digital games together, or interview one another. Another idea for building relationships virtually is to create virtual ‘dialogue journals.’ You could create a journal to write back and forth with each student, and also create journals for students to dialogue with their peers, taking turns in rotation. You can include a combination of SEL topics as well as academic check-ins in your journaling prompts.

Appreciation Circle


Teach students how to treat each other kindly by encouraging appreciations. One example of this is called an ‘appreciation circle,’ which is simply going around student by student appreciating the student next to them.  You could also have students design notes for one another using digital writing and drawing tools.

Conflict Resolution and Communication Skills


You can build student communication and conflict resolution skills by teaching “I Statements.” I statements are scripted conversations that follow this format:

I feel…


I need…

While this format often feels stuffy and unnatural at first, with practice you may find students attempting to use a more relaxed version on their own. For example, “I feel overwhelmed by the constant changes in expectations for teachers, and I need the administration to pick one course and stick with it for at least one solid month.”

The “I need” portion is critical; it allows students to practice self-advocacy skills. Teach students not to turn any portion of the “I statement” into an accusation, as that may make the listener feel defensive, which will cause them to be less open to what the speaker is saying. Examples of accusation statements:

“I feel like you are being mean to me”…switch to “I feel hurt and sad”

“because you are being mean”…switch to “because those words make me feel unwanted”

Emotional Regulation: Piloting Your Plane


The MUSE website has a virtual curriculum called ‘Piloting Your Plane,’ geared at early elementary age students. This curriculum uses the analogy that our bodies are like planes and we are the pilots. Our responsibility is to fly our plane smoothly without crashing. In order to do so, children learn to check their control centers throughout the day, including their emotional thermometer and hunger/thirst gauges. The curriculum comes with plenty of ready-to-use activities that could be easily integrated into virtual or in-person classrooms, creating a wonderfully playful yet highly effective common language. I recommend that teachers include parents and other caregivers in the teaching of this curriculum in order to create a common language at home as well.

Growth Mindset


Teaching growth mindset can also help students with emotional regulation. The concept of growth mindset helps students to normalize mistakes, treating them as part of the learning process rather than as a sign they are simply incapable of learning. For all ages, it is very beneficial to teach students to write down the fixed mindset phrases they catch themselves using, and then re-write these as growth mindset phrases. This simple practice teaches our mind to partake in a different, more positive manner of inner speech. You can find EmotionalMUSE's growth mindset here: Zany Brainy Can Learn Anything!

Calm Down Centers/Kits


Having calm down kits and either in-person or virtual calm down centers is very helpful for students who need to take breaks in order to remain regulated. Storyline offers a wonderful online library of books read aloud by celebrities, with beautiful animated graphics to go with them. Set up your own virtual calm down center, and teach students how to use it when they are in need of a break. If you can, include a virtual library and some soothing music in your calm down zone. Give students a signal they can use when they need a few minutes to calm down their body or mind.

Pre-Record Lectures


Allow students plenty of opportunities to feel heard each day. Keep your lectures to a minimum and allow for group games, break out rooms, and one-on-ones. One way to accomplish this is to record your lessons for students to watch asynchronously, so that more of your synchronous learning time is spent connecting with one another and practicing their learning. Motivation theory says that allowing students to use their voice, and additionally allowing them to make choices in their learning, increases engagement.


My Communities

This can be done as a brainstorm out loud or as a journal activity. Have students think about the communities they belong to. They can list communities that are externally driven, such as school, church, family, race, gender...and internally driven, such as interest groups, sexuality, and friendships. Have them think about how these communities impact their lives.

This activity has an additional benefit of raising red flags for those who don't identify as part of any communities. For those students, it is extremely important to build a trusted relationship with an adult at school, to help them feel a sense of belonging in their school community.


Turn Your Video On

This is a very fun bonding activity that can be done virtually as intended, or easily adapted to an in-class experience. Have students all turn off their video and only listen. Ask questions that are likely true of only a portion of the class, and tell students to turn on their video if the answer is 'yes' for them. If only a few students answer yes, that's a great opportunity to ask a follow up question.

For example, you could say, "Turn your video on if you went to a different school district last year." Likely only a few students will turn their video on. This would be a nice opportunity for those few students to share from where they are transferring.


Individual Check-Ins

To create trusting relationships, it is important to offer short, individual check-ins regularly, for teachers as well as for students. It is especially important to respect and elevate individual voices during this time period, to help each student develop a sense of belonging. This can help prevent secondary trauma and compassion fatigue. Here are some tips for effective 1-on-1s.


Relationship Mapping and Advisory Programs

This is not really an SEL Hack - more involved than most. But worthy of including nonetheless!

A schoolwide change many districts are undergoing is the addition of (or alterations to) an advisory program. The Harvard Graduate School of Education says, “There may be nothing more important in a child’s life than a positive and stable relationship with a caring adult. For students, a positive connection to at least one school adult — whether a teacher, counselor, sports coach, or other school staff member — can have tremendous benefits that include reduced bullying, lower drop-out rates, and improved social emotional capacities.” The Making Caring Common project has released a virtual version of their relationship mapping strategy for ensuring every child has at least one trusted adult at school to provide support each day. This program involves every adult at the school marking off on a shared spreadsheet the students they believe they have a close, trusting relationship with; which then allows schools to see who is missing a safe adult on campus.

Advisory programs are being scaled up to include multiple check-ins with advisees each week in order to better support students emotional, social and academic wellness.


Communication Is A Two-Way Street

This is simply a matter of re-thinking how you are currently communicating with families. Many teachers have built in a system in which they send some sort of weekly newsletter or daily Seesaw update home so that parents are connected to what is happening in the classroom. But these methods of engagement do not traditionally encourage response. One way to receive critical feedback from home, without the additional work of replying to extra parent emails, is to include a short poll in your communication home. This allows you to do a quick check in with home, see if there are any academic, social, emotional, or technological struggles happening from the parent vantage point, identify students who need more individual attention...all without having to respond to a single parent email! 


Room Parents: Building Community

Enlisting parent volunteers is a great way to maintain tradition, involve more parents, and accomplish some relationship goals without all the work falling to the teacher and administrators. Room parents could be very helpful with arranging small group social times, running virtual games during recess, reaching out to families to request feedback on teacher surveys, distributing materials throughout the year, and could even coordinate fun community building events, such as teddy bear hunts (have families place teddy bears in their windows and encourage kids to go on family walks to find them), penpals, and pay-it-forward random care package drop offs (one person drops off a random care package at a school members’ doorstep, with a note saying to pay it forward by doing the same for another random person). This last one can best be accomplished by including a class roster and having each person cross off their name once they receive a basket. You could encourage families to take photos with their baskets and post them on your classroom website.

Connections and relationships help to reduce the anxiety and stress that so often afflicts adolescence. This includes social anxiety, which has been heightened during the COVID-19 pandemic.​ The Socializing During A Pandemic series includes an explanation for teenagers about why socialization is important, as well as a number of suggestions for socializing online and in person safely.

Socializing During A Pandemic


MUSE was created by Monica Gupta Mehta, M.Ed., a Social and Emotional Learning specialist, in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Through this curriculum, Monica endeavors to provide virtual SEL curriculum that can be used with ease both at school and at home.

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