5 ways to infuse SEL activities into your summer school classroom

Summer school often offers opportunities for smaller class sizes, letting you spend more time with each student. This makes it the perfect time to infuse social-emotional learning (SEL) activities into your classroom lessons. Not only will this enhance what you’re teaching, it will help improve the emotional well-being of students so they’re better prepared for anything. 

Below you’ll find five ways to pair academic learning with student development. These include SEL activities that are designed to help students put CASEL’s five core competencies into practice: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building, and responsible decision-making. Practicing these core skills will help create the foundation for lifelong learning. 

1. Use games and icebreakers to foster community 

The first few days of class are always daunting. Especially in summer school, students may find themselves in a new classroom full of unfamiliar faces. For anyone who is shy or timid, this can be an uncomfortable situation. Before you jump right into lessons, take the first few minutes of each day during the first week of class to break the ice with games. 

Before you jump right into lessons, take the first few minutes of each day during the first week of class to break the ice with games. 
  • Elementary students are usually bursting with energy. Get students moving and interacting with each other with quick 5-minute brain boosting physical activities like stretching exercises, dancing, and more. This book features 50 icebreaker activities that are physical, engaging, and loads of fun and will give your students plenty of energy and focus so they’re ready to take on the day.
  • For middle-school students, have them pop a question in front of the class. Give each student an empty balloon and a small piece of paper to write on. Give them a couple minutes to think of a get-to-know-you question to write down. Once the questions are written, have them roll up the paper, gently place it inside the balloon, and then blow it up with air. (You may want to pre-fill balloons with questions.)

    Once all of the balloons are ready and full of questions, have the class toss their balloons in the air and (gently) bat them around the room for a little fun. After a minute or two, have them grab the nearest balloon. One at a time, have students pop a balloon, read the question aloud, and answer the question in front of the class. 
  • Even for high school students, it can be scary to talk to classmates that they don’t know. Get them talking by breaking the class into pairs. Have each pair interview each other with a set of questions that you give them. After they’re done interviewing each other, encourage them to step in front of the class and introduce their partner. This is a great way for students to learn about each other while also engaging in active listening, a skill that’s important to practice for academic and social situations.

2. Check in with students and hold class meetings to get them talking 

The simple act of talking can be empowering. Open students up, especially those who are timid, so they can find out for themselves how communication is key for forming connections. 

Check in with students and hold class meetings to get them talking
  • According to communication guru Dale Carnegie, “There’s nothing sweeter to one’s ear than the sound of his own name.” Form an instant connection with your students by using this simple strategy. Warm them up to it by starting each morning by greeting each student by name. 
  • Hold class meetings once a day or once a week. These short meetings can serve as a check-in with students as you ask questions to get students talking. For each meeting, have students sit in a circle so that they’re all facing each other. Start each meeting by asking a question about a topic of your choosing and then foster the conversation from there. 
  • You can use these meetings as an opportunity to help resolve any issues, make changes, plan future activities together, or get a general sense of how every student is feeling. The questions you ask and the conversations you start can stem from how your students are feeling on any given day. 
  • To find out how younger students are feeling, provide emotional references that they can point to or mimic, such as these colored emotion balls
  • This set of activity cards will teach students how to identify and express different emotions using tasks such as art, music, dance, acting, and more. As students progress through each activity, they will develop new SEL vocabulary and techniques to self-manage their emotions.

3. Encourage self-expression through art and journaling 

There’s no better way for students to express themselves than through art and writing. For thousands of years, art has been a natural connection to people’s understanding of themselves and the world they’re living in. Whether it’s through art projects or writing in a journal, students can engage in SEL as they open themselves up through self-reflection. 

There’s no better way for students to express themselves than through art and writing.
  • When working on art projects, students can focus on what they’re making instead of being bogged down by any stress or anxiety that’s been distracting them. Leave time for open-ended art activities that give kids freedom to explore anything that’s on their mind. Give them a variety of art tools, such as construction paper, beads, chenille stems, paint, and markers, and let them create. For students who need guidance, pair them up with a partner to draw portraits, have them portray their favorite animal in its environment, or ask them to portray a mood, such as happy, sad, or angry. 
  • Allow students to show their learning through art projects. They can create a pivotal scene from a book, depict a moment in history, or create a science concept using a clay model. 
  • Help students become more self aware by having them write “I am” statements about what stands out about them and then draw their self portraits. They should incorporate the adjectives from their “I am” statements into their portraits. 
  • Create a calming corner in your classroom to give students a space to decompress. On stressful days, it’s important for students to take a break when they need to and have the space to do so. In a calming corner, students can relax with a coloring book, a small art project, a sketchbook or journal, and sensory tools
  • Introduce your students to the power of journaling. For students of all ages, journaling can be an easy way to get thoughts flowing out onto the page. Start by giving your students a journaling kit so they have the journal and writing tools they need. 

    If you have the time, have students take a few minutes each day to write in their journal, or have them write for longer periods once a week. Encourage them to share what they’ve written if they feel comfortable doing so. By sharing and offering their perspective, students may learn that they’re less alone in having similar experiences or feelings. 

    Some students will enjoy free writing, but for those who need a an extra push, give them an SEL-related writing prompt, such as:

    • “Write about an achievement that you’re proud of.”
    • “What goals do you have for school and after you graduate?”
    • “Describe a time when you felt your emotions were out of control.”
    • “What are some qualities you look for in a friend?”
    • “How would you describe your personal identity?”
    • “Write about a time when you had a conflict. How did you resolve it?”
    • “What kinds of things do you think about when you are making an important decision?”
    • “Who are some people who make a difference in your life?”
Maximize your funding for mental health and SEL

Maximize your funding for mental health and SEL

Find out how to make the most of your ESSER funding with this guide. You’ll learn best practices and get tips for effective mental health and SEL support.

4. Take learning outside with team-building exercises 

Learning shouldn’t be confined to inside the classroom — especially in summer! Research has shown that exposure to nature and natural light can greatly benefit student learning. What better time than the summer to get outside and reap the benefits? 

Research has shown that exposure to nature and natural light can greatly benefit student learning.
  • If you have the outdoor space, take the class outside to enjoy team-building activities to help students learn to work together, communicate, and think critically as well as creatively. With these activities, students will get to know each other and build relationships. Here are three ideas to get you started:
    • Hula hoop pass: Position students together and place a hula hoop on one student’s arm and have them join hands with the classmate next to them. Ask the other students to join hands also and form a circle so they can pass around the hula hoop without breaking the circle. 
    • Human alphabet: Spread students out and guide them through rounds of forming letters with their bodies. Call out a short word for students to form together to spell out. Start with small words and then start calling out longer words to give students a team-building challenge. 
    • Seeing spots: Place a colored sticker dot on each student’s forehead without them knowing what color it is. When the game starts, students must form teams so every student in the team has the same colored dot on their head. To make this extra challenging, have students form teams through non-verbal communication.
  • If you don’t have the outdoor space, you can replicate some of the benefits of outdoor learning indoors by incorporating a few elements of nature into your classroom through biophilic design.
    • Surround your students with earthy tones of greens and browns or calming shades of blue that resemble a body of water. The mixture of these colors will lower stress levels. 
    • If your classroom has a window, open it up and let the sunshine in to boost the mood of your students so they can perform their best. 
    • Do you have plants? Display them in class along with décor that has nature imagery and patterns. Or, enlist the help of your students to create nature-themed artwork.

5. Teach students that mindfulness takes plenty of practice 

For many students, stress and anxiety are tough to ignore. The last two years especially have been difficult for students all over the world as they’ve grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges the pandemic has brought to both school and home. As students may struggle to deal with feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression at school, help them alleviate negative feelings by practicing mindfulness.

Help students alleviate negative feelings by practicing mindfulness.

According to research, practicing mindfulness can alter our brain structure in a way that can improve one’s reaction to stress. Not only does mindfulness training reduce stress, it can also help alleviate anxiety and depression. 

  • Set aside a few moments during the day for students to practice mindfulness in the classroom. You can start by simply adding quiet time to the day’s schedule. Dim the lights, turn off all distractions, and have students stay as quiet as they can so they can be in the moment. 
  • You can help students become more focused, relax their bodies, and practice a more caring and compassionate attitude with a variety of mindfulness activities. Start with this set of activity cards that offer plenty of fun ideas that will teach students to focus and breathe, respond calmly to negative situations, show compassion and kindness, and more. 
  • If you don’t have a lot of extra time, this book includes research-based ideas for daily 5-minute mindfulness practices like stretching, breathing, and reflection. These quick and effective exercises are designed to calm students’ minds and help them focus on the moment. 

Carry your learnings forward to the fall

The ideas above aren’t just for summer school. You can take what you learn from the summer and incorporate it into your classroom this fall. The more time and opportunities you give students to focus on themselves and improve their well-being, the more they will achieve and grow.

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