How to Integrate Social and Emotional Learning in PE to Improve Classroom Climate

Have you ever been stunned when your best student acts out of character with inappropriate words or actions? When was the last time a student seemingly lost control and did something impulsive that hurt someone else physically or emotionally?

Unfortunately, these types of incidents are becoming more and more prevalent in classrooms across the country. It’s time to integrate social and emotional learning in PE — and throughout the school day.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) enhances students’ ability to succeed in school and beyond by teaching them how to self-regulate their emotions, problem solve, make responsible decisions, maintain positive friendships, and more.

Social and Emotional Learning in PE

Teaching SEL through health and physical education helps students navigate many of the challenges they face each day. It promotes academic achievement and positive social behavior, while reducing conduct problems, substance abuse and emotional distress.

One challenge many physical education teachers have is they don’t know the best way to integrate social and emotional learning in their PE program. Others overlook SEL entirely.

I understand that it seems like “something added to your plate,” but trust me, it will save you and your students valuable learning time throughout the year.

Understanding the value of SEL and the role it can play in developing the whole child, SHAPE America has been proactive and innovative in developing the Crosswalk for SHAPE America National Standards and CASEL SEL Core Competencies, which embeds SEL competencies into the SHAPE America National Standards and Grade Level Outcomes for K-12 Physical Education. 

CASEL SEL Core Competencies and SHAPE America National Standards comparison chart

Using the PE/SEL Crosswalk Document

How do I use the Crosswalk document to integrate SEL and meet PE grade-level outcomes? When planning, I use backward design. I first look at the Crosswalk, SEL competencies, and grade-level outcomes to determine what I want students to achieve.

Using my knowledge of students, I plan developmentally appropriate activities that will meet the needs of those students.

For example, one grade-level outcome for third grade is “Describes the positive social interactions that come when engaged with others in physical activity” (S5.E4.3). To meet this, I created a partner “copycat” activity where one student led an exercise/dance while the other copied, then switched roles.

The activity ended with a partner discussion. As I walked around with my rubric, I listened as students shared how much fun they had because they were able to be creative, express themselves using their own funny faces, and socially interact. They felt important when they were the leader (voice/choice).

These discussions, along with a Plicker self-assessment at the end, allowed me and the students to know whether they met that grade-level outcome.

Improving Classroom Climate

One way to see significant results when trying to create a positive classroom climate is by planning purposeful lessons that naturally embed SEL competencies within the PE curriculum rather than simply adding an SEL strategy at the last minute.

Creating a student-centered environment where students apply these concepts within activities helps deepen understanding and increases the chance of retaining the information. It’s also important to establish strong relationships with students. Take time to get to know each child individually. Ten years from now, they might not remember each lesson you taught them, but they will remember how you made them feel.

At my school, I start by teaching my students grade-level outcomes relating to SEL to establish a positive, welcoming culture. Then, I revisit them frequently after that month. Below is a planning progression (created by Casey Barclay and Joe Burch) that I use to develop my first month’s curriculum, as well as examples of activities I use.

Social and Emotional Learning in PE Planning Progression Chart

Level 1: Building a Classroom Community
I have students answer ice-breaker questions like “What superhero power would you choose and why?” New friendships develop as students quickly discover they have more in common than they thought. This is also where I share a bit about myself and show my students that I am a real person too.

Level 2: Communication
We practice using a positive tone of voice when things don’t go as planned, which helps students better handle future disagreements. We play “Line Your Manners” (from Randy Spring), where students practice approaching others, greeting them by name and with a handshake, playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and showing empathy as the winner lets the other pass.

Level 3: Cooperation
We practice by doing many team-building activities. One example is “Hula Hut Relays,” where students have six hula-hoops and must work together to build a hula hut as fast as possible.

Level 4: Problem-Solving
Students use “Rock, Paper, Scissors” to solve small problems. For practice I have them do a warm-up called “Run the Bases,” where students challenge others at their base to a “Rock, Paper, Scissors” match. They finish with a handshake, and the winner gets to move on to the next base while the other student challenges someone new at the same base. Bigger problems are solved at the “Conflict Corner” (see below). Being proactive and having students practice this method early on gets them familiar with it, so they can easily use the method to solve problems during future activities.

Level 5: Trust
We do an activity where every student holds an Uno card face out on their forehead (without looking), and everyone must silently find their group based on their color. Students have to trust each other that they are being sent to the correct group.

By proactively teaching SEL competencies and using these levels, students learn real-world skills that will benefit them now and in the future.

Use Visuals to Convey SEL Concepts

Having visuals for students to see and use in your learning space can help as well. Here are four posters I have in my PE room. They convey significant skills and concepts that can be transferred to other settings.

We reference these posters daily. They help my classroom run smoothly, while also helping students develop competency in many SEL skills and grade-level outcomes.

Posters that teach SEL concepts to children in a visual format

Poster 1: “The Good Sport Code” (from Ben Landers), emphasizing being grateful for playing, and how to congratulate opponents if they win.

Poster 2: “Be the Nice Kid.” Don’t worry about comparing yourself to others. Be nice and everything else will fall into place.

Poster 3: “Calm Corner” (from Dan Hill), where students can visit to calm down if needed, teaching self-regulation and coping skills.

Poster 4: “Conflict Corner” (from Ben Landers), where students can visit and solve conflicts with another student. They realize they don’t need me to solve everything. After all, they will have to do this on their own in the real world, so I might as well prepare them now.

End-of-Class SEL Integration

Near the end of each lesson, I have students complete an exit ticket. Below is a Plickers student self-assessment example I have used (from Ross Chakrian). These self-assessments hold students accountable for their actions, while also giving me an opportunity to meet privately with students who answered differently than what I observed, clarifying any confusion.

Plickers student self-assessment chart example

We finish each class with a “Mindful Minute,” which I learned from SHAPE America’s health. moves. minds.®program. I have students close their eyes and listen to peaceful music. Students pretend to be in their “happy place” and we focus on breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth, which helps them calm down before heading back to their classroom.

Additional Resources

Kyle Bragg

Kyle Bragg is a National Board Certified Teacher, as well as the 2018 Arizona Elementary PE Teacher of the Year. He received his bachelor’s degree at Illinois State University and his master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University. Kyle utilizes technology to create developmentally appropriate lessons, which allow students to experience success and improve their physical literacy. Follow him on Twitter @ElemPE1.