Integrating SEL Through Health and PE: A Superintendent’s Perspective

As superintendent of the Watertown School District in South Dakota, I had the opportunity to attend the 2019 SHAPE America National Convention in Tampa last April. I was invited to participate in an administrative panel which focused on integrating SEL through health and PE.

During the session, I had a “light bulb moment” when it struck me just how good of a fit physical education is for developing students’ social and emotional health.

Physical education and health classrooms already focus on the importance of being physically fit and healthy eating and lifestyle habits. Placing an emphasis on ways to keep students emotionally healthy would seem to be another avenue to promote students’ well-being.

Integrating SEL in Our District

In the Watertown School District, we had some fortunate circumstances that made it easier to begin integrating social and emotional learning:

  • First, our district already adheres to daily physical education classes in grades K-8. We have the budgeted time to allow for the curriculum discussion to take place.
  • Next, we had the SHAPE America Conference on Social and Emotional Learning in HPE right in our own backyard in South Dakota. We were able to send all of our health and physical education teachers to the conference at the end of July. Allowing staff to attend a national conference on SEL helped us break the ice for the upcoming discussion on social and emotional learning in our district.
  • Finally, the timing for our PE and health curriculum cycle fell this year. Our curriculum department was ramping up for the discussion of materials necessary to refresh our PE/health department.

In our latest strategic plan, the Watertown School District placed school safety as a high priority. With that we emphasized the 3 P’s of School Safety: Perimeter, Planning and Prevention.

As part of the prevention component, we had already established a Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Team consisting of counselors, school psychologists and social workers. One task the SEL team has been working on is to align our counseling curriculum to provide common skills and language for students through their classroom lessons.

Students sitting and sharing a fist bump

I know that one fear our physical education teachers had was feeling like they needed to be more in a counseling role, but I don’t believe that is where we need them to be.

Building a Strong Foundation

I think the important aspect of social and emotional learning lies in the building of a firm foundation for our students. Just as we promote lifetime physical activities and healthy nutrition, we must also promote skills such as slowing our breathing and using movement to help relieve stress.

Think of how all of those fit together so nicely and help us as both children and adults. Our PE teachers will be able to reinforce SEL lessons and concepts within the physical education setting and can emphasize mental health and stress relief as additional aspects of healthy living.

Because of the work we have been doing, our physical education teachers feel more comfortable that they will not need to be doing the actual counseling but establishing those practical application skills like how to be a good teammate, how to play fairly, and how to get along.

Our health and physical education teachers are beginning to feel more comfortable in the intentional placement of these concepts even while engaging in physical activities. They are also seeing how the connection exists between physical health and mental health. Having a healthy body and mind are essential components for a student to live a healthy lifestyle.

A child that is sitting in the grass

I really don’t know why it never dawned on me what a great fit this was. I don’t know why we sometimes get a little siloed in schools, thinking that only our counselors need to deal with students’ emotional well-being.

When we educate the whole child, it matters how they are doing. We know that they need to eat in order to learn. We know that they need to be cared for in order to learn. We know that being physically active helps stimulate the brain in order to learn.

My light bulb moment led to the connection of all these pieces in one area to help educate the whole child and produce socially and emotionally healthy students!

Additional Resources

Jeff Danielsen

Jeff Danielsen is superintendent of the Watertown School District in Watertown, SD. He is in his 15th year as a school superintendent. Danielsen is also an adjunct professor in educational administration at the University of Sioux Falls. He can be reached at or on Twitter @drdsupt.