How to Create an SEL-Focused ‘Unity Day’ in Your School

In his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, author Dr. Vivek Murthy writes, “When young people feel socially isolated, their risk increases for depression, anxiety, and poor sleep.”

For many students, the pandemic has increased this risk. Now more than ever, schools are looking for innovative ways to build meaningful connections through social and emotional learning (SEL).  

One way to bring students, teachers and communities together — virtually, if necessary — is through an SEL-focused Unity Day. By devoting a day to team building and leadership activities, you can help students form connections with peers and encourage them to share their voice.

You can also take an important step toward strengthening school culture by taking a stand against bullying while promoting kindness, acceptance and inclusion.

Why an SEL-Focused Unity Day?

The concept of an SEL-focused day first originated last fall when my district wellness coordinator and I took our student wellness committee to a nearby school district for something they referred to as “Unity Day.”

At this all-day workshop, an outside educational consulting company led high school students through a variety of SEL topics and activities. Teachers were also active participants, engaging in conversation with the students. It was truly a school community event.

We were so inspired that immediately following the event, we focused on creating our own version of Unity Day. After months of planning, the idea of an SEL Day came to fruition.

Unlike the neighboring school district that focused on high school students, we wanted to encompass a larger audience. We engaged secondary teachers to identify students who could benefit from building relationships with others and feeling empowered in the school.

We held the SEL Day in our auxiliary gymnasium with almost 100 total participants, which included approximately 70 students in grades 6-11, our superintendent, vice superintendent, building administration, members of our district-wide SEL committee, associates from the educational consulting company, and a few students and staff from the neighboring school district.

What Does a Unity Day Include?

Our SEL-focused Unity Day started with a few icebreaker games to get everyone up and moving. This was followed up with dialog about healthy relationships. Here are some of the questions we asked:

  • How do students treat other students?
  • How do teachers treat students?
  • How do students treat teachers? 

Students and staff partnered up, then formed groups of four, followed by groups of eight. It was eye opening to hear the students’ perspectives on these questions.  

Afterward we did a few more activities as a larger group and broke for group discussions. Later in the day, we did one of my favorite activities called “the resilient student.”

In groups, students created a fictious character with limited equipment and time. Then, the facilitator exposed each character to various life situations that called into question how they would handle adversity. It was so impactful that at one point a student stood up and asked the facilitator to stop hurting their fictious character!

The day finished with students working on an action plan to implement key takeaways into the school.

Overall, our first Unity Day was a huge success! Our students have even been inspired to create an SEL ambassador group. This group has hosted a district-wide faculty meeting about SEL and led a Zoom meeting for new students to get acclimated in the district.

They are also actively planning our next Unity Day, which will be a virtual event led by students and teachers. This speaks to the spark that was ignited from that first experience with Unity Day.

10 Tips for Starting Your Own SEL-Focused ‘Unity Day’

Lao Tzu once said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Taking a one-step-at-a-time approach might be the best way of implementing an SEL-focused day in your school or district, especially if you don’t have the resources or funds available for an outside educational consulting team.

Here are 10 tips for creating your own version of an SEL-focused day:

  1. Come up with a catchy name. While both my school district and the one we attended called our event Unity Day, you might have something different in mind. SEL Day? HS Connection? MS Harmony? Third-Grade Friendship Day? 
  2. Develop a faculty/staff team. My district is really blessed to have an SEL committee. Enlist others to brainstorm, share ideas, and create your own version together. Having a few SEL members to start might grow into something much larger in the future for your district.
  3. Identify topics to discuss. What topics do you want to discuss with your students?  A good place to start might be with CASEL’s SEL Framework and the five SEL competencies. There is no right or wrong topic. Look at your school, your district’s needs, and create main ideas to introduce to students.
  4. Know your audience. Determine the grades attending your SEL day and be mindful of the students’ ages. Depending on grade level(s) attending, focus on age-appropriate activities.
  5. Keep them engaged. As health and physical education teachers, this is where we excel! You will want to sprinkle in team-building activities, opportunities for dialog, and self-reflection. Having a variety of options will make the day go smoothly for everyone involved.
  6. Create a virtual SEL Day. If your school is currently remote or hybrid, this would be a great opportunity for those students at home to feel “connected” with others. Zoom, Google Meet, and other web hosting platforms are a great resource. Also depending on where you live, going virtual means you won’t have to limit the number of attendees due to space constraints and/or COVID-19 restrictions.
  7. Recognize student leaders. Don’t feel like you have to do this alone. Identify students in your school and district who would like to be involved. Students love to feel empowered and have a platform for expressing their ideas. Not to mention, students will be more receptive to other students. For our upcoming virtual event, we plan to give our SEL ambassadors speaking roles, opportunities to lead breakout rooms, and a voice in planning the logistics.
  8. Have students create an action plan. The last hour of our event was dedicated to action planning. The students created action plans with concrete ways to improve the district and school community. This is a great opportunity for students to have their voices heard and provide insight. This gave students some accountability and responsibility for shaping the schools’ climate.
  9. Empower your faculty and staff. Send out an email about your plans for your SEL- focused day. Ask faculty and staff to submit names of students who might benefit from attending. Faculty and staff will appreciate you reaching out and giving them a voice in their selection.
  10. Speak with central and building administration. Have a plan before meeting with them. Make sure to have logistics figured out (e.g., who is helping, how long the event will last, key topics to be discussed, project timeline). The No. 1 key to getting it started is their support.

BONUS TIP: Have fun! I am a firm believer in this. Create something fun for yourself and others involved. If faculty, staff and students see how much fun you are having, it will radiate to others.

Make a Difference Through SEL

SEL is something I incorporate into my classroom every day (as part of something much larger which I refer to as “integrated wellness”). However, creating something like a Unity Day is a great way of incorporating SEL district-wide for students and faculty. It can really bring your school and district together.

I have a vision for every K-12 student to attend these SEL-focused days in the future. One of my personal mottos in life is to “be the change.” So I challenge you: Don’t wait for the world to change — be the change! Be the change for your students, your district, and most importantly for yourself!  Start by sharing your own version of Unity Day with others!

Additional Resources

Bo Shappell

Bo Shappell is a middle school PE teacher and the academic leader for creative arts and human performance in his district. He is also co-founder of the organization WE Integrated, co-author of ALL IN: The Mindset of Fitness, and 2019 Pennsylvania Middle School PE Teacher of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @BoShappell.