Tips for Teaching SEL in Your Skills-Based Health Classroom

Do you want to teach social and emotional learning (SEL) in your skills-based health classroom? If you haven’t considered it yet, there are several reasons to do so — and the good news is you may already be teaching the SEL competencies!

Here are a few reasons to teach SEL in your health education classes:

  • Many states have established the implementation of SEL as a goal. As a result, several state frameworks and standards now include SEL. If your state has embraced SEL, why not take the lead and demonstrate to your district administrators how the skills-based classroom includes SEL instruction?
  • A 2017 meta-analysis authored by Rebecca Taylor shows that SEL improved skills, positive attitudes, prosocial behavior, and academic performance among students. This research provides good rationale for using SEL to improve the climate of your skills-based health classroom.
  • The Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Collaborative for Academic and Social Emotional Learning (CASEL) have both published lists of approved SEL programs which are already in use as health education curricula. This includes: Second Step, Open Circle, The PATHS Program, Get Real, Michigan Model for Health, and many others. If you are using any of these programs in your classroom, be confident that your curriculum has proven efficacy.

Align the National Health Education Standards and SEL Competencies

If your instruction is based on the National Health Education Standards (NHES), then you are already teaching the SEL competencies.

Start by downloading SHAPE America’s free Health Education/SEL Crosswalk document, which will show you how the National Health Education Standards align with the SEL competencies and sub-competencies developed by CASEL.

This document will give you a pathway for planning a skills-based health education curriculum that aligns with social and emotional learning.

Excerpt from SHAPE America’s Health Education/SEL Crosswalk ©2020, SHAPE America

Start With a Risk Behavior

When you’re ready to start planning your unit, take a look at your current practice then follow these steps to teach SEL in your skills-based classroom:

  1. Examine the risk behaviors of your students and select a behavior to reduce.
  2. Select a Standard 1 performance indicator and infuse it with content.
  3. Select a skills performance indicator to reduce the risk behavior. Infuse it with content.
  4. Align a SEL competency and sub-competency.
  5. Plan your performance based (authentic) assessment for Standard 1, a skills standard, and the SEL competency.
  6. Plan your instruction.

Most of your work occurs during the planning of the unit. Once the assessment and instruction is underway, you assume the role of the skills-based health/SEL coach.

You’ll find that once your students have experienced this student-centered way of learning, there is no going back!

Use These 5 Steps for Teaching a Skill

Whether you are teaching the health skills or SEL competencies, the procedure is the same.

Step 1 — Access risk behavior data to make the problem real to the students. Your nurse and assistant principal are also good sources of data. Explain to the students that learning content and practicing the skill helps them gain confidence to respond to life’s challenges both in and outside of school.

Step 2 — Use words to explain the steps of the skill.

Step 3 Demonstrate the skill/competency using an age-appropriate prompt. This strategy grabs the attention of the students.

Step 4 — When it is time for the students to practice, provide them with an engaging prompt, the skill steps (Refusal skills, DECIDE model, SMART goal) etc., and a self-check.

Step 5 — Pair or group the students and walk from group to group to formatively assess. Provide effective feedback based on the self-check. Use a variety of formative assessment tools such as but not limited to:

  • Self-checks
  • Red-yellow-green circles
  • A continuum to check progress
  • A target to check individual or group progress
  • A bow tie to illustrate pros/cons of an issue or benefits and barriers to demonstrating healthy behaviors

To reinforce the progression at any time, use the Steps of Teaching a Skill graphic above and point to the step you are demonstrating.

Have fun with the formatives! Be creative!
Encourage students to design a formative that works for them!

Sample Prompts for Aligning SEL Competencies

When looking at the CASEL graphic below, notice that the competencies are color coded. Self-Awareness and Self-Management are orange. These competencies have the same color because they relate to the skills that improve self.

Social-Awareness and Relationship Skills are green and provide the skills necessary for students to be successful in their relationships with others.

Responsible Decision-Making has a color of its own but is enhanced by competency in the other components.


Below is an example of a prompt for grades 3-5 that demonstrates how the SEL competency of Self-Awareness is aligned with the infused Standard 1 and Standard 2, Analyzing Influences, performance indicators.

Infused performance indicators:

  • 1.5.1 Describe the relationship between healthy behaviors such as not vaping and personal health. Standards 1 | Healthy Schools | CDC
  • 2.5.3 Identify how peers influence unhealthy behaviors about vaping. Standards 2 | Healthy Schools | CDC
  • SEL: Self-Awareness — Identifying emotions, accurate self-perception, recognizing strengths, self-confidence, self-efficacy, growth mindset.


Shakina joined peer leadership and wants to teach about vaping to the elementary students because her cousin tried vaping to look attractive and now is addicted. (1.5.1) The team is preparing a field trip to grade 5 to teach a lesson on the dangers of vaping and how to positively influence peers not to vape.(2.5.3)

The problem is Shakina believes she cannot get up in front of the 5th graders and teach a lesson. The advisor assured Shakina that the team would practice until the lesson was ready to present.

The advisor was right! The team practiced and practiced. As time went on, Shakina became more confident and was looking forward to working with the younger children. (SEL: Self-Awareness — Identifying emotions, accurate self-perception, recognizing strengths, self-confidence, self-efficacy, growth mindset.)

In this example, the lesson taught to the grade 5 students included the relationship between not vaping and personal health as well as a plan to influence others not to vape. Shakina increased her self-awareness by identifying her emotions, established an accurate self-perception, recognized her strengths, gained self-confidence and self-efficacy, and developed a “growth mindset.”

Relationship Skills

The Relationship Skills competency is aligned with Standard 4, Interpersonal Communication, and Standard 8, Advocacy. The sub-competencies provide for an easy alignment of the standards and competencies: communication, social engagement, relationship building, and teamwork.

At the end of an advocacy unit, students work on their summative performance assessment and practice each of the sub-competency skills.

            Grade 6-8 summative performance assessment


Grady and Sandro are peer leaders and want to make their peers more aware of the dangers of marijuana. In their state, 15% of middle school students have ever used marijuana. (Youth Online: Middle School YRBS – 2019 Results | DASH | CDC)

Both boys have older siblings who started smoking marijuana in middle school and now cannot stop. (1.8.8) Your challenge is to help Grady and Sandro design a public service announcement (8.8.1) that influences their peers not to smoke marijuana (8.8.2).

To complete this assessment, students communicate both verbally and through writing to design and produce a public service announcement. Students are grouped and thereby are socially engaged, building relationships and learning to work as a team.

Take the Next Step

You’ll find more information on how to incorporate SEL into your health education classroom in the new book Teaching Social and Emotional Learning in Health Education. This includes assessments, worksheets, and other instructional tools.

This book will help you connect the SEL competencies to the National Health Education Standards, then design your instruction and assessment.

Additional Resources

Featured image by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash.

Mary Connolly

Mary Connolly is the Program Chair of the Skills-Based Health/SEL Program at Cambridge College in Boston. She is a health education consultant and the author of Skills-Based Health Education, first and second editions, and Teaching SEL in the Health Classroom. Mary is a member of the SHAPE America Health Education Council and the MAHPERD Higher Education Committee. Email her at or follow her on Twitter @connollymary2.