Developing social and emotional skills is critical for children of all age groups. These skills help them develop socially, emotionally, and academically and become strong individuals who are better at dealing with life’s challenges. Therefore, some schools incorporate Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in their curriculum to foster these skills in students within the school environment.
Students face many challenges as they move from elementary school to middle school. Settling in a new school environment, switching classrooms, navigating through a big school building, adapting to new teachers and their teaching methods, and more homework can add up to the difficulties faced by new middle schoolers.
During these times and beyond, SEL activities can prepare kids to deal with the changes effectively, build their confidence and teach them to create a positive social environment where every student can thrive and succeed.
Effective SEL activities for middle school students
SEL activities focus on developing five core competencies that include – self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and decision-making skills. The activities mentioned below can be conducted first thing in the morning, between breaks, or, if time permits, during a classroom session.
1. Dealing with Bullies
Bullying is a very serious issue student face in the school environment. Not all students have the courage to stand up for themselves and hence, suffer silently. It is, therefore, important that all students know the fact that it is crucial to becoming an ally or an upstander to support a person who is being bullied. To build upon this understanding, you can conduct this role-playing activity in class.
Ask a few students to come forward and give them a scenario to enact in front of the class. The scenarios must be related to bullying. Some examples are –
- A few mean kids teasing another kid in class.
- A new student is being laughed at by other students.
- A group of students fighting with one student.
When the role-play is over, ask your students what they can do if they find themselves or another student in such scenarios. Take this opportunity to guide them on how they can deal with bullies, how they can help those who are being bullied, and actions they can take if they observe bullying in school.
2. Write a Letter
This activity aims to teach the importance of kindness and compassion towards self and others. Students need to learn that while it is good to be kind to others, it is equally important to treat yourself in the same way.
- Begin by discussing compassion and why it is necessary to practice compassion.
- Now ask your students to write a letter to someone they think is having a hard time.
- They must write things that will help the reader feel better.
- When done, tell your students to silently read their letters, but this time imagine they have written the letter to themselves.
This will help them feel and reflect on things they have written with a different perspective. In addition, you can put forward a few questions so kids can discuss their thoughts on the same.
- Do you think it is important to show compassion to others and yourself?
- How did you feel when you read the letter for yourself?
- Do you treat yourself with the same compassion and kindness as you treat others?
- What can you do to take care of yourself?
3. Feeling Jittery
When students find themselves in stressful situations, they feel anxious and overwhelmed. This activity raises self-awareness and helps students find ways to manage themselves in such situations.
Begin by asking students to write down a few things on an A4-size sheet.
- In what situations do they feel anxious and overwhelmed?
- What thoughts arise in their minds?
- How do they react to others when they are anxious?
- What behaviors do they exhibit in such situations?
This activity will help your students understand their behavior in stressful times. Take the activity further by discussing ways students can adapt to calm themselves when they feel jittery. Guide them to create positive self-talk messages to help them overcome stress and anxiety. You can also show them videos on how they can practice breathing exercises and meditation to calm their anxious minds in times of distress.
4. Face Your Difficulty
How many times have you noticed kids giving up on a task because they find it difficult? Many times, probably. This happens because kids tend to give up when things get tough. To bring them out of this mentality, teachers can conduct this activity to build a growth mindset.
- Identify a task you think will be difficult for your students to complete in a given time frame. It could be a puzzle or a tricky math problem.
- Give them limited time to work on the activity.
- Observe how your students react and the words they say when they are unable to do the task. You will hear statements like, “It’s very difficult,” “I can’t do it,” and so on.
- Note these statements down on a piece of paper.
When the time is up, talk to your kids about your observations. Explain how they got involved in negative self-talk rather than having a growth mindset to solve the problem. Tell them how they can use positive statements to encourage themselves to find solutions. Using statements like “I can do this differently” in place of “I can’t do this” can make a huge difference in how they tackle a problem.
5. The Power of Words
Through this activity, students can be taught about the power of words. Words can have a positive or a negative impact on people. So, choosing the right words hold great significance.
- Distribute two post-it cards to each student.
- On one card, ask them to write something hurtful others might have said to them.
- On the other card, they must write how others could have conveyed their thoughts differently without being hurtful.
- Now ask students to stick the first set of cards on one side of the board and the other set on the other side.
Talk to them about how those words made them feel. And emphasize the importance of using wise and kind words when talking to each other.
6. Take the Awareness Walk
While students interact with each other on a regular basis, they remain unaware of each other’s personal struggles and privileges. To create a sense of appreciation for the things students have in their lives, teachers can do this simple yet powerful activity in the classroom.
- Ask the students to line up with their faces in one direction.
- Read aloud questions one after the other and tell students to move a step forward or backward depending on their answers to the questions.
A few questions you can ask during this activity are –
- Move one step forward if you have a loving family.
- Take a step backward if your family has ever faced a financial crunch.
- Take a step forward if you feel you have no real friends.
- Move one step back if you ever slept hungry because there was no food at home.
Questions like these are a bit sensitive but create empathy in those who enjoy the privileges and help build a better understanding of the people around them.
7. Things You Can Control
Focusing on things one can control and less on things that can’t be controlled is a good trait to develop. But before kids learn to focus on things they can control, they must be aware of those things. This activity is designed to create awareness of such things.
- Give six index cards to each student and ask them to write three things they think they can control and three things they cannot. Give them a few ideas such as – “what I do” or “what I say” to direct them on the right path.
- Now, tell them to fold these cards and collect them all in a bowl or a box. Shuffle the cards.
- Call one student at a time and let them pick one card out of the bowl. They can now read aloud what’s written on the card and tell if it is something they can control or not.
- You can also ask them to explain why they think so and, if possible, give an example of a situation when they could or couldn’t control something.
When all students are done, you can emphasize that people can live fruitful life if they concentrate on things they can control rather than thinking and worrying about those they have no control over.
8. Build Someone’s Self-esteem
Here is a quick self-esteem-building activity for your middle schoolers. It focuses on how students can contribute to building each other’s self-esteem by sharing positive traits with one another.
- Hand over a plain or ruled sheet to every student in the class.
- Let them write “(name) is” on the top of the page. For example, “Rachel is”
- Now ask students to pass on their sheets to every other student in the class so they can write one positive thing about the person whose sheet it is.
- In the end, the sheet should be passed to the respective students so they can see what their peers think about them.
Knowing how others perceive you is great for building confidence and boosting self-esteem in children.
Social-emotional learning benefits students in the long run. Through these activities, they learn social skills, emotional regulation, problem-solving, self-discipline, decision-making, positive behavior, and many other things. In addition, SEL activities also have a positive impact on a student’s academic results. A study inferred that students participating in SEL reflect an 11-percentile point gain in academic achievement.
The positive impact of social-emotional learning can’t be ignored. Therefore, teachers must incorporate SEL activities regularly within the curricula so that students can derive their benefits to become socially and emotionally healthy individuals.
- Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, Dymnicki AB, Taylor RD, Schellinger KB. The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: a meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Dev. 2011 Jan-Feb;82(1):405-32. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2010.01564.x. PMID: 21291449.