What is Social Emotional Learning and Why is it important for happiness?

You may have never heard of social emotional learning (SEL), but chances are it is being taught in your child’s school to some degree. Here in Ontario it is considered core curriculum – and we barely teach sex-ed so you know it’s important!

So what exactly is social emotional learning? According to CASEL, there are 5 categories of social emotional learning that are fundamental to the development of children. They are:

  • Self Awareness
  • Self Management
  • Responsible Decision Making
  • Building Relationships
  • Social Awareness. 
CASEL Wheel illustrating the 5 categories of Social Emotional Learning.

Click here to explore the interactive version of the CASEL Wheel and see how SEL is used in schools.

Why Teach Social Emotional Learning at home if it’s Taught in school?

SEL taught in schools is usually taught in terms of the school setting and school community. These same skills can be used as a framework in our homes to compliment what our children are learning in school. This allows you to take an active role in how your children are learning these skills.

While SEL is part of the curriculum, it is really up to the teacher how much of this learning is incorporated into the classroom and in what way. Practicing these skills outside the classroom allows you to dive deeper and give kids the opportunity to practice these skills in a variety of settings, allowing them further development and success. It can also help you in connecting with the school and advocating for your child, or your child can advocate for themselves if they are older.

Using Yoga and Mindfulness to Teach Social Emotional Learning

Many of the activities used in kids yoga and mindfulness overlap and compliment the goals of social emotional learning. We can use these strategies to help teach kids social emotional learning in a fun and engaging way. By using these techniques at home we can strengthen the concepts kids are learning  at school, discover ways they can use them outside school, and help them achieve greater success.

Working on these skills as a family also benefits parents in practicing and achieving these skills, leading to more harmonious family interactions. Many of us were not taught these skills growing up and still need to work on developing them. The good news is, it is never too late and SEL is an ongoing, lifelong skillset to develop. Start where you are and work from there. 

In order to help kids learn and understand these concepts we need to understand them ourselves. Just like mindfulness, it is difficult to teach kids to be calm and manage their emotions and actions if we are not able to do it ourselves. We know that kids tend to grow up and model the behaviours they see as a child so working and growing together as a family allows everyone  in the family to develop these skills and become second nature to kids as they grow and mature. 

There are so many ways to build and practice social emotional learning skills. Pinterest has lots of resources you can check out. I will outline one or two in each section to get you started and you can sign up for my free resource library to get access to more activities, classes, and worksheets as I add them!

Self Awareness

Self awareness is the foundation for all social emotional learning. You don’t have to master self awareness in order to work on the other blocks of SEL. In fact, self awareness is a lifelong practice. However, if you are not able to recognize things within yourself, you are not going to be able to control them, see them in others and build strong connections. Self Awareness is the ability to recognize

  • the emotions you are feeling 
  • the biases or prejudices you may carry
  • have a sense of self or identity on a personal and social level 

Having self awareness allows you to have a growth mindset, build confidence and self assuredness. That’s a lot right? Especially for kids. My kids can barely recognize that they need to use the washroom until they REALLY need to use the washroom!

The good news is, building self awareness is actually very simple, it just requires practice. The act of being self aware, just like being mindful, simply means stopping to notice what is happening, in our bodies, our minds, our feelings. We simply need to take the time to notice, become AWARE of how we are feeling at any given moment, and decide how to proceed from there. The important thing for kids in building self awareness is also providing them with the language to put those feelings into words so they can recognize and advocate for themselves.

Building Self Awareness at Home


The simplest way to start becoming self aware is to stop and take some time to take deep breaths. Start by sitting or lying down in a comfortable position. Take a moment to scan through your body and see how each body part is feeling. Start at your feet and work your way up to your head.

  • Notice your breath – is it long and slow or quick and shallow?
  • Notice your emotions – do you feel happy, sad, or in between? Are you feeling angry or frustrated?
  • Think about why you are feeling the way you are feeling. If you are angry or frustrated what made you feel that way? If you are happy, what is bringing you happiness today?
  • Notice any other thoughts and feelings that pop into your head.

Take 5 deep breaths. Breathing in as much as you can, fill your lungs and belly. Then exhale all the way out until you can’t breath any more breath out. Repeat 4 more times. Now take a moment to check in and see how you feel again, compared to how you felt when you started. 

The reason I like breathing as a self awareness activity, is that it is quick, easy and can be done anywhere. While it takes time to initially learn, once kids (and parents) know what they are doing they can do it anytime they need a moment. You may not figure all of what you are feeling or why, but just the act of taking a few deep breaths will help you feel more calm and signal your body to switch from stress and survivial mode, to rest and relax mode. 

Mindfulness Prompts

Another really great activity that makes self awareness at home easy is using mindful prompts or affirmation cards.

I personally love these Love Powered Co. Connection Cards.(This is an affiliate link. If you’d prefer a non-affiliate link click here)They have different categories within the box, but each card gives you a prompt to think about (like imagination, overcoming something difficult,favorite things, feelings) and an affirmation to go along with the content.

The cards give you something to focus on and afterward you can discuss what each of you thought, which helps you to check in with each other and build connection. I use them at home with my own kids and in the kids’ yoga classes I teach. Of course you can use any mindfulness cards or prompts, these are just the ones I happen to use.

Self Management

Self management is the ability to manage ones thoughts, emotions, and behaviours effectively in different situations, in order to acheive goals and aspirations. This can include

  • delay of gratification
  • managing stress and motivation
  • setting personal and collective goals
  • planning and organization

I think this one is probably the hardest, especially for children. It is one thing to recognize your emotions and feelings, but another to be able to stop ourselves in the heat of the moment to think about why we are feeling or behaving in the way that we are. Kids haven’t had the years of conditioning that adults have and often act before thinking. Kids (and adults) often feel angry but can’t really explain why. Self management is taking the time to stop, take a breath, and figure out the why of how you’re feeling(self-awareness) , and then deciding how you will manage those emotions. 

Building Self-Management at Home

One of the most popular games we play in my kids’ yoga classes that teaches self management is “Minions”. You can use any theme that your kids are into that involves acting crazy but minions provides a good example because they act silly and make lots of funny noises.

When we did this as a class we have 2-4 “minions” but if you’re just doing it as a family you can pick one person to be “it” at a time. Everyone else must sit quietly and try to ignore the minion(s) while they run around making noises, acting silly, trying to get you to smile or look at them. Our only rules are that the minions cannot touch anyone, pretend they are going to hit, or scream in someone’s ear/face. It is easier if you close your eyes but if people don’t feel comfortable they can keep them open. 

Short Clip of the “Minions Game” being played at a yoga camp.

Another really fun option is “Simon says,” but opposite. I start off playing Simon says the normal way with the kids, and then the second round is opposite. So if I say “Simon Says” you are NOT supposed to do it, and if I just tell you to do it you ARE supposed to do it.

Kids are actually really good at adapting to this so you can switch back and forth between the two versions to keep the game challenging. This works to build self control because kids are so used to playing it one way that they really have to stop and think before they act. 

Responsible Decision Making 

Responsible decision making is the ability to make caring, thoughtful choices about personal and social interactions in varying situations. This can mean

  • evaluating safety and consequences of actions
  • ethics
  • long term thinking
  • finding solutions for personal and social problems

This one can be difficult for children and honestly just takes time. Kids have to learn for themselves the consequences of their actions for it to resonate with them and living life is really the only way to do this. In the meantime we can help them develop their reasoning skills in a fun way through games and activities that involve making decisions.

Developing Responsible Decision Making at Home

There are lots of different decision making games and you may have some you already play as a family (game of life, monopoly, etc)

Jenga and Dominos both involve decision making and thinking though consequences that are easy for most ages in the family to play. Both involve choosing between multiple options, strategy, and are also pretty simple for younger players to grasp. Even if kids aren’t counting they can match the dominoes, just make sure to use one of the smaller sets.

Another fun game for families or groups to play that involves some strategy or cause and effect is Spaghetti Pot. Start off standing in a circle being stiff like dry spaghetti. Next pretend you’re put in the pot and start wiggling and moving all over as you become a softer noodle. As the water really gets boiling your arms go all over the place! Bring your arms into the middle and as you move them all over the place, reach across the circle and grab someone else’s hand. With your other hand you grab another hand. Once everyone has clasped hands with two different people, untangle yourselves without letting go of each others hands.

This takes some planning and thinking about how each move you make will either help you untangle or tangle you up further. When you are finished some people may be facing out and come facing in but that is OK. The point is to have fun and work together!

Relationship Skills

This one is pretty self explanatory but it is the ability to build and maintain healthy and supportive relationships, not just with family members but peers as well. Of course this seems pretty straightforward but I think the part to focus on is healthy and supportive.

As you know, most kids have an easy time forming friendships, but sometimes those friendships leave a lot to be desired. I have had countless conversations with my kids about being a good friend, and whether or not the person they are spending time with is a good friend (usually after they come to me with yet another conflict…) 

In order to have true healthy and sport relationships, people need to be able to

  • Communicate clearly
  • Listen actively
  • Co-operate and work collaboratively
  • Navigate settings with different social and cultural expectations

This can be a lot for kids (lets be honest, it seems to be a lot for many adults…)Having these skills allows kids to advocate for themselves and ensure they are finding people who align with their own values while still being open to the values of others.

Within a family unit there are PLENTY of opportunities to practice communication and relationship building. It’s important to make it fun though especially with siblings who can struggle and may be holding grudges from previous disagreements (or that one time 4 years ago…🙄)  

Building Relationships at Home

I LOVE partner yoga activities for this! They are fun, you get to be silly, but they also require partners to work together and communicate effectively. I think the important thing in a family dynamic is to not make it too competitive. Everyone in my family except for me is fairly competitive. When things are too competitive and go sideways, we fall into the blame game which is not great for relationship building. Keep it light and fun so that you can laugh at mistakes when they are made. 

One great activity is to take a ball (soccor, volleyball, or bouncy ball work best) and carry it across the room and back between your bodies without using your hands. Start with it between on the side and hold between each person’s hip. Then between your stomachs, backs, arms etc. Keep going making up rules as you go! This activity always brings laughs which helps create connection, especially between siblings who tend to argue. 

Another great activity is partner yoga poses. These require partners to communicate clearly and to respect boundaries. For the more involved poses to work without hurting each other you have to communicate to let each other know if you’re stable, ready, and nothing is hurting (like your partner’s toes digging into your back!) You can check out the video below for some partner poses as well as the partner ball activity described above. It’s a full 45 minute class but you can skim through to the parts you want to use if you don’t have the time or desire to do a full session. 

Family Yoga class featuring partner games and yoga poses.

Social Awareness

Social awareness is the ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others including those from diverse backgrounds. I explain it to kids as being part of a larger community, outside their family, like school, or the neighbourhood they live in. Of course we want our children to be good global citizens but let’s not overwhelm them right from the start. If children have all the skills of social emotional learning they will naturally be good humans/global citizens. 

Having social awareness means children have the capacity to feel empathy for others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures. To do this in a broader sense, people need to understand broader historical and social norms, and how these standards effect our behaviours. Of course this is a bit heavy for kids but if we teach

  • empathy
  • compassion
  • critical thinking skills
  • gratitude
  • a sense of justice

Children will be equipped as they get older to be open to the experience of those around them in order to learn, grow and affect change. 

Developing Social Awareness at Home

As a family it is a great idea to do something together for your community. You could clean up garbage in the neighbourhood or volunteer for a local non-profit or community organization. 

An easy, fun activity that can be done right away to bring a smile to those in your community is to spread random positive affirmations! Positive affirmations are encouraging statements that help people to feel positively about themselves. You may have seen gardens or walkways with painted rocks with these affirmations on them.

To make it even easier you can use sidewalk chalk and go out into your driveway, the sidewalk, or even a local park, church, ymca. Anywhere in your community and write positive affirmations and messages to anyone who will see them while walking by. If you do it in front of your house, your kids can watch people walk by and see the smile it brings to their face. This can also be done indoors with post it notes as well.

That is what we did at the kids’ camp I ran at a yoga studio. The kids wrote positive messages or compliments on post it notes and we went all over the studio sticking them on the walls, mirrors, exercise equipment etc. It was a nice little surprise when people came in for their next class. 

Family Yoga Challenge

Want some extra help implementing these strategies into your family life?

I’m going to be hosting a FREE family yoga challenge! Each week will focus on one of the social emotional learning skills above with strategies, worksheets, and a family yoga class to do together! Click below to learn more or to register!

Let me know if you try these strategies and how they go for you, or what you use in your own family that works! I’m always looking for new ideas!

Stay Salty Friends,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *