Professors Carol Ciotto and Ellen Benham of Central Connecticut State University are experts on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). At the 2022 Health and Physical Literacy Summit, they shared a review of these skills, as well as in-room exercises to team them in an athletics/physical education space.
Their strategies center on what is referred to as the CASEL wheel. CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has become the industry standard for SEL in schools. The benefits of teaching SEL are countless. Disciplinary issues, mental health, and academic performance are all improves through successful SEL implementation.
CASEL has 5 primary categories through which we understand the student SEL experience:
- Self Awareness
- Self Management
- Social Awareness
- Relationship Skills
- Responsible Decision Making
The theory behind these concepts is unquestioned. Educators regularly find themselves wrestling with the practice; that is, how can we incorporate the teaching of these skills? Ciotto and Benham shared 5 easy-to-use strategies for an active environment. They and their students have found these to be effective in both sport and physical education.
The true impact of SEL is not fully realized until it is embedded in a school’s culture. But for the coaches, these exercises provide a great place to start.
5 SEL Exercises
Exercise: “Meet me in the Middle”
Description: Partners begin on opposite sides of the room. The teacher/coach poses a question or an activity, then each partner hustles to the center of the room to engage with each other. For a self-awareness exercise, make these questions reflective – for example, “how are you feeling today?” “what was the best part of your day so far?” or “what was your favorite meal this week and why?” Each partner takes a moment to reflect on their experience, then shares.
After the questions have been answered, the teacher/coach send the partners back to their side of the room. This continues for about 10 ‘reps’. After a few questions, the facilitator will incorporate a movement instead. For example, “5 burpees” or “5 pushups” – when activities are substituted for questions, the students hustle in and hustle back quickly.
Students will begin to tune in to their own state, developing – appropriately – a level of self-awareness. The movement/gameplay makes this feel less prescriptive.
Exercise: “What Do You Have in Common?”
Description: Surprisingly simple. Find someone in class you don’t know that well and find 10 things you have in common. Add the cue, “it can’t be obvious” – they’ll understand. Don’t accept responses like “we go to the same school,” make them dig deep and keep it interesting! When Ciotto and Benham ran this exercise, we named things like “clam chowder lovers” or “we’ve both owned pet lizards” and “we’re both fans of the comedian Bill Murray.” Share out at the end. Simple as it seems, if you have a thoughtful group, this can be really fun.
This can be added to any movement-based session. Do this between sets of pickle ball, between sprints, or between practice segments. Get creative, Coach!
Exercise: “A Mindful Countdown”
Description: Do these progressively, giving the description for the next step when the one before it is complete. Take 5 breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth). Notice 4 things about your immediate area (no detail is too small). Name 3 things you’re grateful for. Identify 2 things you’re proud of yourself for. Think of 1 thing you’re looking forward to.
The rationale for these questions is well-considered (drawing upon research from Dr. Ellen Langer and Dr. David DeSteno, among others) but nothing speaks louder than this: every participant felt better on the back end of the exercise.
Exercise: “Reflection Ball” or “Awareness Orb”
Description: I was admittedly skeptical here… but it was a solid activity. A group of people will circle up and one of them with begin with a ball. The teacher/coach asks a question that always begins with a similar prompt, “When I am with another person or group of people I feel ________ when…” for each round the teacher/coach will insert a feeling. Confused, embarrassed, happy, sad, excited. Anything. The person with the ball will share a moment they were confused in a situation with a peer, then pass the ball across the circle.
Once everyone has shared, a new question will be posed. Emotion regulation is essential to all 5 of CASEL’s concepts, and it always begins with tuning in to one’s emotions. When it comes to emotion regulation, noticing them and naming them is always the first step. The activity was a disarming way to tap into and share emotions. Ciotto and Benham note that students will get surprisingly deep as the rounds progress.
Exercise: “The Desert Island 5”
Description: Break into small groups. The teacher/coach will offer the following prompt. “Imagine that you are on a desert island. As a group, select 5 items you’ll need to survive on the island or escape from it.” It is a surprisingly good opportunity to practice relationship skills, since the question has been expertly designed. Groups get caught up in their discussion if they do not first align on whether their primary aim is to survive on the island or escape from it. This can cause minor arguments – they’ll have to work through them! Then, everyone will have an opinion on what aught to be prioritized. Working through this or similar hypothetical situations forces teammates to discuss something outside of their sport or daily scholastic norms.
Share out. The ohs and ahs and we should have thought of thats will be a strong note to end the exercise and give validation to creative groups.
Get Creative and SHARE
As mentioned, the true impact of SEL is not fully realized until it is embedded in a school’s culture. These 5 lessons are an easy way to get the ball rolling, but they are just a starting point. YOU are the expert of your space, engage your student athletes to dig deeper, get more creative, and adjust as needed.
For example, in our weightroom today we did a version of the “What do you have in common?” exercise between sets of back squat. Before a lifter can move on to their next set, they have to identify one unique thing their lifting group has in common. This can be more challenging in bigger group, which creates opportunities to dig even deeper. We had a group of four identify that all of them “traveled to Wisconsin this summer” and “’don’t mind’ pineapple on their pizza”. It seems superficial, perhaps, but imagine all the small bits of conversation that occur to land on one of those topics.
So get creative, Coach. And if you find any successful strategies to build Self-Awareness, Self-Management, Social Awareness, Relationship Skills, and Responsible Decision Making in your setting, please REACH OUT and share!
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