Physical Education is the cornerstone for Social and Emotional Learning

Guest blog by Mary Costa, PE teacher at Martha Reid Leadership Academy in Mansfield ISD.

As educators, we know that students have an inside self and an outside self.  We observe some social/emotional behaviors such as: students showing respect for others, positively experiencing content, and being actively involved in learning, and supporting and helping others.  Other behaviors cannot be observed as clearly: feelings, dispositions, values, attitudes, and self-perceptions.  The “emotional reactions” to certain situations.

Educators use the affective domain of learning as an umbrella term that can include student feelings, interests, emotions, desires, attitudes, appreciations, commitment, will power, dispositions, morals and values. These emotions and feelings are complex, hard to measure and difficult to teach. Affective behaviors all influence how learners respond to themselves, the teacher, each other and the learning experiences.  Affective learning is also known as social/emotional learning (SEL)

So, what is SEL? According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social-emotional learning is “the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

In the classroom, in the gym, and on an athletic field, emotions affect all of us in many ways. Students and athletes can struggle with the regulation and impact of their emotions. SEL focuses on these skills and helps create a “toolbox,” which can be used to help students identify feelings and recognize how their body is responding to those feelings. In my classes and other interactions with students, I now spend more time practicing mindful activities. We work to reflect and self-evaluate in order to address and strengthen the skill of self-awareness.

A physical active environment is an ideal place to enhance these skills. Whether achieving a personal best in the mile run, competing on a successful team, or dropping a catch during a key play – these are all situations where social-emotional learning comes in to play.

There are five core competencies that can be taught in many ways across many settings;

  1. Self-Awareness
  2. Self-Management
  3. Social Awareness
  4. Relationship Skills
  5. Responsible Decision-Making

Physical Education or a physically active environment allows perfect “teachable moments” in all five.


The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.  The ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism and a mindset of growth.

  • Identifying emotions
  • Healthy self-perception
  • Recognizing strengths
  • Self-confidence
  • Self-efficacy


The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations – effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself.  The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

  • Impulse control
  • Stress management
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-motivation
  • Goal setting
  • Organizational skills


The ability to take the perspective of, and empathize with others, from diverse ethnicities and cultures.  The ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

  • Differentiated
  • Empathy
  • Appreciation for diversity
  • Respect for others


The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups.  The ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

  • Communication
  • Social engagement
  • Relationship-building
  • Teamwork


The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms.  The realistic evaluation of the consequences of various actions, and the consideration of one’s self and others’ well-being.

  • Identifying problems
  • Analyzing situations
  • Solving problems
  • Evaluating
  • Reflecting
  • Ethical responsibility

Whether you’re a coach or a physical education teacher consider other SEL skills—problem-solving and planning, teamwork/cooperation, resilience and overcoming obstacles, using feedback effectively, recognizing success—and the various ways you can bolster them in your students. The following are a few easy activities that I was able to participate in during the TAHPERD Convention.

  1. Altershake (R/L Shake) – Everyone starts shaking hands beginning with either a right-handed shake or a left-handed shake. The flow must then be back and forth, alternating rights and lefts, not repeating anyone in the group, and shaking the exact goal number set beforehand (we usually shoot for a total of 3 to 5 less than the total group number). Can the group get everyone through it…exactly?
  2. Hello, Goodbye (aka You’re Out) – Groups of 5 to 7 stand in a circle…ready to kick someone out of their “clan”. The leader may say; “the oldest in the group”. The group must then determine who the oldest in their “clan” is…and they are “kicked out” of the circle. The leader may follow with; “the tallest in the group”, and they must exit the circle. This continues until people realize that, a. our group is shrinking (you may want to pull some people who were kicked out, into your group), or b. the people who get “kicked out” realize that they might want to get together and form their own clan. How does it feel to get kicked out? How does it feel to be pulled back in? What can groups do (or not do)?
  3. Partner Scarf Tag – Partners hold a scarf between them and using their free outside hand, tag other teams. When a pair is tagged, they must split from each other and each must re-connect with a new partner…one keeping the scarf and holding it high in the air looking for a no scarf person, the other with no scarf looking for a scarf person.
  4. Pinky Volley Tennis – Partners hold a scarf between them with their left hand(s) and volley a pinky (or any sized ball with a “good bounce”) over their scarf net with their right hand(s). The ball must bounce once before being returned over the net. Partners work cooperatively to obtain the desired number of volleys and then split to play with a new partner…one partner takes the scarf and the other takes the pinky to join someone new.
  5. SEL In Sync – In Sync All In Sync: A group of 5-10 try to Sync up the movements of the exercises doing each activity 10 times in Sync with each other.
      • Jump up and land 10X in Sync
      • Walking Lunges 10X
      • 10 Pushups in Sync
      • Hop on 1foot 10X in Sync
      • 10 Daddy Sharks
      • Grapevine Step to the Right 10X in Sync
      • 10 Jumping Jacks in Sync
      • Clap 10X in Sync
      • 10 Sit-ups in Sync
      • 10 Ski Jumps left and right in Sync
      • Walk backward 10 steps in Sync
      • Jump forwards and backward 10X in Sync
      • Alternating Right and Left Kicks in Sync
      • 10 Burpees in Sync
      • Grapevine Step to the left 10X in Sync   
  • 6. Cooperative Rope Run (Loose Caboose Style) – 5 to 6 students hold onto a long jump rope (10 footers work well) staggered on both sides of the rope. The “train” then moves around the open space at varying speeds…avoiding all other trains. As they move, directions are layered on the team…
    • Reverse – The train/team simply turns to go the other direction (switch the hand holding the rope)
    • Backward – The team/rope moves backward
    • Right/Left – The team slides to the right or the left
    • 1 and 3 – Persons numbered 1 and 3 (or 2 and 4, or 3 and 5) in the line switch positions
    • Loose Caboose – The last person in the line (caboose) drops off and runs to a new group (becomes their new caboose)
    • Train Whistle – Reach up with your outside hand and pull the chord down for a loud train whistle sound (WOO-WOO)!

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