top of page

Exploring SEL in PE: Navigating Emotional Development in Physical Education

In an increasingly complex and challenging world, education has expanded its horizons beyond just academics. It's no longer sufficient to equip students with a skill set that is purely intellectual; the need for a holistic approach to education has never been more pertinent. Enter Physical Education, a unique space where cognitive, physical, and social elements intersect, providing fertile ground for the nurturing of not just a healthy body, but also a well-rounded personality.

A Comprehensive Guide to SEL in PE

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has long recognized the importance of developing the whole child. Their framework identifies five core SEL competencies—self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making—that are vital for personal and academic success. Integrating these competencies into PE classes offers an innovative pathway for fostering emotional intelligence and social skills alongside physical well-being. This guide aims to explore the endless possibilities this integration brings, structuring the discussion around these core competencies.


Understanding Social and Emotional Learning: A Foundation

Brief History of SEL

The journey of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) can be traced back to the latter half of the 20th century, although its roots are much older, grounded in various psychological and educational theories. Pioneers in psychology, such as Howard Gardner with his theory of multiple intelligences, and Daniel Goleman, who popularized the term 'emotional intelligence,' laid the foundational groundwork. Over time, educators, psychologists, and researchers recognized the significance of emotional intelligence in personal and academic success.

Fast forward to today, and SEL has moved from the fringes to the mainstream. It is no longer a buzzword but a well-defined educational framework. Research-driven practices and methods have been developed, tested, and refined over the years. With organizations like CASEL providing robust frameworks, SEL has become a cornerstone in modern educational curricula across the globe. These curricula don't just recognize SEL as an accessory but as a critical component that complements academic instruction, setting students up for a more balanced and successful life both inside and outside the classroom.

Many physical education teachers are now just beginning to grasp the full scope of SEL's potential impact, actively incorporating its principles into their school based physical activity programs to foster holistic student development.


The 5 Core Competencies of SEL and Their Application in PE

As we delve into the practical ways to incorporate social emotional learning into your physical education program, let's explore the five core competencies of SEL and how they can be meaningfully applied in a PE setting.


1 - Self-Awareness: The Cornerstone of SEL in PE

Self-awareness is the foundational block upon which other SEL competencies are built. It involves a deep understanding of one's emotions, strengths, and weaknesses. In the context of physical education, self-awareness is crucial for students to evaluate their abilities realistically, set achievable goals, and engage meaningfully in activities.

Self-Awareness in PE: The Cornerstone of SEL in PE

What it Entails

  • Recognizing Emotions: The ability to identify and name one's emotional state.

  • Accurate Self-Perception: Understanding one’s thoughts and how they influence behavior.

  • Recognizing Strengths: Awareness of one's strong skill sets and areas of expertise.

  • Self-Efficacy: The belief in one's abilities to perform specific actions or attain specific personal and collective goals.

  • Self-Confidence: Assurance in oneself and one's capabilities, fostered through experience and understanding.


Application in Physical Education

In PE, self-awareness serves as a cornerstone for creating an enriching and supportive learning environment for a physical education class. Activities and strategies should be designed to help students recognize their emotional states, set achievable goals, and build confidence.

Games and Activities

  • Fitness Challenge Task Cards: Allows students to choose from a variety of exercises, thereby enhancing decision-making and self-evaluation skills.

  • Mood Meter: Before and after activities, ask students to plot their mood on a chart that ranges from low energy to high energy and from negative to positive mood. This encourages emotional recognition and helps students make the connection between physical activity and emotional state.

  • Goal-Setting Journal: Students maintain a journal to set and track their fitness goals, fostering self-efficacy and accountability.

  • Strengths and Weaknesses Obstacle Course: Create an obstacle course where each station represents a different skill set (agility, balance, coordination, etc.). After completing it, students reflect on which stations were more challenging and which were easier, encouraging self-awareness regarding their physical abilities.

Discussion Points

  • Post-Activity Reflection: Encourage students to discuss what they felt during the activity and why. This promotes emotional intelligence and vocabulary.

  • Strengths and Challenges: After activities, have a class discussion about what skills or exercises felt easy or challenging and why, encouraging accurate self-perception.

  • Self-Reflection Sheets: Handouts where students can jot down what they learned about their capabilities during class.

Advocacy Tools

  • Educational Posters: Utilize visuals that outline the elements of self-awareness, such as recognizing emotional skills or understanding strengths.

  • Infographics: These can be displayed in the gym or classroom, providing bite-sized information on the importance of self-awareness.

  • Parent Handouts: Information sheets that parents can use to reinforce self-awareness skills at home.

  • Student-led Demonstrations: Allow students to lead a game or activity, which can then be used to advocate the importance of self-awareness in physical activities. This also builds self-efficacy and leadership skills.


2 - Self-Management: The Discipline Behind Success

Self-management is another key component of SEL, encompassing the skills needed to control one's emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. In the unique arena of physical education, where students are constantly met with physical challenges and team dynamics, self-management skills are essential for both individual and collective success.

Self-Management in PE: The Discipline Behind Success

What it Entails

  • Impulse Control: The ability to regulate immediate reactions to challenging situations.

  • Stress Management: Effectiveness in coping with stressors, such as pressure to perform or team conflicts.

  • Discipline: Maintaining control over one's actions, such as following rules and demonstrating sportsmanship.

  • Goal-Setting: The practice of setting, working toward, and achieving objectives, be it mastering a skill or reaching a fitness milestone.

  • Organizational Skills: The ability to create and maintain systems to manage tasks or activities, like tracking exercise regimes or organizing team rotations.


Application in Physical Education

Self-management is a crucial skill that can be thoughtfully integrated into a PE program through carefully designed activities and practices that promote discipline, patience, and control.

Games and Activities

  • Team Sports Lead-Up Games: These games require impulse control and stress management for effective participation.

  • Fitness Timers/Tabata: Use interval timers during fitness sessions to encourage goal-setting and organizational skills.

  • Yoga and Mindfulness Activities: Effective for stress management, teaching relaxation techniques.

  • Task Card Activities and Challenges: Students follow task cards for different activities, helping them practice organizational skills and discipline.

  • Obstacle Courses: Designed for goal-setting and organizational skills, students can navigate through courses, setting time goals for completion.

Discussion Points

  • Following Rules: Use real-life examples from class activities to discuss the importance of adhering to guidelines and rules.

  • Time Management: Discuss how managing time during activities or games can improve performance, tying it back to stress management and organizational skills.

  • Resilience and Coping: Open conversations about how students cope with losing a game or facing a physical challenge, tying it back to stress management and impulse control.

Advocacy Tools

  • SEL Corner: Create a dedicated space in your gym or physical education space with infographics, posters, or quick tips that focus on self-management.

  • Skill Demonstrations: Allow students to demonstrate or teach a skill they’ve mastered, as a way of advocating the benefits of self-management in skill acquisition.

  • Self-Management Charts: Provide students with charts or logs where they can record their progress in managing stress, controlling impulses, or achieving goals.

  • Guest Speakers: Invite local athletes or coaches to speak about the importance of self-management in sports and life, offering a real-world perspective to the students.

  • Handouts/Website Resources: Provide take-home material or web page resources with tips on self-management skills that can be applied both in PE and in everyday life.


3 - Social Awareness: Fostering Teamwork and Empathy in PE

Social awareness is the ability to take the perspectives of others and apply empathy in various contexts. It involves understanding social cues, appreciating diversity, and showing respect for others. Within the realm of Physical Education, fostering social awareness is vital because students often engage in team activities and collaborate with peers, making it a rich ground for instilling these important life skills.

Social Awareness in PE: Fostering Teamwork and Empathy in PE

What it Entails

  • Empathy: Ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

  • Perspective-Taking: Understanding a situation from multiple viewpoints.

  • Appreciating Diversity: Acknowledging the value of diverse perspectives and cultures.

  • Respect for Others: Treating others with courtesy and understanding to help encourage positive relationships.


Application in Physical Education

Physical Education classes are a prime venue for fostering social awareness through a multitude of activities designed to enhance teamwork, communication, and mutual respect among students.

Games and Activities

  • Parachute Games: Cooperative games like parachute activities encourage teamwork and require an understanding of multiple perspectives for success.

  • Team-Building Relays and Obstacle Courses: Students must navigate a series of challenges that require teamwork and perspective-taking, fostering collaborative problem-solving.

  • Cultural Sports: Introduce sports and games from various cultures to help students appreciate diversity.

Discussion Points

  • Teamwork in Sports: Discuss how cooperation and effective communication are vital in team sports, emphasizing the importance of empathy and perspective-taking.

  • Sportsmanship: After activities, discuss the importance of treating teammates and opponents with respect.

  • Global Perspectives: Use international sports as talking points for appreciating cultural diversity and understanding alternate viewpoints.

  • Diversity and Inclusion: Create open dialogues around the importance of diversity in sports and how it enriches the game by bringing in varied skills and viewpoints.

Advocacy Tools

  • Multimedia Presentations: Employ presentations that illustrate the importance of social awareness in sports and physical activity.

  • Storyboards: Create storyboards or visual timelines of famous athletes who exemplify social awareness and respect for diversity.

  • Guest Speakers: Invite athletes or other individuals who can share personal stories that highlight the importance of social awareness in a sports context.


4 - Relationship Skills: The Social Glue of Physical Education

Relationship skills are essential for the holistic development of a child, and Physical Education provides a natural arena for these skills to be nurtured and honed. Whether it's a relay race or a choreographed dance, PE activities often require students to engage with one another, offering ample opportunities to foster meaningful relationships and enhance social engagement.

Relationship Skills in PE: The Social Glue of Physical Education

What it Entails

  • Communication: The effective expression, interpretation, and joint construction of messages.

  • Social Engagement: Active participation in social activities and group dynamics.

  • Relationship Building: The establishment and maintenance of healthy and rewarding connections with individuals and groups.

  • Teamwork: Collaboration and communication towards achieving a shared goal.


Application in Physical Education

Physical Education classes are rich environments for cultivating relationship skills. Whether it's through team sports or collaborative activities, students have the opportunity to interact, communicate, and work together, all while fostering lasting bonds.

Games and Activities

  • Cooperative Challenges: Tasks that require groups to solve problems or accomplish a physical feat together, reinforcing communication and mutual support.

  • Relay Races: Require teams to strategize and communicate effectively to accomplish a goal, thus emphasizing teamwork and communication.

  • Dance Routines: Working in pairs or small groups, students must coordinate their movements, showcasing the importance of communication and social engagement.

  • Tag Variations: Games like "Freeze Tag" or "Turtle Tag" require students to strategize together, encouraging relationship building and teamwork.

Discussion Points

  • Importance of Communication: After activities, facilitate a discussion on how effective communication contributed to the success or failure of the activity.

  • Active Listening: Discuss the role of listening in effective communication and teamwork.

  • Mutual Respect in Teamwork: Explore themes around giving and earning respect within a team and how that impacts performance and morale.

  • Team Dynamics: Explore how teamwork and individual roles within a team impact the group's overall performance.

Advocacy Tools

  • Wall Visuals: Use posters or bulletin boards to highlight the "SEL Skill of the Week," which can be a focal point for that week's activities

  • Weekly SEL Focus: Introduce a weekly or monthly focus on a particular relationship skill, like active listening or teamwork, and incorporate activities that emphasize it.

  • Class Discussions: Dedicate time each week to discuss the SEL competency being focused on, allowing students to share experiences and insights.


5 - Responsible Decision-Making: Cultivating Ethical Choices and Problem-Solving in PE

Responsible decision-making is an essential competency that goes beyond the classroom and into every aspect of life. In the unique setting of physical education, students are constantly making decisions, from strategic choices during a game to ethical judgments on fair play. The key is to guide students in making decisions that are both ethically sound and socially responsible.

Responsible Decision-Making: Cultivating Ethical Choices and Problem-Solving in PE

What it Entails

  • Identifying Problems: Recognizing when a problem exists and needs addressing.

  • Analyzing Situations: Carefully considering the pros and cons before making a decision.

  • Problem-Solving: Utilizing critical thinking skills to find effective solutions.

  • Ethical Responsibility: Making choices that align with ethical standards and social norms.


Application in Physical Education

Physical education is an ideal setting for teaching responsible decision-making because it often places students in scenarios where they must make immediate decisions under varying conditions.

Games and Activities

  • Scenario-Based Games: Create activities where students have to make choices that could affect the outcome, helping them understand the consequences of their decisions.

  • Team/Small Group Courses: Design courses where students have to strategize to navigate through challenges, thereby honing their problem-solving skills.

  • Large Group Strategic Games: Adapt these games into a physical setting to stimulate analytical thinking.

  • Ethics in Action: Run games where the rules are deliberately left vague, requiring students to negotiate and agree upon the rules, fostering ethical responsibility.

Discussion Points

  • Fair Play: After games, engage students in conversations about the ethical choices they made during play, whether good or bad.

  • Decision-Making Process: After complex games or activities, discuss the decisions students made, why they made them, and what they would change if given another chance.

  • Ethics in Sports: Open a dialogue about the significance of fair play, respect for opponents, and adherence to the rules.

  • Sportsmanship: Discuss the importance of respecting opponents and adhering to rules as integral parts of sports ethics.

Advocacy Tools

  • Role-Playing Scenarios: Use role-play to simulate situations where students must make ethical decisions in a sports context, such as whether to call a foul they committed but wasn't seen by the referee.

  • Posters and Infographics: Create visual aids that outline the steps of responsible decision-making, from identifying problems to ethical execution.

  • Ethical Sportsmanship Awards: Introduce an award system that recognizes and celebrates ethical decision-making and fair play in your PE classes.

  • Decision Trees: Use decision trees to visually represent the consequences of various actions, providing a concrete learning aid.


5 Key Benefits for Integrating SEL into PE

As physical education teachers strive to equip students with the skills they need for a well-rounded life, integrating Social and Emotional Learning into PE presents a prime opportunity for multifaceted growth. Let's delve into the five key benefits that this integration brings to both students and the broader educational environment.

  1. Holistic Student Development: PE is traditionally seen as the go-to class for physical fitness, but incorporating SEL allows for more holistic development of a child. While students work on their physical abilities, they also get to sharpen their emotional intelligence, teamwork skills, and ability to cope with challenges. This balanced development ensures that they are well-equipped not just physically but also emotionally and socially, which is invaluable in all aspects of life.

  2. Enhanced Learning Environment: The presence of SEL creates a more inclusive, respectful, and collaborative learning environment. Students become more attuned to the emotional and social dynamics around them, leading to decreased incidents of bullying or exclusion and promoting an atmosphere where everyone feels they belong and can participate fully.

  3. Improved Academic Achievement: Research has consistently shown that students with strong SEL skills are also better at academic subjects. These skills—like self-management, attention control, and problem-solving—directly correlate with classroom behaviors that lead to academic success. By blending SEL into PE, educators create another platform for students to hone these skills, potentially impacting their performance across various subjects.

  4. Conflict Resolution and Social Cohesion: Many physical activities in PE require teamwork, where conflict is inevitable. By proactively integrating SEL into these situations, students are provided with the tools to resolve conflicts in a healthy manner. They learn to listen actively, empathize, and find mutually beneficial solutions, which fosters a more cooperative and respectful environment. This is an essential skill that translates well into classroom settings, other group activities, and eventually, the workplace.

  5. Long-term Behavioral Outcomes: The effects of SEL are long-lasting and extend well into adulthood. Skills like emotional regulation, responsible decision-making, and social awareness are not just academic topics; they are life skills. When learned early, especially in an engaging setting like PE, these skills become ingrained behaviors that contribute to personal and societal well-being. From higher rates of employment to better mental health, the long-term benefits are both compelling and wide-reaching.

Incorporating SEL into your PE curriculum is not merely an educational strategy; it's an investment in the future well-being of the students you serve.


Bridging SEL and SHAPE America’s Standard 4: Aligning Objectives

The specific Standard 4 statement from SHAPE America (Society of Health and Physical Educators) is as follows: "The physically literate individual exhibits responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others."

This standard aims to instill in students a sense of responsibility and ethical conduct when they're participating in physical activities. Whether they are in a structured physical education setting or an informal physical activity, the intent is for students to understand the importance of treating themselves and others with respect. This encompasses following rules, making ethical choices, and exhibiting sportsmanship.

Standard 4 serves as a critical anchor point for integrating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) into physical education, as it aligns naturally with SEL's core competencies like responsible decision-making and social awareness.

Key Alignments Between SEL and Standard 4

  1. Behavioral Focus: Both Standard 4 and SEL prioritize personal and social behavior, making them inherently aligned in their objectives.

  2. Teamwork and Self-Management: Standard 4 accentuates teamwork in physical activities. This aligns seamlessly with SEL's self-management competency, where aspects like impulse control play a vital role in team dynamics.

  3. Ethical Behavior & Responsible Decision-Making: The focus of Standard 4 on ethical behavior finds its counterpart in SEL's responsible decision-making. For example, adhering to the rules of a game is not just about fair play but also about making ethical and responsible choices.

  4. Cooperation and Social Awareness: Standard 4's emphasis on cooperation is mirrored in SEL's social awareness competency, which involves empathy and perspective-taking.

By recognizing these alignments, educators can craft a physical education curriculum that doesn't just develop physical skills but also builds emotional intelligence. It creates a multi-faceted learning environment that is more in tune with the holistic development needs of students.


Character Education vs. SEL: Understanding the Distinctions in a Physical Education Context

In the realm of physical education, there's often a conflation between Character Education and Social Emotional Learning (SEL), although they serve distinct yet complementary purposes. Understanding the nuanced differences and similarities between these two educational frameworks can help educators develop a more holistic approach to student development.


Character Education in PE


Primary Focus

Moral and ethical values such as honesty, integrity, and respect.

Broad range of competencies including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Skill Development

Focuses on nurturing ethical behavior, like good sportsmanship and fair play.

Aims to develop emotional intelligence and social skills alongside ethical values.

Application in Games

Teaching the importance of following rules, respecting referees, and valuing teamwork.

Emotional regulation during games, understanding teammates' perspectives, and constructive conflict resolution.

Pedagogical Tools

Direct instruction on virtues, stories illustrating ethical dilemmas, reward systems based on ethical behavior.

Games, activities, discussion points, and advocacy tools that focus on building SEL competencies.

Measurement of Success

Based on behavioral outcomes related to ethical and moral principles, like honesty in gameplay.

Assessed through a combination of behavioral outcomes and internal emotional and social competencies.

Examples in PE

Lessons on the value of honesty when keeping score, exercises that emphasize teamwork and collaboration.

Activities that build emotional awareness, like identifying feelings during a game, or promoting empathy by understanding a teammate's challenges.

10 Great Character Traits to Show in Physical Education

While character Education and SEL both aim to develop well-rounded individuals, they do so through different pathways and focus areas. Character Education hones in on ethical principles, whereas SEL provides a comprehensive approach to emotional and social health, making them complementary but distinct strategies in the realm of physical education.


Final Thoughts

Integrating Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) into physical education is not merely an educational trend, but a necessity for holistic student development. The alignment between SEL and physical education is not only beneficial but also mutually reinforcing. While the physical activities help manifest core competencies like self-management and social awareness, the competencies, in turn, deepen the level of engagement and effectiveness of the PE experience. Thus, adopting SEL within PE curriculums can pave the way for a more comprehensive, responsive, and impactful educational paradigm that prepares our students for the complexities of the real world.


Additional Resources

For those interested in diving deeper into the subject, here are some additional resources:

By incorporating these resources, physical education instructors can bring a new depth of meaning and effectiveness to their programs.


Download a FREE SEL in Physical Education Visual for your Gym or Classroom!

SEL Essentials on Display

Introducing "SEL in Action: The Game Plan!" This poster synthesizes the essential CASEL 5 core competencies into a colorful and dynamic representation, set against the backdrop

of an active gym floor. Each competency—self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills—is vividly brought

to life with a title and an actionable caption that guides students on how to

incorporate these skills into their physical education routine. Accompanied by

student-friendly graphics, the poster serves as a visual playbook for SEL engagement.

Fill in the form below to download this "SEL in Action: The Game Plan!" poster with five different color schemes to choose from, ensuring a perfect match for your gym or classroom decor. Originally sized for standard printing, this versatile PDF visual is also designed to be easily enlarged using any school or commercial poster-maker, transforming it into an eye-catching feature that will command the attention of the entire gym.


Check out the Entire SEL in Physical Education Poster Series!

Welcome to the definitive collection for fostering Social Emotional Learning in the dynamic world of physical education: the "SEL in Physical Education Poster Series - 6 Set Visual Bundle". This meticulously assembled package is your comprehensive resource for integrating SEL into your PE curriculum. Anchored by the vibrant "Welcome to PE: Where Every Activity Builds a Better You!" poster, this series encapsulates the essence of the CASEL 5 core competencies, beautifully rendered to captivate and educate.

  • Welcome to PE: Where Every Activity Builds a Better You! (Anchor Poster)

  • Self-Awareness in PE: Own Your Game

  • Social Awareness in PE: Engage and Respect

  • Self-Management in PE: Control Your Play

  • Responsible Decision-Making in PE: Make the Right Move

  • Relationship Skills in PE: Team Up for Success

Designed with the educator’s needs in mind, each poster is available in both PDF and JPG formats and comes with five color variations to complement any gym or classroom setting. They are perfectly sized for standard printing but also primed for enlargement on a poster-maker to create impactful, large-scale visuals. Place these posters around your gym or playing area for a constant source of inspiration and guidance, making the SEL in Physical Education Poster Series - 6 Set Visual Bundle an invaluable addition to your teaching toolkit.



Recent Posts

bottom of page