An Age-by-Age Guide to SEL Activities for Kids and Teens

Here's how to incorporate essential social-emotional learning skills into your child's life—at every age and grade level.

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The COVID pandemic and two-and-a-half years of interrupted schooling has had a tremendous impact on our children. We are constantly hearing phrases like “learning loss” in the media, but the pandemic also had a profound impact on our kids' mental and social-emotional health.

Many young children born after 2018-2019 were not able to fully socialize with their peers at parks or through play dates due to the shutdowns at the height of the pandemic. Why does this matter? We know the importance of social-emotional intelligence for both school success and lifetime success. That's where social-emotional learning (SEL) comes in, and play is a major part of developing that.

As a special education teacher, a professor of child development and education, and—more importantly—as a mother of two children, I understand the role that parents play in helping our children’s emotional development. That's why I created this age- and grade-based guide of social-emotional learning activities that parents can tap into to help foster their kids' growth at home.

Social-Emotional Learning Activities for Toddlers and Preschool Kids

Parental regulation

It’s important to remember what is developmentally appropriate for this age group (1-4 years). They are very young, still learning to speak, and pre-literate. It is normal for them to express themselves physically because they are not able to fully express themselves verbally yet. It is key that as the adult in the room we remember to self-regulate our own emotions and parent from a place of calm. If we find ourselves overwhelmed, it is good to model that to our children and say, “right now I need to calm myself down and take a minute before responding.” It is perfectly fine not to have a response in that moment.

Mood Charts

An activity I like doing with young children to develop their social-emotional intelligence is creating visual mood charts or mood meters. Simply draw or print out faces displaying different moods and emotions and have the kids glue them or tape them on a piece of construction paper. You can then practice making these faces with your child in the mirror and label the emotions of the faces you are making. Parents should make sure to hang the mood chart somewhere central in the home so that when their young children are feeling sad, angry, hurt, or afraid, it’s easy to access and their child can point to it when they are feeling overwhelmed with emotions and may not be able to access their words. This can be a chart that the entire family uses.  


Piaget famously said that “Play is the work of childhood.” According to research done by the National Association for Education of Young Children, play is important for children as they use play to work through their emotions and their anxieties. Get on the floor and play dolls or action figures with your small child and let them take the lead. You may see them act out a scene of you taking a business trip to work out their anxiety, or you may witness them play doctor if they know they have a doctor’s visit coming up and they are nervous about getting their annual vaccines. For example, I saw my own small children acting out giving each other their COVID vaccine at the doctor office.


Parents should sit with their children and put art supplies out—crayons, washable paint, and washable markers are all great—and allow children to draw and paint what they are feeling. Caregivers can also encourage their children to draw or paint a “story” of what happened that may be causing their child to feel sad, scared, or anxious. The parent can sit with their child and write down their child’s words on an index card so that you can read the words later with your child.

Recommended Reading

Children’s books can help foster emotional intelligence—and are a great way to connect with your child. Listening to the stories and seeing the vibrant pictures in the books can help children relate those same scenarios to their real lives. Here are some picture books to read with your kids, plus the emotions they're great for:

  • For separation anxiety: The Kissing Hand
  • For worry and anxiety: Wemberly Worried
  • For anger: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • For sadness and empathy: The Rabbit Listened

Social-Emotional Learning Activities for Elementary School Kids


Kids in elementary school are still young and need much of the same social-emotional support from parents as very young children. For example, preschoolers and elementary school age children still need play time and imaginative play as activities to develop their emotional intelligence. However, as they get older their play will be more elaborate.


Parents can encourage kids to write and illustrate a story—or their own comic strip—about how they are feeling. Lead by example by sitting with your child and illustrating your own story sharing emotions.

Mindfulness activities

Kids this age can start to learn simple mindfulness activities like deep breathing and yoga as a family. It's a great way to help children get in touch with their bodies and help regulate their emotions by tuning into how their bodies are feeling.

Recommended Reading

As children get older it's important for picture books to get more complex to reflect their growing vocabulary and social emotional interactions. Here are the books to add to your library:

  • For confidence and new interactions: I Am Enough or The Day You Begin
  • For making friends: Ira Crumb Feels the Feelings
  • For trying new things: Jabari Jumps
  • For loss and community: A Chair for My Mother

Social-Emotional Learning Activities for Middle Schoolers and High Schoolers

We want to continue to lay the foundation for our kids' social-emotional development as they get older and, as parents, we want to encourage them to engage in as many different healthy activities as possible to support that development.


We can encourage our kids to write down their feelings in a journal. As parents, we can even have this be a family activity where a parent and child set time daily or weekly for writing down our feelings and emotions.

Mindfulness activities

The brain-body connection continues to be important as our children get older. At this age we find that technology continues to play an even bigger part in their lives. Parents can use apps like Calm and Headspace to get their children to participate in mindfulness activities as a family.


Older children also need access to the arts to release stress and anxiety and to continue to build their social-emotional intelligence. Sometimes our tweens and teens may not be ready to share what is going on. However, they may be able to express themselves through their art, music, song, or dance.

Recommended Reading

Tweens and teens may be independent readers but we can still spend time reading out loud to—or with—our older children. There is an entire world of middle grade, young adult books, and graphic novels out there that address a multitude of themes in ingenious ways. All of these are SEL-approved:

  • For dealing with racism, poverty, and school struggles: Miles Morales: Spider-Man
  • For self-acceptance: Percy Jackson and the Olympians
  • For racism and elitism: The Hate U Give
  • For loss and death: The Fault in Our Stars
  • For inclusivity and acceptance: Nubia: Real One

The Bottom Line

Our children seem to be facing new stressors—from the pandemic to cyber-bullying to climate change—every day on top of the common stressors that many children face growing up. It's our job as parents to use the resources at hand to help our kids deal in a healthy way.

Children of all ages need us to listen to them share their worries, anxieties, and emotions without judgment. Sometimes our initial reaction when we hear our child, of any age, is to want to “solve the problem” for them. We do this because we love our children and want their problems to go away. But it’s important to allow our children to feel the full range of their emotions and to be able to express their feelings openly to us.

And remember: Well-regulated parents are better able to model self-regulation for our children. When we are feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated it is fine to step back and calm ourselves first before we interact with our children if they are not harming themselves or others.

Explore More

Children have less unstructured free time than ever before, but play is beneficial to their mental health and overall well-being. Read more of Parents’ deep dive on how kids play today—plus tips for caregivers to get involved in—and even lead—the fun.

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