Setting Up an SEL Program in Physical Education Classes
Social and emotional learning skills like teamwork and community can be integrated into PE classes in ways that are highly engaging for students.
I am a multisport athlete, fierce competitor, and seasoned coach. When I was growing up, school wasn’t really my thing, but sports very much were. Athletics connected me to my school community by giving me a sense of belonging and success even when I struggled in the classroom. When I entered education, I knew I wanted to be more than a coach on the field and court—I wanted to help students like me make meaningful connections to school through sports.
In my first year as athletic director and PE teacher at Burbank High School in California, the staff recognized a need for improvement in school culture and morale among teachers. Our school began taking small steps to build a strong community among teachers.
Then the pandemic hit, and like everyone else we switched to virtual learning. Knowing that teachers had been struggling even prior to the switch got my principal and me wondering about our students and what kinds of support networks they had. As a result, he asked me to pilot a social and emotional learning (SEL) program in ninth-grade PE.
Building an SEL Program in Physical Education Classes
Taking inspiration from SEL programming, school counselors, and my own networking, I piloted a program we called Building Bulldogs (named after our mascot) to build a positive school culture, starting from students’ earliest experiences at our school.
I began by examining my PE units in order to pair specific SEL concepts with the skills I was teaching. Sometimes I designed an SEL concept around a PE lesson, and sometimes I designed a PE lesson around an SEL concept—I got creative in how I fused the two.
For example, I incorporated the SEL concepts of collaboration, community, and teamwork into a lesson in my soccer unit on dribbling. I had groups of students work together to create a three-part handshake. Using correct dribbling technique, groups competed against each other in a dribbling relay, and each student did their team’s handshake as they passed the ball to a teammate.
Later in the year, I designed a unit around the SEL concepts of comfort and stretch zones. On day one, I set up an array of equipment for different sports across a field. In groups, students discussed sports that they felt comfortable, confident, and safe playing. They then took turns selecting their comfort sport on the field, doing a brief share, and playing with their group. Afterward, we had a class discussion on the importance of doing things that bring joy and passion, and how sharing that passion with others motivates us and the people around us.
On day two, with the same field design and sporting equipment, I introduced the idea of stretch zones. Students formed the same groups as on day one and discussed which sports were out of their comfort zone and more challenging to them. Some of my students were timid and others slightly frustrated as they struggled to perform the skills in sports in which they were not comfortable. Then we discussed, as a class, how even when something is challenging, awkward, or intimidating, if we recognize the difficulty and intentionally practice, we give ourselves the opportunity to overcome it over time.
Building Bulldogs required more than just adjusting my curriculum—it also meant some changes to the way I taught. I found myself opening up to my students and sharing about my own hardships and successes in order to create a classroom culture of tolerance, genuineness, and trust. As a result, my students felt freer to be their authentic selves as well.
Weekly well-being reflections, an initial cornerstone of Building Bulldogs, illuminated so much that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about my students’ lives: complicated living situations, deaths of loved ones, and a whole array of emotional and material needs. As added support, I connected with the school’s guidance counselor to help me field serious concerns and to co-facilitate sessions when I felt out of my depth.
In fall 2020, Ellya, a student from my PE class the year before, reached out to me because she wanted to become an ambassador for the Building Bulldogs program—the program had really helped, and I was more than happy to involve her.
Physical education teachers are well positioned to advance SEL—the kinesthetic component of Building Bulldogs really drove student engagement. Actively learning SEL concepts brought them to life for my students, demonstrating their value and how they could be applied in other areas of life.
Continuing to Grow
Last year, with the ongoing help of my principal, the guidance counselor, and Ellya, Building Bulldogs became a robust program that reached across the school. When sports and clubs reconvened, I worked with our school counselors to facilitate SEL sessions with the school’s instrumental music director and head coaches of every sport on campus. Ellya is supporting sessions as a peer coach and confidante, as well as using her position in the broadcast journalism club to spread messages from Building Bulldogs and keep students’ social and emotional growth at the forefront of our staff’s minds and priorities.
Outside of PE, I collaborate with coaches and counselors to use SEL lessons with student athletes and cover topics like taking ownership, de-escalating conflicts, and communicating intentionally in high-stress situations. Reflecting on SEL prompts tailored to situations they encounter in their sports, students build their self-awareness and relationship skills.
Every teacher can put their own spin on an SEL program. Don’t let not having a background in mental health stop you—take advantage of professional development opportunities to learn SEL concepts, and tap into your network of counselors, administrators, and experts. Be creative and make it yours. Risk trying new instructional ideas, and know that every lesson will not be an immediate success. Every new program takes time to improve. It will be worth it for your students. And be prepared to grow and be changed yourself in the process, as I was.