Bringing SEL into your schools

Lessons from SEL Day 2021 for SEL Day 2022

By Maurice J. Elias and Jennifer Ly, Rutgers University SECD Lab and SEL4NJ

On March 26, 2021, hundreds of schools in New Jersey joined in the celebration of the second International Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) Day. They shared the SEL, character, school culture and climate, and student voice activities they did on that day, during the preceding week or two, and during the whole academic year. 

On that day, over 12 million social media engagements and interactions were recorded on these activities—and this was the middle of the pandemic!

As we continue into this school year, it’s clear that SEL is essential for helping our students and staff deal with the past year’s strong emotions. There were many losses but also accomplishments. Some aspects of learning became highly challenging, but a tremendous amount was learned about individual health, public health, social justice, history and civics, resilience, and economics; the list goes on and on. Without being able to deal with their strong emotions, feel empathy, take others’ perspectives, and problem-solve ethically, our students will not be able to learn from the past year to grow and work constructively to make this year better.

New Jersey schools show the way

The Social-Emotional Alliance for New Jersey (SEL4NJ) is a voluntary, grass-roots organization of individual educators, schools, districts, professional organizations, parents, advocacy groups, and anyone else deeply concerned about the future of our youth, our schools, and our democracy. Its website is

SEL4NJ is one of 20 state alliances that are part of SEL4US, which managed International SEL Day in collaboration with the Urban Assembly network of schools. David Adams, the CEO of the Urban Assembly, is a product of New Jersey schools, including Rutgers, and sends his own children to New Jersey public schools. 

SEL4NJ documented ways in which New Jersey schools responded to the challenge of International SEL Day, and we are privileged to be able to share with you some of the creative work done by four schools and districts with a strong, yearlong commitment to SEL who also stepped up with special activities for SEL Day. We hope to share additional SEL Day strategies in another NJEA Review article before March 11, 2022—the next International SEL Day. In the meantime, be sure to visit

Students in Butler creating stress balls.

Sparta Township Public Schools

Every morning during SEL Week, the students and educators at Sparta Township Public Schools would begin the day with one mindful minute on the morning announcements. This exercise allowed the students to focus on their breathing and give them the opportunity to deeply self-reflect and reconnect with themselves.

Prior to SEL Week, the students, school staff members, and parents completed a survey to assess their knowledge and understanding of SEL. The data from these surveys identified what specific strengths could be highlighted and which areas needed to be developed. 

“SEL Week was an opportunity for us to showcase what we have been doing throughout the school year,” says Dr. Saskia Brown, the director of Student Support Services. This is a key point—Dr. Brown used SEL Week for the purpose of focusing and highlighting SEL, but Sparta’s SEL efforts are yearlong and across schools. For SEL Week, Sparta set out to bring awareness and promote SEL and highlight the district’s SEL efforts and initiatives. 

Sparta had a C3 Social-Emotional Learning Workgroup (see, and one of its initial tasks was to produce a video that featured various educators and members of the Sparta community. In the video they defined SEL and explained the research-based evidence that shows how SEL supports learning. The video detailed Sparta’s Choose Love program and the three-tiered model instituted using the SEL competencies. 

Sparta wanted to target educator self-care, so educators, counselors, school administrators, and staff members were encouraged to attend the group workshop presented by Dr. Michelle Hinkle and Dr. Meredith Drew, counselors from Paterson University’s Department of Special Education and Counseling. The counselors highlighted the importance and necessity of wellness and self-care and demonstrated ways to incorporate self-care in their lives. Students, teachers, educational support professionals and other staff members received awards throughout the week, including gift cards or self-care products such as candles or facemasks, recognizing times they engaged in a self-care activity. You can see their Self-Care Check-in at

Students at Woodrow Wilson Middle School in Edison engaged in the Wheel of Fun during the Walk, Talk, and Do lesson.

In partnership with the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Health Technology Transfer Center, Sparta hosted a three-part workshop series that engaged parents in the conversation about social-emotional learning in school and at home. All of the recordings and resources from the workshop were shared with parents. 

This encouraged parents to learn more about SEL and help them promote wellness in their lives and those of their children.

Butler Public Schools

The counselors at each of the public schools in Butler created a “choice board” that consisted of various activities that teachers could choose from on SEL Day. Some of these activities extended beyond SEL Day, such as a themed bulletin board in the fifth-grade hallway on growth mindset. Other activities outlined on the choice board included leading a meditation session, creating online/paper mandalas, or engaging in brain breaks such as a freeze dance. 

The students engaged in different activities throughout the day, such as going through a guided meditation, reading a poem or book that highlights SEL, journaling exercises, and more. 

A series of station activities for middle and high school students was set up during their lunch periods. Walking from table to table, students made stress balls, wrote “compli-mints,” and created mindful mints. On bulletin board paper, students wrote coping skills and things for which they were grateful. Counselor Vikki Szabo, one of the leaders of these activities, expressed her gratitude for the fantastic work done by faculty and staff by personally delivering treats (while masked, of course) from a rolling cart. 

Bridgeton Public Schools

Bridgeton values SEL in ways large and small and has focused strongly on SEL and the visual arts. Kerri Sullivan, the district supervisor for the Arts, passionately discussed how visual arts became an outlet for students.

“Last year, students did not have a lot of opportunities to safely express themselves and to make sense of what they were feeling … now students can connect to the arts and connect to their emotions in a way we have never seen previously.” 

You might say the entire district became an artist’s palette for SEL Day, as students and staff all wore yellow. The color was chosen because it symbolizes optimism, happiness and energy. Yellow also signifies intelligence and mental focus.

An SEL4NJ and ArtsEdNJ collaborative work group intentionally considered the intersection of arts education and SEL. (See Art teachers in Bridgeton were equipped with a framework of the SEL competencies that were one of the outcomes of the work group. They were encouraged to use the framework to guide and support their lessons in the classroom. Visual arts became an outlet for the students to get in touch with themselves and dive deep into their thoughts and feelings. 

In music class at Broad Street Elementary School, students created playlists that reflected their different moods. To develop the students’ artistic thinking, they were instructed to make playlists for an audience interested in listening to a specific mood. For example, one student made a happy playlist targeting an audience that needs to be cheered up. That exercise challenged the students’ artistic thinking and emotional and perspective-taking skills. It allowed them to see new ways the arts can have a positive impact. 

Also at Broad Street School, visual arts educator Dr. Anne Marie Pai instructed students to get in touch with their emotions and thoughts. She had them learn about various artists and their techniques, such as color use, lines, and shapes, for expressing emotions. She introduced them to artists such as  Edvard Munch, Joan Miro, Georgia O’Keefe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kristin Gaudio-Endsley, Chuck Jones, Elaine de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Alexandra Levasseur. Students went on to express their own emotions by creating paintings, drawings, sculptures, and other visual arts pieces.

Visit to watch video created by Bridgeton High School dance students. It is a great example of social awareness (SEL) and connecting (artistic process).

Woodrow Wilson Middle School, Edison Township

Wendy Hurwitz-Kushner, a seventh-grade social studies teacher, is a leader in Woodrow Wilson Middle School’s use of SEL. 

“We want to create a safe space for these students,” Hurwitz-Kushner said. “We want them to engage in more self-reflection and have everyone feel more comfortable with each other.” 

If this was true last year, how much truer is it for the 2021-22 school year?

Hurwitz-Kushner got her students emotionally ready for learning by hosting yoga sessions with her in-person students, and live on a separate Zoom meeting with the students at home. 

Woodrow Wilson eighth-graders had a choice menu. They decided which brief activities to do for the day. The activities ranged from taking a walk outside, shooting hoops, relaxing, coloring/drawing, listening to music, dancing, singing, exercising, doing yoga or meditating, writing a poem or story, playing with a pet, or reading something for pleasure. After completing the activity, the students were instructed to write a reflection on how they felt while doing the activity. 

Teachers handed out daily check-ins on Google Forms to their students. The teachers looked for creative ways to evaluate their students’ well-being. For example, a student might rate their mood using emojis or on a scale with different images of Harry Potter. 

There is no doubt that Woodrow Wilson School is an ever-flowing fountain of SEL creativity!

Because of the clear data on the strong emotions that accompany the 2021-22 school year, schools in New Jersey are more focused on SEL than ever. There is no need to wait for SEL Day in March 11, 2022 to get started with SEL. 

The need for SEL among staff and students is not going away any time soon. There were so many wonderful and shareable examples from New Jersey schools, we hope to share another set of activities in a future NJEA Review article to help everyone get ready for participation on March 11, 2022. 

If you join, you can get access to many SEL activities that you can start using now. The sooner the better! 

Maurice J. Elias is the director of the Rutgers University Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, which has worked over the past three decades to promote research, policy, and practice to benefit schools nationally and internationally. The lab can be reached at

Jennifer Ly, a student at Rutgers University, is a social media intern and the the social media liaison for the Social-Emotional Alliance for New Jersey.

More about Sparta’s SEL activities

Sparta’s introductory SEL video for staff, students and parents that explains what SEL is, the district’s SEL efforts, and Sparta’s Choose Love program:

Sparta’s three-part workshop series videos:

Media coverage: “Sparta schools highlight new initiative focused on student emotions, social skills,” by Kyle Morel, New Jersey Herald:

Sample Woodrow Wilson lesson plans

Walk and Talk and Do

(Grades 6-8)

  •      Students work in pairs (ideally selected to foster diversity) to walk around the school. 
  •      Signs are posted all around the school building and each pair is given a bag with markers, pencils, and a ping pong ball.
  •      The pair must work collaboratively to complete the tasks that are on the signs.
  •      At the Wheel of Fun station, students spin a wheel with a variety activities on them.
  •     Another task includes questions and the pair discusses their answers  (for example: If you could hang out with anyone (alive or dead), who would you choose? Why?)
  •     One station includes the Graffiti Wall of Kindness: Using the markers from their bags, the students write a positive message to their classmates; they are also encouraged to draw a picture with the message of kindness 

Where We Are From

  •      Collect baby pictures from the students. 
  •      Post them on a shared map so students can see where their peers are from.
  •      Have the students identify each of the photos.
  •      Each of the students would go around and share something on a posted sign about their childhood, what they were proud of, their values, and/or their dreams. 

If I Were

  •      Students are given prompts to get them to talk and think about their identities
  •      Students go around the room and answer questions and explaining why they chose that specific identity; this allows students to recognize their qualities and reflect on themselves
  •      Examples: The format is, “If you were…, what? Why?”

            – If you were a book, what book or type of book would you be? Why?

            -If you were a character in a book or a movie, who would you be? Why?

            – If you were a piece of clothing, what would you be? Why?

            – If you were an animal, what would you be? Why?

            –  If you were food, what would you be? Why?

Appreciation, Apology, or Aha

  •      At the end of the day, each of the students goes around and choses to tell one thing they appreciate in the class, one thing that they want to apologize for, or one thing they realized.
  •      This is a great way for students to reflect on the lesson or their behavior in class that day, and it is a valuable activity to incorporate into regular classroom routine.