Social-emotional learning (SEL) plays an important role in higher education. The reason? A nuanced understanding of social-emotional learning can make learners more motivated, empathetic and responsible. Social-emotional learning is one of the most important strategies that educators can impart to college-level students to help them succeed. Here, we provide an explanation of the theory and its benefits, as well as some tangible ways to implement SEL in your classroom.

What is Social and Emotional Learning?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an integral part of education and human development. Social-emotional learning is the process where learners acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to maintain healthy identities, manage their emotions and achieve meaningful goals. 

SEL advances student achievement by extending learning outside the classroom. By building supportive environments and collaborative relationships,  students can thoughtfully engage in teaching and learning. Social-emotional learning curriculum can also help address various forms of inequity and empower learners to contribute to their communities by giving them the confidence and empathy needed to give back.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five short-term goals: 

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Social awareness
  3. Self-management
  4. Responsible decision-making 
  5. Relationship skills

These five goals help students improve attitudes about themselves and others in their community. They also help learners strengthen academic performance, have fewer behavioral problems and forge better relationships.

Click to learn about Top Hat’s suite of tools designed to engage students wherever learning takes place.

Why is SEL important?

By providing a stable foundation, social-emotional learning enhances students’ ability to succeed in their academic learning, as well as their professional and personal lives. In the short term, SEL has been shown to have a positive effect on academic achievement. Longer-term, it contributes to the development of emotional competence and coping mechanisms. This promotes a growth mindset and better equips students to deal with setbacks and to view challenges as opportunities for learning and growth. 

Benefits of Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning also enriches academic achievement, improving grades and test scores. Students also tend to exhibit more positive behavior and a stronger sense of themselves in learning environments. SEL has long-term benefits for students as well. Enhanced emotional competencies are associated with students’ increased likelihood to graduate high school and pursue a college education. These competencies can also contribute to professional and relational success, better mental well-being, decreased tendencies toward drug abuse and greater community involvement.

SEL can also have far-reaching economic and societal impacts. Social and emotional learning has a statistically significant association with the decreased likelihood of legal trouble before adulthood or relying on public housing or assistance.

SEL activities for higher education

Adapting to the rigors of higher education can bring with it new pressures and higher levels of stress. Here, we share some social-emotional learning activities that help students anticipate and gain perspective on potential stressors to help their ability to cope in these situations. If learners can label or anticipate their emotions, you create the perspective and space necessary to manage them more effectively rather than being carried along by your emotions. Here, we share some ways to incorporate social and emotional learning into your college classroom. 

6 stress release activities for college students

  1. Stress release visualization: Around midterms or finals, encourage students to visualize what their stress looks and feels like through a short written description or drawing. Ask them to acknowledge the stress and then release it by reflecting on their creation, or sharing with a peer.
  2. Befriending stress: At the beginning of the semester, ask learners to identify a future event that elicits stress. Have them describe this stressor verbally or in writing. Encourage students to frame the event as a “challenge” that can improve their confidence and well-being. This way, when they encounter stress throughout the semester, they can approach these events feeling better prepared. 
  3. Noise isolation: For some students, noise can trigger stress, frustration or anger. Ask students to listen for a few moments and focus on one sound. Have them describe it and how it makes them feel. Then, have them write a short reflection on this experience in an online discussion thread with their peers.
  4. Support network: Invite learners to list the names of five or six people they usually turn to during times of stress. Ask them to identify the qualities that make these people supportive or comforting and send periodic reminders to students throughout the term to reach out to their networks as necessary to build and maintain positive relationships. 
  5. Name that emotion: Emotions are easier to manage when we acknowledge them. Ask students to identify an emotion they feel at that moment and share it with another peer or small group. This exercise gives learners practice in communicating their feelings to others and how to respond to others’ emotions in productive ways, as well as aiding in their own emotional development. For online classes, use breakout rooms or discussion boards to allow students to engage.
  6. Write it, rip it, toss it: A few weeks before a big test or presentation, ask participants to think of something that makes them insecure, like public speaking, and have them write it down on a slip of paper. After considering their insecurity for a few seconds, invite them to rip the paper and throw it away. This emotional check-in can teach learners that insecurities are things they can overcome.

9 mindfulness exercises for college students

Mindfulness is about cultivating more awareness of the present moment. Like the exercises above, it helps creates a space to observe one’s emotional state without interpretations or judgment. 

  1. Mindful breathing: Having students pay attention to their breathing is one way to teach mindfulness. Ask participants to inhale through the nose deeply for three seconds, hold it for two seconds, and then take four seconds to exhale. Encourage students to do this several times every day and note any changes in their mood. You can also share online videos of breathing exercises on your course platform as a mindfulness break.
  2. Check-in: This activity can be effective at the start of class. Ask students to reflect internally on their current emotional state, perhaps by having them rate it on a scale of 1-10. Doing this can encourage students to become more aware of their feelings and manage their emotional skills and states. This can help them become more introspective and self-aware learners.
  3. Growth vs. fixed mindset: If learners are aware of the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset, have them talk about or write down moments when they have demonstrated each. Ask them to compare the outcomes of these two mindsets. This can help when they are facing obstacles in a project or struggling to grasp student outcomes.
  4. Good things: You can share this exercise with students at the beginning of the term and encourage them to use it as necessary. Students write down at least one thing that went well each day and why. Remembering positive events has been shown to increase optimism and a positive outlook on life.
  5. Quote of the day: At the beginning of each lecture or course module, present students with a quote that relates to a class topic. Invite students to share their thoughts in response to the quote, either in a discussion thread or with a small group. This exercise encourages learners to be aware of their beliefs and learn how to handle disagreements in opinion.
  6. From childhood: Have students bring in a baby or childhood picture at the beginning of the semester or term. During each class meeting, show a baby picture and have the others guess who it is. Have that student then share a favorite memory from childhood. This is a great way to help students get to know one another on a more personal level and see each other in a different light.
  7. Meaningful photos: Over five days, have students take photographs of things—people, places, objects—that make their lives feel meaningful or purposeful. Have them write what makes each item special to them in a discussion thread and encourage students to comment on each other’s photos to promote informal discussion and communication in your class.
  8. Use my strength: Ask students to identify a personal strength, such as creativity, self-control or a sense of humor. Have them recall how they have used this strength to overcome a difficulty. Invite them to think of how they might use their strength differently and uniquely to meet a future challenge they may encounter throughout their higher education journey. You can also share resources, such as mental health supports and academic resource centers that students may find useful in overcoming these challenges. 
  9. Morning self-affirmation: Ask each student to write down a positive affirmation they repeat each morning. It should be first-person, present-tense, and stated in active language. This activity helps students start their learning off on a positive note and effectively prepares them for tackling challenging course concepts.

10 communication-based activities for college students

Communication is an essential skill in the college classroom that can make learning easier, helps students build connections with their classmates and gives them an opportunity to build their confidence.

  1. Interest-based discussion: At the start of each session, have a different student share a three-minute presentation on a hobby or interest. Encourage them to use presentation slides or bring a visual that represents their interest. This way, students can build confidence in their public-speaking skills in a low-stakes environment.
  2. Silver linings: Have participants talk about or write down a time when something didn’t go their way. Ask them to write how they could see a brighter side of the situation they just described. These social-emotional skills help students learn to become more optimistic by looking at a negative moment from a different perspective.
  3. Active listening: Place students into small groups using breakout rooms or designated spots around the classroom. As group members take turns sharing something personal, encourage the other students to show empathy by nodding, leaning forward, smiling and asking probing questions that get the speaker to elaborate.
  4. Another perspective: Pair students with peers they don’t know very well and invite them to write a short poem or essay about their partner after some conversation. This activity can teach participants how to get to know others and develop empathy for them.
  5. Small acts of kindness: As a way to boost morale mid-way through your course, assign students a day to engage in five acts of kindness. They should be able to document these acts, their outcomes and how they felt as a result. This activity can promote kindness toward others without the expectation of personal gain.
  6. Introductions: Ask students to pair up and ask their partner five questions. They will use the responses to introduce each other to the rest of the class. This activity works as a great icebreaker for the first week of class by helping students feel more comfortable getting to know their classmates.
  7. Identity bingo: Consider creating bingo cards with squares that have interesting traits or characteristics, such as, “I was born outside of the country” or “I can speak two or more languages fluently.” Have students mingle to tick off boxes and find people that match those characteristics as an icebreaker exercise.
  8. Letter of gratitude: Have learners think of a person who did something for them for which they are thankful. This should be a person to whom they haven’t yet expressed gratitude. Then, invite students to write thank-you letters to send or deliver in person, if possible. You can leave it up to students to decide when they would like to complete this activity during the term.
  9. Group revelation: At the end of each class, have students gather and invite them to volunteer something they appreciate about the class, such as, “There are some brilliant people in this group.” The revelation can also be an apology, such as, “I didn’t think I would like this class as much as I do.” Building this sense of community and trust helps pave the way for more successful learning.
  10. Biosketch: During the first week or at the start of the term, set aside time for students to share a one-minute autobiography, either during class or through an online discussion thread. It can be about a hobby or a life-changing event. Allow time for others to ask questions about each person’s autobiography.


Social and emotional learning helps children and adults manage conflicts, increase their self-image, maintain healthy relationships, and approach problems with heightened emotional intelligence. SEL brings many benefits for both the short and long term. The activities above can help learners of all ages become more aware of their emotions’ impact.

Click to learn about Top Hat’s suite of tools designed to engage students wherever learning takes place.


Conley, C.S. (2015). “SEL in Higher Education.” In J.A. Durlak, C.E. Domitrovich, R.P. Weissberg, & T.P. Gullotta (Eds.), Handbook of Social and Emotional Learning. New York: Guilford Press.

Hawkins, J.D., Kosterman, R., Catalano, R.F., Hill, K.G., & Abbott, R.D. (2008). “Effects of social development intervention in childhood 15 years later.” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 162(12), pp.1133-1141.

Jones, D.E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). “Early social-emotional functioning and public health: The relationship between kindergarten social competence and future wellness.” American Journal of Public Health, 105(11), pp.2283-2290.

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