Elementary teacher and students sit in a circle smiling and laughing.

Incorporate SEL in the Classroom: Engaging Strategies for Brain Breaks and Transitions

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.


These activities are designed with everyone in mind. Students and adults alike are a part of the lifelong learning process for developing and using strong SEL skills that foster a collaborative environment, in which the fullness of each person’s identity is acknowledged and elevated.

Engaging Strategies, Brain Breaks, and Transitions

Embed Engaging Strategies to anchor thinking and learning throughout the experience. Engaging strategies offer many opportunities that vary in complexity to practice SEL skills. Build in a balance of interactive and reflective experiences to meet the needs of all participants.

  • Brain Breaks: Vital opportunities for anchoring learning, regaining focus, and enhancing creativity. Offering opportunities to be up and moving helps keep brains refreshed and open to learning.
  • Transition Techniques: Include routines (“Five-minute heads up before we…”) and rituals (singing “It’s time to put the toys away so we can play another day…”) to foreshadow shifts within a class period or school day. These are helpful techniques for all people, and are absolutely essential for some, including those with processing challenges, or for whom traumatic events have impacted their social and learning experiences.
  • Examples of Engaging Strategies:
    • Think, Ink, Pair, Share (silent time to reflect; time to write; partner discussions; close with a group share out)
    • Clock Partners (prearrange partners for quickly pairing up for reflection and discussion)
    • Private think-time (facilitator wait-time)
    • Mindful Minute Brain Break (a calming activity that promotes focus and readiness to learn)
      • See below for two sample activities.


Time: 30 minutes

In this activity, participants are divided into two groups that are seated in concentric circles, all facing the center. The outside circle listens while the inside group has a discussion about a topic. Then the groups switch places so the listeners become the speakers, and vice versa.

When and Why:
This activity strengthens listening skills and encourages everyone to participate in turn in a discussion. It can be used during a session to discuss content, or at the end of an engagement to give airtime to everyone about what they learned or found useful.


  1. Set up two concentric circles of chairs, all facing the center of the circle, and have everyone take a seat.
  2. Provide the question prompt or discussion topic and set a timer for 10 minutes. Only the inside group members may speak during this time. Instruct the outside group to quietly listen.
  3. When the time is up, ask the groups to trade places so that the outside group is sitting on the inner circle chairs and vice versa. Set the timer again and let the new inside group discuss the topic.
  4. Debrief with one of these activities:
    • Ask participants to write down a response to one comment they heard and explain why they agree/disagree.
    • Turn to a partner and discuss how it felt to be both a “listener” and a “discusser.”
    • Share one word or a short phrase with the whole group that was important about the discussion to them.

Team Quiz Hustle

Time: 10 minutes

This activity is a prime example of a brain break that both provides physical activity and reinforces content. Students combine reviewing academic material with movement and teamwork. As always, modify as needed for individuals in your group.

When and Why:
This activity provides a chance for movement, cooperation, and reinforcement of academic content. There may also be cheering for one’s team and laughter—always a plus!


  1. Designate at least four stations in the classroom (just a sign—no equipment is needed).
  2. Create quiz/physical activity cards (one per station). Write a quiz question on one side of the card and a physical activity on the other side of the card (e.g., 20 jumping jacks, jog in place for 30 seconds, imaginary jump rope for 25 seconds).
  3. Place a quiz question/physical activity card at each numbered station. The card should be placed with the quiz question face down and the physical activity face up. Write the answers to the questions on separate pieces of paper that are numbered according to the station and taped to the chalkboard face down.
  4. Divide the class into even teams of three or four; each team starts at a different exercise station.
  5. On signal, the team performs the physical activity and then turns the card over to read the question. As a team, they decide on the answer, and one person walks to the chalkboard to determine if the group has the correct answer. If correct, they proceed to the next station.
  6. If their answer is incorrect, they go back to the station and repeat the activity. They then move to the next station and repeat the sequence.
  7. Play until one team has successfully completed all of the stations, or until time runs out.
  8. Debrief the experience by asking participants to share how the activity felt to them, when they might use this in their lives, and/or to share similar ideas like this that help them stay present and focused.

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