Social Emotional Activities for Preschoolers

Inside: These social-emotional activities for preschoolers can be used all in one lesson or pulled into your own SEL lesson.

Preschool SEL Lesson: Teaching Emotion Words in an Inclusion Classroom

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Today’s post comes from guest writer Audra Jensen. Audra is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst, Special Education teacher, and published author on the subject of autism. She has an adult son with autism and has dedicated her career to combining her knowledge of being a parent, a teacher, and a clinician to help unique learners across the lifespan. Here she is:

It’s a whole new world, isn’t it!?! Looking at the silver lining of the past year, I am grateful for the unexpected lessons I’ve learned and the new tools I’ve gained.

When I decided to take a position at the district I was consulting with as a behavior analyst (they needed another special education preschool teacher), I had NO CLUE what was in store for me. . .

Two days after I took that role with a new caseload, everything shut down.

woman wearing a blue disposable mask holding up a sign that says "closed"

Instantly, I had to learn how to serve 3- and 4-year-old children with disabilities over a screen.

Having worked in a variety of roles in special education, there is one area that I have found limited resources for: social-emotional learning for young or impacted learners.

I could easily find resources for higher social learners and older students with longer attention spans and world knowledge, but finding material or lessons for the itty-bitties or those who need simplified information is hard!

We’re back teaching in the classroom again now, but I’m still applying the lessons I learned during our shutdown. Integrating technology in even the simplest lessons can help students connect to learning.

Social Emotional Activities for Preschoolers

I gave an SEL lesson in an inclusion preschool (3- and 4-year-olds) classroom last week. The class has a mixture of typically-developing children and students with disabilities.

I used four related social-emotional activities. You could use these all together in one lesson, or pull them separately into your own lesson plans.

My goal was to build upon previously-taught lessons involving basic emotions words, identifying emotions on a “Mood Meter,” and linking actions to growing positive (“happiness”) feelings.

Basically, I wanted students to realize this:

“What I do each day can have an effect on how I feel and how my friends feel about me.”


(For the Boom Cards decks, you can use the free previews, which gives you the cover and three slides, or, if you like, you can purchase each deck for $1.)

materials for the social emotional activities for preschoolers described in this post


Start these social emotional activities for preschoolers with a brief introduction and instructional control activity. You can ask questions such as “Who’s wearing…” “Who has….” “Who likes…” (1 min)

Next, model “How I’m feeling today….” and ask for their state of being. (1 min)

Book Chat (10 min)

teacher reading to a class of preschoolers.

Tell the students you’ll be reading two books, one learning, and one fun. Show the book covers and talk about what they might be about.

“We have to use our focus skills on our learning book if we want to read our silly book today! Can we do it?”

Read Little Spot of Happiness and stop throughout the book to check for understanding. For each example of happiness, have a student put the associated visual on the board.

Modifications: It may take too long to read for this age group, so assess attention span, and skip/condense pages, if necessary, to keep their attention.

Next, read Donkeys Can’t Take Bubble Baths. You’ll be using this quick read to reinforce good attentive behavior of the learning book. Use inference skills by asking “What is Donkey thinking?” “What might happen next?”

Boom Cards (5 min)

Again, you’ll be using one learning activity and one fun one. Start with the learning activity and frame it for them:

“We’ve been talking about emotions this month. Let’s see if we can make smart guesses as to how these friends are feeling.”

Gauge attention spans and move to the “fun” deck (scavenger hunt) before disruptive behaviors emerge.

teacher at the large classroom screen calling on students to do the i-spy activity
Preschoolers doing the Spring Scavenger Hunt together

Dots (1 min):

[Use this next quick activity to recap and tie the lesson back in to the story.] You can say,

“Remember our happiness story? While we’ve been having fun during our learning time, I have felt my happiness spot growing.”

teacher putting dot stickers on a girl's hand while classmates look on.

Put a dot on your own hand. Then ask,

“Has anyone else been feeling a happiness spot? What is making you feel happy?”

Put dots on hands or shirts of all who share. After discussion, add dots to anyone else just saying, “You make me feel happy when you….”

teacher giving a sticker to a boy

Worksheet Activity (10 min)

Give worksheets and a sheet of sticker dots to each friend. Then, talk about what makes you feel happy. Friends can color and put dots around the friends on the page.

teacher at a student table next to one boy

Walk around the room and support those who need extra help. Connect the activity to “happiness” with statements like,

“I like how you are using all those colors! Colors make me feel happy.”

“You put three stickers on that one spot! Creativity grows my happiness spot!”

End with a group share that whenever they see a spot, they can think about being happy and sharing their happiness with others; we can all grow happiness spots by …..

Tips for Teaching SEL to Preschoolers

Here are 5 quick guidelines when using or simplifying a social-emotional lesson for young or impacted learners:

Sandwich the learning. Provide something fun/easy, then the learning task, then end with something fun again.

In the behavior field, we call this the Premack principle. It’s a scientific fact! You will get better engagement and absorption of the learning. When I was a kid and had to eat at least one bite of broccoli, I used to take a bite of mashed potato, quickly eat my broccoli, then take another bite of potatoes. It works! I love broccoli now!

Simple and simplify. The most brilliant curriculum is deemed meaningless if a learner can’t access the information. Even if you are required to use a certain curriculum, see if you can adapt it to your learners’ needs.

Keep the visuals simple, keep the materials easy to manipulate, and keep the concepts simplified. And use manipulatives whenever possible! Give them something to hold, touch, move, investigate. It will help them internalize the information.

Keep it short. For young or impacted learners, attention spans are usually impaired. Keep your lessons (especially if in a group setting) within their ability to attend. In my experience, this usually means as little as 5 minutes to no more than 20 minutes.

Make connections, follow-up, build upon. Don’t present information in a vacuum. Look for every opportunity to connect what you taught to a real situation right then and there.

In addition, come back to the information the next hour, the end of the day, the next day. Reinforce the learner whenever you see them actively trying or successfully applying the information, even if it’s an accident!

Keep it fun! Use non-examples and silly stories or pictures. Embrace the goof! You will find more attention to the information if you are having fun with it!

I hope you found some new social emotional learning activities you will find useful in your classroom.

Happy Teaching!

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