How Gym Class Can Build On Social And Emotional Learning

Schools are incorporating social and emotional learning (SEL) into physical educations classes, here's how.

By Jessica Marie Baumgartner | Published

SEL Coalition Formed To Fight Criticism Against The Controversial Teaching Method

physical education

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is being implemented in public schools across the nation. From focusing common core math practices on feelings, to helping students with serious behavioral issues this method is growing in popularity. Now physical education is the latest subject to integrate SEL into its practices.

The philosophy behind SEL is that students are better able to reach success when they are self-aware and emotionally stable. This is a well-received baseline. Now physical education teachers are finding ways to incorporate these practices into their classes. 

Movement has been known to improve mental states. While physical education has primarily focused on improving healthy exercise habits, gym classes can easily integrate social and emotional behaviors through team sports and group activities that get students moving and focusing on helping each other to complete a physical challenge. 

The principles of good sportsmanship coincide with SEL learning practices to a degree. Athletes are often expected to not be sore losers or boastful bullies when they win. A good sport knows when to stop the game and help an injured competitor, or lend a hand to someone who cannot meet their goals. These are much-needed elements of physical education. 

In its purest form SEL can help physical education students learn self-control and how to value exercising with others. Students can utilize personal health goals to properly care for their bodies while making smart decisions. They can learn to be better team players and appreciate others while on the court or field. These are all simple lessons that can lead to success if students are properly guided. 

SEL practices promote self-awareness, self-management, personal responsibility, relationship skills, and social awareness. However, this philosophy is sometimes believed to also be used to further equity movements . Teachers are believed to be implementing critical race theory and gender theory into classrooms while utilizing SEL teaching practices, and some fear that bringing SEL to physical education is yet another attempt to politicize one more school subject. 

physical education

In addition, mental health experts have warned for years that institutionalizing SEL will encourage unqualified professionals to act as psychologists and potentially mentally damage children. It has also been noted that SEL leads to overdiagnosis and over-medicating students for mental issues. Add in the fact that federal initiatives to aid mental health have actually harmed the well-being of students and how SEL is introduced into physical education becomes more complicated. 

Districts that use SEL in physical education to drive political ideology or allow educators to act as unlicensed psychologists are likely to cause more struggles. Like many teaching tools, how the lessons are introduced will affect how students respond. Schools that use simple SEL techniques to institute good sportsmanship practices will see better results. 

All in all, SEL is easy to incorporate into physical education, in theory. Depending on school leadership and teacher philosophy, this may become more complicated. For now, many educators are happy to utilize SEL practices. This trend is growing throughout the public education system and is likely to begin affecting even gym class.