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Including Animals into Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has become one of the biggest trends in education and rightfully so. When students learn about their emotions and social skills, it not only helps them become more pro-social and healthier individuals, but also improves their academic performance. ¹

Most SEL programs focus solely on human emotions and socialization between people, but there are many ways that animals can be included into SEL lessons and activities.

From my experience working with students, it can be beneficial to include animals when discussing emotions because it allows individuals to express their feelings in a less vulnerable way. Often, it can be difficult for students to talk about their own emotions, but discussing an animal’s emotions can allow students to open up about feelings vicariously. Also, most students love animals, and including animals can make a lesson more fun and engaging.

CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) has been at the forefront of research on social and emotional learning. They have identified five core competencies for SEL which are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. There are many ways to include animals into these competencies.

As part of H.E.A.R.T’s unit on empathy, one of our lessons connects to the competency of self-awareness by teaching students about animal body language. One way to become aware of our emotions and the emotions of others is to pay attention to what our bodies are doing physically. We can include animals into the discussion of body language because often, but not always, the body language of animals is similar to our own.

For example, I’ll ask students what dogs do with their bodies when they are excited. They describe how dogs wag their tails, jump up and down, or bark. Then, I’ll ask , “how is this behavior similar to the way you act when you are excited?” The students then describe how it is difficult for them to sit still or how they want to talk.

From there, you can also connect the lesson to the core competency of self-management by discussing what the students can do to calm themselves down when they are too excited and need to focus.

To learn more about our lessons on animal body language, download our free Humane Education Resource Guide. The Communication and Empathy lesson on page 8 offers many resources on this topic.

Another way to connect SEL to animals is by discussing “needs”. People and animals share many physical needs (e.g. food, shelter) and emotional needs (e.g. connection/love, autonomy). When our needs are or are not met, it affects how we feel.

Understanding these needs improves our self-awareness because we are able to recognize the reasons why we feel certain ways. This understanding also connects to the core competency of social awareness because it helps us better empathize with others when their own needs are not being met.

One way to teach this concept can be found in the Humane Investigators lesson in H.E.A.R.T’s Humane Education Resource Guide. In this lesson, students first discuss animals’ needs and then look at various pictures of animals. Students are then asked to decide whether the animals in the photos’ needs are being met.

This blog only covered a few ideas for connecting animals and SEL. If you want to share how you connect these two topics, please write a comment below!

1. http://www.casel.org/social-and-emotional-learning/outcomes/

4 thoughts on “Including Animals into Social and Emotional Learning”

  1. Thanks for what you do! We share this passion as demonstrated in our Vision: Bringing social emotional learning to every community through the power of canines and humane education. Our curricula are unique. Lessons and activities engage students by introducing a canine concept. That concept progresses to humans and ultimately bridges to themselves. By first introducing a concept through the lens of a canine, students are more trusting, open and willing to share their thoughts and emotions.

  2. I love the idea of using animals to teach “how our needs are met or not met affects how we feel “. Children often feel protective of animals. When children can make the connection between their emotions and whether they have met/unmet needs, it helps them understand that all emotions are helpful messengers that “let us know when it is time to rechoose”. I like how this can lead students to recognize when a peer has unmet needs.

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