The Positivity of SEL From Sports

By Sarah Scavone

Go Back to Journal

As an educator and a mother, I can honestly say that parenting is an ever-changing adventure that is filled with daily rewards and challenges. I’ve also found that the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” is true—as my children continue to grow, I rely more and more on others for support.

I was always proud that my children were lucky enough to attend a diverse school where they had the benefit of daily Morning Meetings and teachers who embraced the practices of Responsive Classroom. Their experience at school emphasized all of the beliefs that I was trying to instill in them, including accepting others as they are, recognizing and appreciating that everyone is different, making new friends and maintaining older friendships, and being kind. As my children get older, those social challenges continue to be hard to navigate, as they do for many of us.

In the Responsive Classroom approach, we understand that children will use the skills they have. If adults want children to act in a certain way, then it is the responsibility of the adults to teach children the acceptable behaviors, allow them the opportunity to practice, and provide them with feedback that will support them and encourage them to continue to grow. We all want a sense of belonging, signifi­cance, and fun. The more opportunities provided for children to have learning experiences that fulfill those needs, the less tempted they will be to find their own, sometimes riskier, ways to meet them.

Extracurricular activities can help children develop perseverance, learn how to work hard to achieve a goal, better advocate for their needs, and understand the benefits of contributing to a group. As a mother, I have witnessed how social and emotional skills can be taught through these activities while watching my own children at practices and games. I have also seen this as a coach and former athlete. As an educator, I’ve found that another way to build and maintain strong relationships with my students is by attending their games and activities to support the development of their passions.

The C.A.R.E.S. SEL Competencies Applied to Sports

There are a number of ways the five competencies of social-emotional learning—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—can be learned by children participating in sports. What follows are some suggestions covering each of these competencies (Responsive Classroom, n.d.).


Teammates get to know each other and bond over their common interest in an activity. They learn to practice with everyone on the team, not just their friends. The collective work of the team directly impacts the strength of practice and consequently their success.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Focus on working as a team, sportsmanship, and communication rather than the score.


Athletes learn to talk to each other in a supportive way, but they also learn to advocate for their needs with their team and coach.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Encourage children to speak directly to their coach to ask for feedback, request a change of position, or seek additional playing time. 


Although children rely on adults to register them for an activity and transport them to events, involvement in sports will increase children’s ability to show responsibility. Even at a young age, they can learn to get their uniform and equipment organized and to plan ahead to be on time.

  • Ideas to consider:
    • Work together with your child to make a checklist of the items needed for practice. Then encourage the child to pack what they need by themselves.
    • Give ample time before you need to leave so children learn how to plan to be prepared on schedule.


People who play sports will experience a variety of emotions. There will be days when they are off and other days when they rise as leaders at practice. Helping children to continue to support and encourage their teammates—even when they make mistakes—will help everyone stay in a positive mindset, reduce anxiety, and result in fewer mistakes.

  • Ideas to consider:
    • Offer children examples of what they can say that will support their teammates rather than show their frustration.
    • Celebrate wins, but also model for students how to be gracious. They will be on the losing team at some point as well.


There are many ways sports can help children increase their self-control. Staying calm and posi­tive when they make mistakes not only impacts them but also those around them.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Acknowledge when frustrating or overly exciting situations happen and recognize when children stay calm. Reinforce how remaining calm supports the other players and encourages them to keep working hard for the entire time.

The Responsive Classroom Academic Competencies Applied to Sports

While we usually think of academic competencies as support for our learning at school, there is also a direct relationship between the two when learning a sport.

Academic Mindset

We want children to learn to work hard and apply themselves in whatever they choose to do. Feeling that they belong with their team will motivate them to work hard in preseason, give their best at practice, and push themselves during games. The work children put in to learn the sport and get ready for the season will impact their tryouts. As children get older, that hard work becomes habit, improving their skill set and their contributions to the team.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Reinforce the point that the children are all part of the team and as each of them improves their skills they are contributing to the team’s success.


Coaches want to see children learn to work hard and have a desire to improve. It takes dedication for a child to stay focused while practicing in different types of weather, facing challenging opponents, and playing in front of family and friends.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Highlight the effort and work during practice and games.

Learning Strategies

Technology can be a great resource for children to learn more about sports. There are a variety of websites and videos available to help children understand some of the fundamentals of different sports. By using technology, children can take more ownership of learning by choosing which skills they want to practice and finding other ways to improve.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Work together with children to set goals for the skills they need to focus on. Then follow up with a plan for how they can work toward achieving the goal.

Academic Behaviors

The language we use will help set the tone for our expectations. Calling children “student-athletes” can help them to remember that they are students first and schoolwork must remain a priority but that athletes also have a responsibility to their team. Being prepared and on time affects everyone at practice, and children will need support to learn that.

  • Idea to consider:
    • Highlight the importance of contributing to the group and fulfilling commitments, especially those times when children have to decide whether to go to practice or attend a social activity.

Sports and other similar activities outside of the classroom can provide additional opportunities to help children improve their social-emotional skills. By implementing social and emotional learning, coaches and adult leaders can translate lessons from the classroom to the field of play and show that adults from other aspects of children’s lives can contribute to their growth.

See article references here.

Sarah Scavone

Sarah Scavone has dedicated the past 21 years to teaching and currently teaches third grade for Charlottesville City Public Schools. Sarah has served as a reading specialist and worked as a Responsive Classroom coach for the last six years. She authored three of Center for Responsive School’s Quick Coaching Guides and has written articles for the Responsive Classroom website and the Journal of Social and Emotional Learning. She also has coached lacrosse for 11 years at the collegiate, high school, and middle school levels.