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How to Teach Self-Awareness Skills to Children

At the beginning of the school year, I always start off the year with self-awareness activities, which is one of CASEL's social-emotional learning competencies. Self-awareness activities are great because it not only allows the students to get to know themselves, but it's also a wonderful way to build rapport and relationships, and for me to get to know the students as well.

We always start with self-awareness because before we can work on social awareness and social skills, we need to know who we are first. We need to know how to identify our cultural identities, our emotions, our interests and dislikes, and our sense of purpose.

What is self-awareness and why is it important?

CASEL's first social-emotional learning competency is self-awareness. But what is self-awareness, why is it important, and how can we teach it to our students and children? The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, lists five core competencies for promoting healthy emotional learning and development in K-12 students - the first of which is self-awareness.

Let’s explore CASEL’s framework, self-awareness, and discover how we can inspire self-awareness in our students and children.

What is CASEL?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is a trusted resource for evidence-based social-emotional learning (SEL) research and practices. They maintain school district partnerships, support pre K-12 SEL policies and guidelines on a state-wide level, and they even educate policymakers about the importance of SEL.

Okay, but what exactly is SEL anyway?

If you’re an educator, you know we use a lot of acronyms and you’ve likely heard of the term SEL. It’s been a hot topic in the K-12 world for several years now. SEL is a vital component of human education and development. CASEL defines SEL as the "process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to:

  • develop healthy identities

  • manage emotions

  • achieve personal and collective goals

  • feel and show empathy for others

  • establish and maintain supportive relationships

  • make responsible and caring decisions" (n.d.)

Although SEL has been a hot topic in recent years, it is not a new topic. The SEL framework was born from the idea that non-cognitive skills are just as important, if not more important, than cognitive skills when it comes to life success (Ross & Tolan, 2018).

Since the conception of social emotional learning, concerns began to grow over whether schools were adequately addressing all of the unique social development needs of students. As more and more studies support the importance of social and emotional functioning in long-term success, CASEL developed their five-factor SEL model based on these studies of development and interventions to increase social and personal skills (Ross & Tolan, 2018).

What is self-awareness?

CASEL defines self-awareness as “the ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts" (n.d.) Self-awareness is at the core of developing healthy self-esteem and identifying one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Self-awareness influences so many aspects of a young person’s life.

Why is it important to teach self-awareness to children?

As I've mentioned, self-awareness is a component of children’s and young adults’ self-esteem. But why else is it important to teach children self-awareness? Well, self-awareness is also responsible for:

  • Uniting social and personal identities

  • Recognizing personal and cultural values

  • Identifying individual emotions

  • Identifying the link between feelings, values, and thoughts

  • Recognizing and critically evaluating prejudices and biases

  • Believing in one’s own abilities

  • Acquiring a growth mindset

  • Developing one’s own unique interests

  • Discovering a sense of purpose (CASEL, n.d.)

Several studies have also illustrated the positive effects of social emotional learning on academic outcomes. In a meta-analysis of over 207,000 students in K-12th grade, researchers discovered an average increase of 11% on standardized test scores for students that participated in school-based SEL programs (Ross & Tolan, 2018).

One particular study also found that emphasis on self-awareness through SEL interventions resulted in less depressive symptoms and delinquency and more positive grades (Ross & Tolan, 2018).

How does self-awareness affect relationship-building?

While CASEL delineates self-awareness, social awareness, and relationship building as separate competencies, each is also interconnected. Let’s think about it - one of the most, if not the most, important relationship we build is with ourselves.

When children become self-aware, they become aware of their strengths, unique interests, and their self-esteem can be increased. They become more aware of their thoughts and feelings and their emotional identification and regulation skills are increased as well. Self-esteem plays a critical part in building healthy relationships with others and reduces the risk for codependent and/or negative peer relationships. Further, emotional identification and regulation contribute to healthy communication which is important for successful friendships and other social relationships.

The more a child knows about themselves, their interests, their culture, and their own biases, the better they are able to relate to the world around them and connect with like-minded individuals. As with the four other core competencies, self-awareness is critical for healthy social and emotional development.

How do we help children build self-awareness?

Now that we understand the importance of building self-awareness in children, let’s talk about the ways that we can implement this core SEL standard in our students’ learning.

In the classroom:

Teachers can promote self-awareness in the classroom by explicitly teaching lessons on social and emotional skills and attitudes. Teachers can also model self-awareness and find ways to integrate this competency across all other subjects, be it language arts, math, science, social studies, health, or the performing arts.

  • Lessons might help children explore their family's cultural heritage by building a family tree, interviewing a family member about their family history, researching a flag, or language, exploring the story of their name by creating a word cloud etc.

  • Activities to help children learn to name their emotions, such as with my feelings poke card set which is a fun hands-on way to work on identifying feelings

  • Reinforcing positive behavior observed such as when honesty and integrity are displayed in the classroom

  • Having students learn about values, identify their own values by creating a values board, writing, or drawing about their values

  • Teaching children the link between their thoughts, feelings, and choices such as with my book Skills for Big Feelings, or this Thoughts, Feelings, and Choices Social Story Workbook or this Catch it, Check it, Change it CBT Football Board Game

  • Helping kids identify and examinee prejudices and biases

  • Teaching about and reinforcing having a growth mindset

  • Helping kids identify their unique personal interests, likes, and dislikes through the use of art projects such as collages, posters, shields, flags, and mask making