Inside Out and SEL

One positive to come out of this seemingly endless nightmare that is quarantine has been somewhat of a broadening acceptance of the need for Social Emotional Learning for our students. I say somewhat because, as with most things in education, while SEL is getting some recognition now, I find that most of it is just knee-jerk, cash-grab, band-aid kind of stuff.

Don't believe me? Go look at the number of SEL based teaching books released in the last few months. It's nuts.

Well, I'm an SEL hipster. I was doing it before it was cool. Shoot, before it was called SEL! AVID, back when it used to mean something and was not filled with knee-jerk, cash-grab, band-aid kind of stuff, was heavily built on the foundations of SEL. AVID is a program with the goal of changing the mindsets of kids from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds to help them see that they had a place in 4 year colleges. In my role as AVID teacher and coordinator for 15 years I've designed (and found) tons of great SEL activities that kids really enjoy. I want to share one of my favorites today.

Here are my Inside Outivities, newly updated for digital learning!

Disney/Pixar's Inside Out is the greatest artistic achievement in human history. I just finished watching it for the umpteenth time with my new AVID 7 class. It is part of a larger unit on their brains based on a program from the former Thrive Foundation which seems to have finally disappeared for good. (It went offline for a long time a couple years ago, came back, and now is gone again.) The point of the unit is to get my 7th graders to understand how powerful their brains are, how much more in control of their emotions they are than they think and to help them understand why their brains just seem to not quite work the way they wish sometimes. I had done the unit for a couple years with success before I saw Inside Out. Immediately I knew it had to be a center piece of the unit.

The movie turns the emotions in 11 year old Riley's head into characters on a journey to keep Riley safe. Riley experiences a trauma (being forced to move cross country) and her emotions suffer greatly. The movie uses tons of allegories for the scientific workings of the brain. It is incredible how much neuroscience they packed into it without ever once feeling like a lesson on science! Riley has to learn to function with her growing and changing emotions as she tries to come to terms with her new situation. The movie is really about the importance and power of empathy - something many adolescents struggle with. (It isn't their fault, honestly! Their decision-making and empathy-feeling centers of the brain are literally not fully developed!) It is funny and deeply heart-felt. If you haven't seen it. Go watch it now. These activities will still be here when you come back!

Many of these activities are built off of ideas I found from others who were kind enough to share. If you are one of those people, thank you!

Activity 0: Spot the Emotion

Google Slides (PearDeck Ready!)

This can fit anywhere in the unit. I tend to do this on a Friday as a fun activity. It is a bunch of silly pictures where students have to write down the emotion the character in it is feeling. Middle Schoolers (particularly boys) are generally not very good at reading other people's emotions. This activity is designed to show them that it is possible if we just take some time to look for the right clues.

Activity 1: My Memory Bank

PowerPoint Printable Worksheet I Google Slides Digital Edition

This is my favorite activity in the unit. Students are given a memory bank/wall like Riley's in the movie. Each orb in their wall has an idea or event such as camping, math and boys. They they color their orb to match the emotion they associate with it. I always play along and do the activity as well. We have a ton of fun comparing my list (yes, earbuds make me angry!) to their own. It also is a great set up for one of the questions in the next activity that kids often struggle with as a quick look at your sheet will show which of your emotions is generally in charge (my wall is mostly yellow!)

Activity 2: Reflection Questions

Printable Worksheet

10 questions for students to reflect on the movie and their own emotions. Lots of good discussion starters here.

Activity 3: My Inner Voice

Printable Worksheet

Students practice using positive inner speech by imagining less-than-positive scenarios and writing out how they *should* talk to themselves about it. I only use a few scenarios but this could easily be expanded. It gives kids a change to determine their "playbook" before they encounter situations that can trip them up.

Activity 4: What do THEY Think?

Printable Worksheet I Google Slides Digital Edition

Now that students have considered their own responses to potential situations they stretch their brains to imagine how others would view situations and actions involving the student. This activity is all about empathy and some students really struggle with it, demonstrating it's value. "I don't know what my friends think when I..." is a common refrain during the activity. Exactly! Here they are forced to consider why I get angry when I see them standing with friends wearing earbuds!

Activity 5: The Value of Dialogue

Printable Worksheet

Having now considered their own emotions and those of others students are given action step practice. Students create a script of a dialogue of a conversation they need to have with someone - much like Riley does at the end of the movie. It is a powerful closing activity that has led some kids to actually having those conversations.


These are deep thinking, highly emotional activities but by building it around a fun "kids" movie and using Riley as a stand-in for the students helps to greatly open students up to consider and work through these ideas and issues. It is one of my favorite units to teach every year and I hope you'll find value in it as well.


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