Creating Safe Spaces: Lesson Plans for Social-Emotional Learning

Bullying continues to be an important topic in today’s schools, especially surrounding conversations of student mental health. USC Rossier School of Education has created a lesson plan guide to act as a mental health resource for teachers and classrooms, as well as students in our online teaching degree programs. “Creating Safe Spaces” offers activities that strengthen students’ social-emotional skills, while focusing on social-emotional wellness as a tool for combating bullying in and outside of the classroom. The lesson plans are inspired by You Matter, a grassroots campaign created by MSW@USC, University of Southern California’s online masters in social work program.

Why Early Intervention Matters

In conversations of bullying prevention, early intervention refers to the acknowledgement and prevention of bullying behaviors at a young age. The Ontario Safe Schools Act  (2010) outlines the foundation of a bullying early intervention program as one that:

  • Creates an overall culture of respect and understanding in schools
  • Implements character education and social skills training in the classroom
  • Tailors interventions to the incident, individual(s) involved and factors that influence behaviors

Using community building as a tool to create a culture of respect in the classroom is also the mission of The 4 Rs Program, a social-emotional program pioneered by the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. The 4Rs (Reading, wRiting, Respect and Resolution) represent the four elements that the program uses to integrate social and emotional learning in pre-K through sixth grade classrooms. The program was selected by the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning as one of the country’s “most effective programs at fostering students’ social and emotional learning.”

 The 4Rs Program works within schools’ English-Language Arts (ELA) curriculum and standards to engage reading, writing, discussion and practice in the following skills:

  1. Community Building
  2. Problem Solving
  3. Understanding and Handling Feelings
  4. Listening
  5. Cooperation
  6. Assertiveness
  7. Dealing with Diversity

Why Anti-Bullying Matters

Bullying is not teasing. Bullying is a serious form of peer abuse that has social, mental, emotional and legal implications. According to Dr. Dan Olweus, bullying is defined as “an act of verbal or physical aggression with an imbalance of power between the perpetrator and victim that is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, again and again.” While there is debate around the definition of bullying, Dr. Olweus’ definition is important because it signifies an imbalance of power.

Olweus’ Bullying Prevention Program further dissects this definition, identifying the four key components of bullying culture, as well as lasting repercussions:

Those InvolvedLasting Impact
Students who are bullied
Depression, low self-esteem, health problems, poor grades, suicidal thoughts.
Observers of bullying
Fearful, powerless to act, guilty for not acting, tempted to participate.
Students who bully others
Get into frequent fights, report poor grades, perceive negative environment at school
Schools with bullying issues
Develop environments of fear and disrespect, students feel insecure, students may have difficulty learning, students perceive that teachers/staff have minimal control over and care for bullying situations

Using You Matter to Build Safe Spaces

Through these combined efforts of bullying prevention and early intervention, USC Rossier has developed this Bullying Prevention Unit, a collection of four lessons and classroom activities aimed at listening and cooperation, understanding and handling feelings, dealing with diversity and building community,

The Bullying Prevention Unit and its four core activities are designed for middle school classrooms but can be easily adapted for learners of all ages and grade levels. The main objective of this unit is to strengthen students’ critical thinking, cooperative learning and social-emotional skills to prevent and eliminate bullying in classrooms and school communities.

Keep reading below to see how you can bring these lesson plans into your classroom!

Activity: The Wall of Caring

Objective: The wall of caring is designed to help students participate in acts of kindness and caring while building a safe space around those topics.

Lesson Instructor: Teacher, school social worker or guidance counselor.


  • You Matter Care Card per student [Download]
  • Colorful pens or markers
  • Stickers, glitter, glue, tape (all optional to decorate the card)


  1. Choose a date when the theme of bullying prevention and kindness may be relevant:
    • World Bullying Prevention Day: The first Monday in October
    • Random Act of Kindness Week: The second full week in February
    • MLK Jr. Day of Service: The third Monday in January
    • Another holiday you think is appropriate
  2. Introduction: Lead a discussion about the importance of being kind and caring and showing support for your peers. Explain the importance of caring for friends and telling friends why they matter.
  3. Activity. Give a You Matter Care card to each student. Ask each student to think of another student whom they would like to send an anonymous message to and then fill in the blank: “You Matter because of _______.” Encourage students to decorate the cards to add a personal touch. Note: Cards should be anonymous so that the final compilation of messages will apply to all students.
  4. Build the Care Wall: Have students take their completed You Matter Care cards and place them on the Care Wall. Once each card is up on the wall, the facilitator invites the class to read all of the messages.
  5. Reflection:
    1. How do you feel that one of the cards may have been written with you in mind?
    2. How did it feel to tell someone else that they matter to you?
    3. Why do you think it’s important to express the positive thoughts we have about our classmates?
    4. Encourage students to vocalize their positive thoughts when they have them and perform acts of kindness that show their classmates that they matter.
    5. Ask the class to keep this theme in mind in the coming days and weeks. Encourage them to keep adding to the Care Wall when they have something nice to say about a classmate.

Activity: The You Matter Game

Objective: The purpose of this activity is to build a positive sense of community. Each volunteer gets to practice communicating why their classmates matter to them, and each student gets to feel the reward of knowing that they matter to someone else. The goal is to ensure that each student understands that building a positive classroom environment is everyone’s responsibility and to set a tone for positive communication between peers.

Lesson Instructor: The teacher facilitates, ensuring that everyone is included at least once during the course of the game.

Materials: None


  • The group stands in a circle facing outward with their eyes closed in silence. Ask for volunteers to raise their hands. Let students know that not everyone who wants to volunteer will be selected each time, but there will be multiple opportunities to be a volunteer.
  • Select two individuals to step into the circle and say, “Without speaking, tap  X number of people who matter because of _______.” (Note: The lesson instructor should participate in this activity.)
  • After the volunteers finish tapping the stated number of people, they step back into the circle in silence.
  • Continue this procedure with the following statements, asking for a new group of volunteers each time.  


  1. Tap six people who matter because they did something kind for you.
  2. Tap three people who matter because you look up to them.
  3. Tap two people who matter because they are your friends.
  4. Tap five people who matter because they make you feel special.
  5. Tap four people who matter because they are nice to others.
  6. Tap five people who matter because they are smart.
  7. Tap six people who matter because they are hard workers.
  8. Tap three people who matter because they are good role models.
  9. Tap two people who matter because they taught you something.
  10. Tap seven people who matter because they are brave.

Finish the exercise by saying to the students, “Open your eyes. Look to your left. Look to your right. Tap both of your neighbors who matter because they won’t stand for bullies. Let this serve as a reminder to always tell your classmates why they matter and to be there to support them if anyone ever makes them feel otherwise.” The statements and numbers of individuals to tap can be tailored based on the audience.

Activity: Important Figures in Human Rights

This assignment focuses on English-Language Arts (ELA) skills and content, allowing students to contextualize the overall objective of “You Matter” throughout history. The assignment incorporates important figures who have mattered and made a difference in our culture. These important figures can include people such as Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harvey Milk and others who have made great strides in areas of tolerance, acceptance and human rights.

Objective: The purpose of this assignment is to contextualize the main goals of You Matter and relate them to events in U.S. and world history. Students gain a deeper understanding of how telling people “you matter” and developing human connections can spur positive change in the classroom and in the world.

Lesson Instructor: Classroom teacher


  • Autobiography, biography or historical fiction book
  • Paper, pens, writers notebooks


  1. Select a date when the theme of bullying prevention, kindness and acceptance may be relevant. Events may include, but are not limited to:
    1. World Bullying Prevention Day: The first Monday in October.
    2. Random Act of Kindness Week: The second full week of February.
    3. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service: The third Monday in January.
    4. Any other events, holidays or days that are appropriate.
  2. Introduction: After the class has read the assigned book (either as a group or independently), lead the students in a critical thinking discussion about the impact that the subject of the book had on society.
  3. Activity: After the critical thinking discussion, students will complete a one-to-two-page writing assignment that answers the following questions:
    1. Who is it about? Who is the main character of the book?
    2. What happened? What major event in history took place?
    3. Why did it happen? What injustice or intolerance happened, and to what group of people, that sparked change?
    4. When and where did it take place? Place the event in historical context.
    5. How does the subject’s message, mission or overall achievement align with the You Matter campaign? How did he or she remind the public that they matter?

Activity: ‘Spreading the Good’ Scavenger Hunt

Objective: This lesson is a community walk or class field trip. Students participate in a scavenger hunt by hiding You Matter Care cards around in the school, community or surrounding city. The winner of the scavenger hunt is determined by a point system. (Note: You may also create a reward system that is appropriate for your classroom.) Through this scavenger hunt, students will be participating in a community-building activity that helps to spread positive mental health around their school, community, and town.

This lesson is a great way to take advantage of the power of social media and implement it into your classroom! Create a Twitter account for your classroom so that you can accomplish this scavenger hunt. (Note: Using social media for this scavenger hunt is not a requirement.)

Instructor Leader: Classroom teachers, school administrators, parents and community members


  • 2-3 You Matter  Care Cards per student
  • Permission from administrators and parents to take students off school grounds
  • Markers, pens, and pencils

Procedure: The primary objective of this lesson is to engage students in actions that support community building, listening and cooperation. Students earn a point each time they complete one of the following You Matter activities:

  • Leave a Care card containing a positive message where someone else will see it. Locations can include a school bulletin board, a school or town landmark, a newspaper or somewhere unique or random.
  • Give a Care card to someone who needs to be uplifted.
  • Give a Care card to someone who makes your day easier (could include lunch aides, bus drivers, attendance monitors, etc.)
  • Perform a random act of kindness, just because.
  • Catch someone else doing a random act of kindness.

The following steps should be completed when students post their You Matter Care cards around the school or community:

  1. Have students write positive messages on sticky notes and place the notes on Care cards. Do not have students write directly on the Care card — this way those who find the cards throughout the community have the chance to pass it on!
  2. Perform one of the You Matter scavenger hunt activities.
  3. Take photos of students doing one of the deeds — placing a card somewhere, performing an act of kindness, etc. Encourage the students to be creative!
  4. Upload the images to Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. This step is not required. Be sure to check your school’s social media policies if you wish to do this.
  5. Repeat! The team or student to score the most points wins! The prize is up to you. You may brainstorm with students ahead of time so that the reward is aligned with their interests.