Social Emotional Learning Matters in Middle and High School

stressed high school studentOver the past year, being aware of our emotions and feelings was highly socialized as a way to remain healthy during the pandemic. Our students were vulnerable as well. According to a survey conducted by researchers from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, high school students reported feeling stressed 80% of the time. This feeling impacts students both academically and personally. It also suggests that an integral part of supporting students is to help them build their social-emotional skills to effectively navigate the world and allow them to better understand themselves and how to be successful.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions. CASEL also suggests that nurturing social-emotional learning helps to address inequity and empowers young people to co-create with adults, creating thriving schools and just communities. 

A 2018 survey conducted by Civic with Hart Research Associates, suggested that high school students don’t believe their schools have prepared them socially and emotionally for life. The survey also stated that 49% of high school students reported being afraid of making mistakes and taking risks. Our students in middle and high school are still learning to understand their emotions and articulate their feelings. The prefrontal cortex of their brains is still developing its ability to support them in making rational decisions, good choices, and assessing risks. They are naturally using their communication skills to establish relationships. But are they communicating with a degree of self-awareness to be effective? In our culturally and linguistically diverse classrooms, students are learning alongside others that are different from them.  Do they have strong relationship skills to ensure these interactions are free of stereotypes and negative mental models?  Students may be attempting to name their own emotions when there are disagreements, but do they have the self-management skills to regulate those emotions productively and in a way that honors everyone's feelings including their own?  Finally, are our students building their self-awareness skills by spending time reflecting on the “why” behind their emotions?

When research points to high school students feeling lonely at school, SEL in middle and high school matters. It matters because our students are struggling with anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and a host of other negative emotions. We can not make the cognitive leap that our students are well because they are not sharing their feelings. We have to provide them with the spaces to examine their feelings and build empathy for others. When we begin to build students up from the inside, we create emotionally brave human beings on the outside. When young people see their peers being brave and sharing their emotions, it inspires and provides an opening for them to navigate the rocky waters of their own emotions. Where can we embed these opportunities in our classrooms?

Leveraging the science behind digital tools such as the Mood Meter can help support students in the development self-awareness and self-regulation skills by beginning to define their emotions. Check-out this resource from Pathway 2 Success chalked full of ideas of how to integrate SEL into your daily curriculum and routines with middle school students, including having SEL chats. For your high school students, Greater Good in Education offers great lesson planning resources that can be adapted for online learning. Finally, you can access emotional well-being resources for middle and high school students from WideOpenSchools powered by Common Sense to continue to explore ways of embedding SEL more intentionally across subject areas. Let’s begin to give our middle and high school students the tools they need to help themselves because we are never too old to continue building our social-emotional learning muscle.

I would love to know how you use these or other SEL strategies for your middle and high school students. How might you differentiate these strategies for males, females, or with your culturally and linguistically diverse students? Connect with me on Twitter @CCThaddies or via email at

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