How to Get Secondary Students to Buy into Social and Emotional Learning

A School Climate Story from Educator Bethany Younkers

It was the fall of my fourth year of teaching and my first year teaching high school. I assigned the juniors and seniors in my transitions class what I perceived as a simple assignment: an interest inventory, a questionnaire that asked them about their families, likes, hobbies, hopes and dreams for their futures. This one lesson single-handedly shattered the way in which I understood my students, their stories and the importance of engaging students where they are in the classroom in order to bring them to where I want them to be.

That fall day I gave my students an interest inventory. On page one it asked four questions, “What does your mother do?” “What does your father do?” What does your sister do?” “What does your brother do?” I addressed the issue if they weren’t living with a parent or if they didn’t have a brother or sister. I expected to get answers like my mom is a teacher, my dad works at the bank, my sister works for the court, etc. However, eight out of the ten students in the classroom answered with a parent or sibling being incarcerated, their whereabouts being unknown or their occupations being selling drugs. While I was aware of the many difficulties my students carry with them into the classroom, I did not think those four questions would be a means to open a door for sharing.

I could have completely bypassed their answers, moving on in order to skip having to have the really hard conversations. Yet, I felt it was important to give my students a voice in the classroom. What did they think about this? How did they hope to be different? How could going to college completely change the trajectory of their family history or name? In that split decision to ask these questions, I engaged them without even knowing it. My students took over the classroom that day, and they led one of the most powerful discussions I’ve ever had in a class. In doing so I did not check the box that day on our syllabus or on their Individual Education Program Transition grids to complete an interest inventory. I did not move ahead in my curriculum or on my scope and sequence map of what needed to be covered. Instead, that day I checked the box to create an environment that my students could feel safe in and connected to. It transformed my classroom and my trimester that year. Anything I introduced or tried to teach after that lesson my students were beyond willing to complete and do, I was able to bring them in the classroom to where I wanted them to be.

My students were so brave. That they trusted others is an act of vulnerability and courage. We worked through their stories to understand how their emotions or views of what society expected for them could hijack their learning and expectations to fail. Growing up in certain neighborhoods in Philadelphia, society creates their own story of what is expected for the future of our young men; however, teachers have the unique opportunity to help them take this power back and write their own endings.

After that day, my method of delivery for that lesson has completely changed. Often my students attempt to not discuss their difficulties, or their stories; they sometimes do this to appear more whole or tough. This completely disconnects them from relationships with their peers, teachers and surroundings. I now approach that lesson with reiterating that their stories matter and tell my students not to disown them, as their success and future depends on the integration of all their experiences. I ask them to acknowledge their feelings through classroom engagement. Quite often I have found that students disengage to protect themselves; behavior is all communication and in the classroom is often where students try to off-load and unpack their hurt. If students are in a bad head space you need to address these behaviors before any learning can occur, that is another reason some of these conversations are so magical. When you attend to the things that are weighing heavily on them through class discussion you are showing up for them, you are letting them know you are there and available to connect. By showing up for them, they will show up for you as learners.

So how do we get secondary students to buy in to social and emotional learning?

1. Create clear boundaries, routines and expectations in the classroom. Explicitly explain things that will be and not be tolerated during discussions. Students may try to test the waters, but for the most part you will be surprised the level of maturity they handle difficult conversations with. Create procedures and engagement systems so students know how to handle conversations, (practice these A LOT!).

2. Create a predictable and consistent environment that offers support, students will learn through consistency.

3. Teach and model how to communicate and express feelings.

4. Pose questions that force students to get curious about how they are feeling or what is being taught.

5. Use intriguing information to get them interested in talking about themselves and make connections.

6. Allow them to talk about themselves. (They love this!)

7. Teach them that their stories are powerful, have them stand in these, understand them, be proud of them and own them, the good the bad the ugly and then move forward.

8. Know you may not get a verbal response from all students, and that’s okay! Keep trying to have them share with the option of notes, letters, questionnaires or journals.

9. And lastly, don’t be afraid to have hard conversations, lean into the uncomfortable and have them work through it. Chances are not many people will have done this with them.

You will create at least one small, healthy and safe space for them to work through their fears, sadness, confusion and falls. This will create a unique place that teaches students how to hold space for each other’s emotions as well. They will take their masks and armor of pretending not to care off; it is our responsibility to teach them that these mechanisms will not serve them well in the real world outside the uncharted territories of their neighborhoods. What I have learned is many of my student are in a constant state of alarm due to outside influences, yet the most inspiring thing about these young men is they have the innate capacity to bounce back from adversity and resilience to overcome. As teachers we have an amazing power to allow our students to build strong social emotional skills and help them share their strengths and potential with the world.

I guarantee making time for these types of conversations and social emotional learning will improve classroom productivity and learning as a whole.


Bethany Younkers is a high school special education teacher in West Philadelphia. A graduate from Kutztown University with a Bachelors of Science in Special Education and a Masters in Public Administration, Nonprofit Management from West Chester University. She has been teaching in the field of special education for the past eight years and has served a variety of youth with neurological, emotional and learning differences. Her passions lie in creating and bringing engaging real-world experiences into the classroom to inspire students and help bridge the gap of the transition process from high school to post-secondary options. Aside from teaching, Bethany is currently working with a nonprofit startup. She tweets at @dotsofgratitude, instragrams @polkadotsofgratitude. Find more blog posts on on www.polkadotsofgratitude.com.


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