Social and Emotional Learning in Middle and High School

Strategies, Tips, and Resources

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is important for students of all ages, but it’s often overlooked for middle and high school students. The core competencies of social and emotional learning — such as practicing self-regulation, learning how to behave in social situations, and engaging in empathy — are all foundational elements in leading a happy, successful life in school and the workplace. There’s even evidence that strong SEL instruction can support academic performance.

Supporting students in social and emotional development can come in a variety of forms — some educators choose to deliver explicit instruction, others integrate instruction into core academic lessons. Others use extra-curricular programs, special events, and even community engagement to promote SEL. For social and emotional learning in middle and high school, the options are somewhat more limited than elementary school, but quickly growing. Here are a few of our favorite strategies, programs, and tips for supporting SEL in middle and high school classrooms:

Community Engagement: The Great Kindness Challenge

If you’re looking for a free, simple, and flexible way to promote some foundational elements of social and emotional learning, the Great Kindness Challenge may be a perfect fit for your school. Developed by Kids for Peace, the Great Kindness Challenge offers participating schools a checklist of random acts of kindness that students can commit during a designated week in the year, when students across the globe are also spreading kindness through the program. For more on the Great Kindness Challenge, watch the webinar below. To find out how the Great Kindness Challenge can help you bring social and emotional learning to middle and high school students, read:

A Teacher’s Perspective: Listening

To provide her secondary students with social and emotional support, educator Bethany Younkers looked to careful listening and sharing practices. In her guest blog, Bethany describes the “interest inventory” she used to get to know her students on a personal level, to help them share their stories, and to begin to identify their potential social and emotional needs. In the piece you’ll find Bethany’s story as well as her suggestions for empowering middle and high school students to engage in social and emotional learning, with tips around creating boundaries, modeling communication, and teaching students that their own stories are powerful.

Read the whole story from Bethany:

Leveraging Literature

For middle and high school students, literature can be a bridge to navigating some of the toughest social and emotional challenges. Stories can help students articulate some of the challenges they face and arm them with coping skills. Identifying with characters in literature can also be a powerful source of learning and development. Our Applied Learning Sciences team has taken a dive into the research on the role of literature specifically in connection to bullying, a critical driver for middle and high school social and emotional learning needs. Take a look at their break down of the research here:

Explore Technology

Social and emotional instruction will always require extensive human interactions and personal connections, but it can absolutely be enhanced by tech integration. For example, some SEL professionals advocate for SEL practice through apps or games. Our Applied Learning Sciences team has also taken a look at the research and developments on the horizon at the intersection of SEL and technology, and you can read their thoughts in the blog post below. In the piece, our learning scientists explore the role game-based learning could play in enhancing SEL, how technology could provide students with support in metacognition, which is key to SEL development, and how wearable devices can help students monitor and manage stress. Read more here:

Consult the Research

Finally, we encourage you to review the research around social and emotional learning for all grade levels to build a knowledge foundation, and then take a deeper dive into research around the impact of social and emotional learning on middle and high school students. Our learning scientists have put together a guide for social and emotional learning for PreK-12, with strategies and narrative examples, that you can find here. Below are a few more robust pieces of research to review in your learning process:

  • From the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), find a detailed report on examples of SEL in high school ELA instruction
  • This research brief from Stanford University on SEL in urban high schools
  • This piece from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) on improving school climate
  • This brief from Penn State and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation specifically on SEL support in middle and high school