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Why SEL Can’t Just Be A Nice-To-Have, Especially For High School Students

By Matthew Winn

For anyone who has ever worked in education, it is no secret that the days are often too short and the resources are often too limited to cover everything you want to cover. Why, then, should a school — with so many competing priorities and a finite amount of time in the day — prioritize Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

It’s a reasonable question. After all, what even is SEL and should a school really devote time to it when that time could be spent in additional Math, English, or Science? Well, the data is in and the answer to that question — especially for high schools — is unequivocally yes.

Let’s start with what SEL is. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the process by which people learn how to “understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Put simply, SEL teaches life skills.

When it comes to SEL, we need a frameshift. To better serve students, we must stop thinking of SEL as supplemental to the core curriculum, but, rather, understand it as foundational to the core curriculum.

Hundreds of studies now point to one incontrovertible conclusion: effective SEL improves academic performance. A of 270,000 students and over 213 academic studies found that students who received SEL interventions increased academic achievement, showed improved classroom behavior, and increased overall engagement in school. Students who engaged in SEL showed a , as compared to students who did not receive SEL.

In addition to robust academic data demonstrating the practical benefits of SEL, my own experience as an AmeriCorps member working with high school students in Los Angeles bears out this finding.

One of the earliest surprises I had in this role was the impact that I saw my SEL interventions have on the students I worked with. SEL was able to enhance my students’ capacities across the board. Learning how to build resilience, or cultivate a growth mindset, or connect long term goals to short term action steps, equipped my students with a foundational skill-set that manifested across all of their classes and extracurriculars. While traditional academic interventions were certainly meaningful, my SEL interventions proved to be an order of magnitude more impactful. SEL was, in effect, my secret weapon for bolstering my students’ academic performance.

However, not all SEL is created equally. This became imminently clear throughout my time working with high school students. As anyone who has worked in a high school can attest, teenage students have zero tolerance for anything that they perceive as “corny” or “little-kidish.” Asking 16-year-olds to describe their emotions as colors on a traffic light just isn’t going to cut it. To have a real impact, SEL lessons — particularly for high school students — must be authentic, engaging, and relevant. SEL at the secondary school level should connect and respond to real world events, engage students holistically, and encourage meaningful action that students can take in their lives and communities. At its best, effective SEL at the high school level should help students cultivate a sense of purpose.

Wayfinder has decided to focus our high school curriculum around purpose education precisely because a growing body of research shows that cultivating purpose promotes academic engagement. Youth with high levels of purpose get , score better on , hold more , and are more than their peers.

It is no surprise that when students feel engaged at school, they perform better. Unfortunately, students’ sense of engagement in school, particularly at the high school level, is incredibly low. A of 11th grade students found that only 32% reported feeling engaged in school (i.e. involved or interested in school). This trend is particularly alarming, as student disengagement is a of high school dropout, delinquency, and substance abuse. Given how critical of a time high school is in the lives of young people, it is absolutely imperative that high schools grapple with ways to increase student engagement. This is precisely where SEL can be such a powerful tool.

At this point, the benefits of SEL are clear and the need for SEL, particularly at the high school level, is even clearer. It’s time to move away from categorizing SEL as a nice-to-have and, instead, acknowledge SEL for what it truly is: an indispensable and foundational aspect of sustained student success.



Designed at Stanford University’s d.school, our curriculum uses a wayfinding metaphor to equip our next generation with tools to unleash purpose in their lives and meaningfully contribute to the world they are a part of.

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Helping Schools Build Belonging, Purpose, and 21st Century Skills since 2015