Committee for Children Blog

6 Surprising Ways Students’ Voices Affect Social-Emotional Learning

Students use and apply social-emotional learning skills in the real world

I searched the internet for 45 minutes on what youth say about social-emotional learning (SEL) and how their input was used to guide SEL efforts in schools and districts. How many resources did I find? Zero.

Given the massive number of resources about SEL and the extent to which that list is growing, and the movement toward more youth voice in education, I expected to find more. There was information on the importance of youth voice and a few resources showing the value of youth voice in SEL, such as cultivating youth voice in SEL and empowering youth voice. I even found the Youth Commission, which is part of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning.

Nevertheless, youth voice is part of some SEL efforts. Committee for Children gathers youth input during the development of its SEL curricula. Feedback from students who have received the Second Step Middle School Program and Real Voices videos featured in many lessons showcase how important student voice was in development of the Second Step middle school curriculum. I also hear from other educators about the ways youth input guides their SEL efforts.

We could be doing more to bring youth voices into how social-emotional learning happens in schools.

Adults support students in developing the social-emotional skills they need for success, but it’s ultimately up to students themselves to use and apply those skills in the real world. Students have great ideas for how they will use their skills. When asked, this is what students say.

1. Students Teach Other Students

A small K-12 district success: Middle school students shared in the teaching of social skills lessons in Grades 1–3.

A high school theater group role-played positive use of social skills throughout the year during elementary school assemblies, lunch periods, and after-school events.

2. Students Identify Bullying Locations

Those who bully are often careful about where and when they do it; bullying tends to occur when adults aren’t looking. But students know where bullying happens. To ask for help from early elementary students, draw a playground map and have them anonymously mark an “x” by areas where they see bullying the most. With older students, draw a picture of the school, including halls, classrooms, and bathrooms, and ask them to mark where they see bullying happening most often. Develop a plan for how to increase adult supervision in those areas.

A large high school success: A group of students asked to be a part of preventing bullying. They drew the maps, collected the data during lunch periods, summarized the results, and came up with a plan to prevent bullying. Then they requested support from the principal and the staff leadership team, leading to several changes.

3. Students Give Voice in Climate Surveys

Student school climate surveys are an important resource to look for student voice. Take the US Department of Education’s ED School Climate Survey, for example. If a high percentage of students disagree that “students respect one another“ and “students at school are getting along well with one another,” and most agree that “students fight a lot“, their voice tells us that more social skills support is needed in their school. If many report that “students at this school are teased and picked on“ and disagree that “students at this school try to stop bullying“, that shows a need to look closer at bullying prevention efforts.

4. Students Take Social-Emotional Skills into Their Community

A success from a combined middle and high school: ninth grade students working on a service-learning project decided to partner with eighth-grade students to use their social-emotional skills in the community. They set up several visits to a nursing home, where they practiced their kindness, listening, and empathy skills.

5. Students Want Adults to Help with Stress Management, Relationships, and More

I asked youth in my life what they want adults to know about social-emotional skills, and I learned a lot.

Kylie, age 14

“There are different ways kids handle things. The way I handle my emotions may be different than the way my friend does, and that’s okay. There’s more than one way to do it.”

Hannah, age 14

“School can come with a lot of emotions. Sometimes we are pushed too much, and it’s stressful. We need your help dealing with the stress.”

Matthew, age 16

“Some kids don’t know how to get along with others, but you expect them to just do it anyway.”

6. Middle School Students Want More Bullying Prevention Support

Aubrey, age 11

“We need an adult we can talk to when kids are being mean.”

Yesenia, age 12

“I need to feel safe at school. I don’t.”

Sienna, age 12

“You don’t always know when kids are bullying, because in front of adults they’re nice. Please do something when I tell you that bullying is happening.”

It’s important to incorporate youth voice from the very beginning stages of SEL implementation, in any school, so let’s increase the opportunities to learn from each other about how to seek student voice.

Teachers, counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and administrators: How do you encourage and use student voice to guide the SEL efforts at your school or district?