Committee for Children Blog

High Schoolers Voice the Value of Social-Emotional Learning: Middle School SEL Matters

Middle school and high school students both need social-emotional learning

“Our emotions are put in this compartment with a massive stigma around it that it is just not cool to feel. We have to make it cool to feel again.”
Lady Gaga, 2015 Emotion Revolution Summit

At the core of student success in middle and high school, five critical factors have been identified: academic behaviors, academic perseverance, academic mindsets, learning strategies, and social skills.1 The same research found that attitudes, behaviors, and skills are also important elements of adolescent learning; test scores alone are only one part of academic performance. A recent brief from the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center further noted that social-emotional learning (SEL) is essential for success in school, work, and life.2

Researchers’ emphasis on the middle and high school years as a critical period  for developing adolescents’ social-emotional competencies is echoed by secondary students themselves, who say even more about why SEL should be at the forefront of middle and high school education.

When secondary students are given a voice in identifying what they need and want, they advocate forcefully for the high value of addressing the social and emotional aspects of their experience. Results from a Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence online survey3 of 22,000 high school youth present reveal that emotions play a big role in adolescent lives. For example, students identify “happy,” “excited,” and “energized” as the top three emotions they want to experience more of in school.

High school students speak to social-emotional learning, showing us that we should not stop supporting social-emotional learning after elementary school  because the need for SEL supports continues throughout the secondary school years. For example, many high school students report that social and emotional problems make it difficult for them to learn and do their best.4

Handling High School Challenges

High schoolers also make it clear that we must not wait until high school to start SEL foundations. Their responses remind us that if social-emotional learning competencies and needs are continually supported throughout middle school, and if support for managing feelings and peer relations is kept at the forefront before kids get to high school, this effectively prepares students for facing the many challenges of high school, such as:

  • Managing stress—Stress weighs down high school students. In the Yale high school survey, students said they felt stressed 80 percent of the time.3 Another recent report found that 73 percent of high school students say they feel stressed out at least some of the time, and of those, 31 percent report feeling feel stressed out most or all of the time,4 suggesting a need for skills and strategies to help cope with stress.
  • Handling mistakes—Only 52 percent of high school students say they feel comfortable participating and taking risks even if it means making mistakes.4 Many hold themselves back because they are afraid of making mistakes, showing the potential need for a variety of skills such as recognizing strengths, setting and working toward personal goals, managing let-downs, and solving problems.
  • Establishing and maintaining healthy relationships—About 42 percent of high school students feel lonely at least some of the time at school; 15 percent feel this way most or all of the time.4 Relationship skills such as communication and relationship building, and self-awareness skills such as recognizing strengths and self-confidence, could help secondary students effectively manage such feelings and potentially reduce feelings and situations of loneliness.

Considering how to best incorporate social-emotional learning into secondary school practices takes time and effort. The Second Step Middle School Program offers resources for doing so, with its built-in lessons and activities that can be easily incorporated into middle school advisories.

Middle School Students: Never Too Old for Social-Emotional Learning

There are people who say that middle school students are too old for SEL, or that they should already have mastered SEL skills by that age. Others think that middle school students are not interested in talking about SEL skills. High school students counter these notions by reminding us that we are never too old for SEL supports.

When considering how to put social-emotional learning at the forefront for your secondary or middle school students, consider these words about SEL from two high school students:

“I wish we learned some of this in middle school.”

“I think I would have gotten better grades freshman year if I knew how to plan and to deal with the stress of taking all those tests.”

Research References

1  Farrington, C.A, Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T. S., Johnson, D. W., & Beechum, N. O. (2012). Teaching adolescents to become learners: The role of noncognitive factors in shaping school performance. Chicago: University of Chicago, Consortium on Chicago School Research.

2  Domitrovich, C.E., Syvertsen, A. K., & Calin, S. S. (2017). Promoting social and emotional learning in the middle and high school years. Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, Pennsylvania State University.

3  Brackett, M., & Born This Way Foundation. (2015). The emotion revolution: What we learned from the young people. https://bornthisway.foundation/the-emotion-revolution-what-we-learned-from-the-young-people/

4  DePaoli, J.L., Atwell, M.N., Bridgeland, J.M., Shriver, T.P. (2018). Respected: Perspectives of Youth on High School & Social and Emotional Learning (Report). Chicago: CASEL.