Committee for Children Blog

Research-Based Tips for Engaging Middle Schoolers in SEL

Middle schoolers seek social belonging

As students enter adolescence, their engagement with school begins to taper. Research shows significant declines in school participation, interest, and enjoyment, as well as a sense of belonging across the middle school years.1, 2 Psychological theory suggests that adolescents’ declines in motivation and engagement are a result of mismatches between the structure and opportunities provided in learning environments on the one hand, and students’ developmental assets3 and key psychological needs: to feel competent, autonomous, and able to relate to others in meaningful ways.4

How Mismatches Between Learning Environments and Middle Schooler Needs Can Manifest

Here are a few examples of such mismatches:

  • School days starting so early in the morning that they’re incompatible with adolescents’ biological needs
  • Tracking practices that heighten students’ awareness of their social status and perpetuate inequities
  • Academic work that fails to relate to students’ personal lives or reflect their increasing cognitive capabilities for abstract thinking

We can eliminate these mismatches by centering learning on adolescents’ developmental and psychological needs. When we construct learning environments that are emotionally supportive, with opportunities for independent exploration, they become ideal motivational contexts for middle schoolers.

Ultimately, students are more likely to engage in learning when they feel they belong, have voice and choice about their learning, and receive informative feedback. Prominent social psychologist David Yeager highlights these points in his 2017 article “Social and Emotional Learning Programs for Adolescents.”5 Among his recommendations is a call for SEL to harness adolescents’ desire for respect and ownership over the learning process. Youth-led social campaigns and service-learning projects, such as those in the Second Step Middle School Program, exemplify supporting adolescents’ developmental and psychological needs.Social-emotional learning programs are particularly advantageous for these kinds of interactions. 

Tips for Fostering Deeper Engagement with Middle Schoolers

With middle schoolers, class discussions can be slow to get started, and educators can encounter difficulty engaging students in SEL topics. Drawing from recent research, we can offer several suggestions for supporting students’ motivational needs.

Elevate Middle School Student Voice

  • Invite students to make connections between the material they’re studying and their own lives. For example, when discussing goal-setting, you could start by asking students to think about something they or someone they know has recently done that made them proud. After presenting a video, you might ask for a show of hands from those who have seen a similar situation play out in their school.
  • Sometimes students disagree with how scenarios play out in their social-emotional learning program. That’s okay—in fact, that’s great. Then you can offer students the opportunity to share what they would have done differently. 

Modify to Fit Middle Schoolers’ Learning Styles 

  • If your class is more introspective than talkative, try having students journal instead of requiring group discussion. You can ask for volunteers to share their thoughts later. Pro tip: Have students keep the journals so they can reflect back at the end of the school year. 
  • Try switching the standard wrap-up to an exit ticket from time to time. One reliable strategy is to have students answer these two questions: “What did you learn about ______?” and “What questions do you still have about ____?” 

Teachers and SEL implementers who use Second Step can also supplement Second Step lesson activities with one of our Class Challenges or Class Meetings. You can find links to these Extend activities at the bottom of the Prep section for each lesson.

Research References

  1. Hafen, C. A., Allen, J. P., Mikami, A. Y., Gregory, A., Hamre, B., & Pianta, R. C. (2012). The pivotal role of adolescent autonomy in secondary school classrooms. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41(3), 245-255.
  2. Wang, M.-T. & Eccles, J. S. (2012). Adolescent behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement trajectories in school and their differential relations to educational success. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22(1), 31–39. doi:10.1111/j.1532-7795.2011.00753.x
  3. Eccles, J. S., Midgley, C., Wigfield, A., Buchanan, C. M., Reuman, D., Flanagan, C., & MacIver, D. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents’ experiences in schools and in families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90.
  4. Ryan, R.M. & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self- determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68-78.
  5. Yeager, D. S. (2017). Social and emotional learning programs for adolescents. The Future of Children, 27(1), 73-94.