Voices from the Field

Voices from the Field is a place for administrators, teachers, school support staff, community, and family members to learn what experts -- researchers, practitioners, family -- from across the country think by reading a short post that includes the latest promising practices on a range of school climate topics, along with references and related resources.

How can schools successfully build the social and emotional competencies of high school students?

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is an essential part of all students’ education across all grade levels. But what does that look like at different developmental stages, and how can SEL best support students’ learning and development across PreK-12th grade? SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.

By paying attention to students’ developmental needs, educators can create supportive learning environments and coordinate practices across classrooms, schools, families, and communities to enhance all students’ social, emotional, and academic learning.

This blogpost is part of a three-part series that addresses how to promote SEL in elementary, middle, and high schools. In this post, we share an overview of how students develop social and emotional competencies in their high school years and offer strategies for promoting SEL in high schools and classrooms, in partnership with families and communities, and in alignment with elementary and middle schools.

Students’ social and emotional competencies in high school

In their high school years, young people are forming deeper awareness of their individual identities and values. They’re building upon many social and emotional competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills) developed throughout their elementary and middle school years.

High schoolers are defining more clearly what they believe is right and wrong. This growing sense of responsibility helps them form clearer ideas about their life goals and how they want to contribute to the world around them.

Teenagers are also spending more time with peers and forming more mature relationships, including exploring romance and sexuality. They can more deeply understand different perspectives and emotions. At the same time, they may be experiencing more mental health challenges, such as coping with anxiety or depression.

While high schoolers have a strong sense independence, adults continue to play important roles in their lives. During these years, SEL continues to be essential for supporting teens in their healthy development.

Based on an understanding of how students develop generally and built social and emotional competencies specifically, many districts and states have established learning standards to help articulate what students should know and be able to do in high school and other grades (see details on SEL standards by state). Below are a few examples from state and district SEL standards at the high school level; click each link to see the full set of standards.



Social awareness:

Relationship skills:

Responsible decision making:

Promoting students’ SEL in high school

High school students see the value of SEL but say their schools should be doing more to promote their social and emotional growth, according to a 2018 report. High school students and educators are faced with an increasing number of priorities and demands, which can make SEL implementation more challenging. However, high schools offer many important opportunities for learning and practicing social and emotional competencies. SEL can support many existing high school priorities, such as promoting mental health, civic learning, or workforce readiness.

It is important to anchor SEL efforts in evidence-based programs and practices that ensure all students have high-quality learning opportunities. Look for universal programs that align with local high school SEL standards, goals, and needs. SEL programs may focus on explicitly teaching social and emotional skills, embedding SEL into academic curriculum, promoting SEL through teaching practices, and/or using system-level strategies to promote SEL. (Review evidence-based high school SEL programs.)

By using a schoolwide approach that incorporates evidence-based programs and embeds SEL throughout all interactions and experiences, high schools can weave SEL throughout classrooms, schoolwide, and in partnership with families and communities:

 In classrooms, students have opportunities to practice SEL through academic learning, relationship-building, and explicit lessons on social and emotional skills. Teaching practices that integrate a focus on SEL such as cooperative learning structures or youth-led discussions provide opportunities for students to use their voice, collaborate with peers, and make deeper connections to what they’re learning. As high school students develop a deeper sense of who they are and what matters to them, it’s also important that classroom learning reflects students’ identities, communities, values, and concerns and that students can learn from others who have different backgrounds and perspectives. (See examples of SEL in high school English Language Arts and as part of discussions around community issues.)

SEL is also an important part of how high school students plan for post-secondary goals, and can integrate into career and technical education programs, dual enrollment, career pathways, and other learning opportunities focused on workforce preparation.

Schoolwide, SEL also plays an important role in how students connect and contribute to their school communities. In high school, it’s especially important to create space for all students to engage as leaders, problem-solvers, and decision-makers. Schools can provide a variety of opportunities for all students — not just those who regularly volunteer — to lead and contribute to improving their schools. For example, students can take part in reviewing school climate data and make recommendations, facilitate community-building circles, or join SEL teams to advise on strategies. (Read more about promoting student voice through SEL)

It’s also important to ensure that discipline policies and practices promote SEL and relationship-building. Disciplinary approaches that focus on punishment or control, such as suspensions or rules that prohibit talking during lunch, can often be damaging to students or undermine SEL efforts. In contrast, restorative approaches to discipline that focus on helping students understand the impact of their behavior and engaging students in problem-solving can help build their social and emotional competencies. (See what a restorative approach to discipline looks like in Chicago Public Schools.)

Families are essential partners in supporting high school students’ SEL as they navigate life decisions and future plans. Families bring expertise about their young person’s interests, experiences, and cultures, and their perspectives can inform how schools engage students and promote SEL. Schools can also help families open conversations with teenagers about how their social, emotional, and academic skills connect to their post-secondary goals. (See examples of how families can engage in discussions with teenagers about SEL and leadership opportunities.)

Community Partnerships can also play an important role in supporting SEL, often offering high schoolers the opportunities to form supportive relationships and engage in activities that are important to them. For example, service-learning opportunities can be an important way for high schoolers to learn about and contribute to their communities while building social and emotional competencies. By integrating SEL with service learning, schools can increase student engagement and create real-world learning opportunities. (Read more about integrating SEL and service learning.)

Aligning high school SEL to elementary school and middle school SEL

Elementary and middle schools create a foundation for high school learning. As students navigate high school and beyond, they are using social and emotional competencies developed throughout their K-12 trajectory. When high schools align SEL efforts with elementary and middle schools, they create a more seamless experience that helps all students graduate ready for future educational opportunities, including college or a vocational program, career, and life.

Potential next steps for high school teams:

  • Work with students, families, staff, and community partners to review or develop a graduate profile that helps to define what all students should know and be able to do upon graduation. Speak with elementary and middle school leaders to identify how their goals and strategies can align with the graduate profile (See examples from Indian Prairie School District (IL) and Utah State Board of Education).
  • Review existing SEL programs and practices from feeder elementary and middle schools and consider how high school SEL efforts can build upon what students have already learned. High schools can play an important role in bringing together all feeder schools in the community to discuss how best to align SEL practices and develop shared language.
  • Identify strengths and needs that students are bringing as they transition to high school, and work with feeder middle schools to strategize how SEL can support students in the transition.
  • Identify aligned sources of implementation and outcome data such as school or classroom climate measures, social and emotional competence assessments, behavior, and attendance data that will help measure progress toward high school SEL goals and continuously improve implementation.

By attending to students’ developmental needs and aligning to long-term goals, high schools can ensure all students have opportunities to elevate their voices, build upon their social and emotional competencies, and feel supported by their relationships and environments. 


This blog was authored by Justina Schlund from NCSSLE partner CASEL.

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