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 (CASEL, 2021).
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 middle school years and offer strategies for promoting SEL in middle schools and classrooms, in partnership with families and communities, and in alignment with elementary and high schools.
Students’ social and emotional competencies in middle school
Middle school students have already developed many social and emotional competencies (self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making skills) during their early childhood and elementary school experiences. They are also experiencing many developmental changes and beginning to encounter greater challenges, including increased peer pressure and academic pressure, making these years a critical time for SEL.
Middle schoolers are beginning to understand and experience more complex emotions and social situations. As they gain more independence from adults, they are expanding their peer relationships, learning how to navigate group dynamics and resolve conflicts. At the same time, they are developing a stronger sense of who they are, including their own beliefs and interests, as well as their sense of group-based identity. As they develop critical thinking skills, they’re also strengthening their ability to reflect deeply, analyze the impact of different choices, and make decisions after weighing many different factors.
Based on an understanding of how students develop generally and build 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 middle school and other grades (see details on SEL standards by state). Below are a few examples from state and district SEL standards at the middle school level; click each link to see the full set of standards.
- Austin Independent School District SEL Standards: Apply self-reflection techniques to recognize one's strengths, areas for growth, and potential.
- Tennessee Social and Personal Competences Resource Guide indicators: Design action plans for achieving short-term and long-term goals and establishing timelines.
- New York State SEL Benchmarks: Hypothesize others’ feelings and perspectives in a variety of situations and explain the reasons for one’s conjecture.
- Kansas Social, Emotional and Character Development Model Standards: Determine when and how to respond to the needs of others demonstrating empathy, respect, and compassion.
Responsible decision making:
- Illinois SEL Standards: Evaluate strategies for resisting pressures to engage in unsafe or unethical activities.
Promoting students’ SEL in middle school
Middle school is an important time for intentionally teaching and integrating social and emotional competencies throughout students’ learning experiences and environments. Because middle school can be a stressful transition, students in the first year of middle school may be particularly receptive to SEL. However, SEL implementation in middle schools can also be challenged by more complex student schedules and increased academic rigor, which sometimes leads to fewer SEL instructional opportunities as students enter a critical developmental period.
To address these issues and ensure all students have opportunities for high-quality SEL, middle schools should use a schoolwide approach anchored in evidence-based programs and practices. A schoolwide approach integrates SEL throughout every aspect of student’s educational experiences and environments – including curriculum and instruction, school climate, student services, and continuous improvement efforts.
Evidence-based programs are the best way to ensure all students have consistent opportunities to learn and practice social and emotional competencies. Look for universal programs that align with local middle 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 middle school SEL programs.)
SEL programs are best supported when the practices and principles of SEL are infused across all classrooms, integrated schoolwide, and in partnership with families and communities:
In classrooms, teachers can use explicit instruction, instructional strategies, and integration of SEL throughout academic curriculum to promote SEL. In middle school classrooms, it’s particularly important to build on students’ desire to connect with peer groups and real-life experiences. Students will need to see the applicability of SEL to relevant topics – for example how SEL can help them manage stress or address bullying. Teachers might use project-based learning and community service activities to integrate SEL with academic curriculum while helping students work collaboratively and make connections to the issues they care about. (See additional examples of SEL in middle school Social Studies.)
Schoolwide, students are learning and practicing SEL through the many different interactions they have in hallways, lunchrooms, libraries, and non-structured times with peers. Principals and administrative teams play a big role in shaping schoolwide policies, culture and climate that support SEL. As adolescents navigate peer pressure and other challenges, it is essential that every student has a supportive relationship with at least one caring adult at school. Incoming middle schoolers are navigating and adjusting to a new environment and can benefit from additional structures that support relationship-building and community-building, for example by pairing sixth graders with eighth grade buddies. For older middle schoolers, it’s especially important to emphasize leadership opportunities to use their voice and contribute ideas about their learning opportunities, school climate, and what supports they may need. Professional learning about SEL and students’ developmental needs, as well as practices to strengthen adult SEL, can support school staff in better understanding how to promote SEL throughout the middle school trajectory and build relationships with students. (See how middle schools in Nashville use SEL to improve academic outcomes and how Washoe County School District middle schools promotes engagement and student voice through SEL.)
Families continue to play a big role in middle school students’ lives, as they seek independence while looking toward role models and adult guidance. Opportunities for parent and caregiver participation in school activities can sometimes decline as students get older, so it’s critically important for middle schools to continue engaging families as authentic partners in students’ social and emotional development. Using accessible two-way communication strategies, middle schools can keep parents informed and involved in SEL plans. Middle schools should also support staff in developing strategies for connecting with families and simultaneously support families in engaging with the school. (Read more about a dual-capacity building framework for family engagement and see how Sacramento City Unified School District supports parents in learning about SEL and other key education topics.)
Community Partnerships offer middle schoolers rich opportunities to practice SEL as they pursue their interests, contribute to their communities, develop supportive adult and peer relationships outside school, and access additional support they may need. By coordinating efforts on SEL strategies, schools and community partners can create a more seamless system of support for students and ensure middle schoolers hear consistent messages about SEL in the many places they live and learn. (Read about a school-community partnership that supported middle schoolers in practicing SEL through service learning.)
Aligning middle school SEL to elementary school and high school SEL
Because middle schools are building upon social and emotional competencies developed in elementary school and creating a foundation for high school SEL, it is important to align efforts across both the lower and upper grade levels. Middle school structures may vary across districts – for example, they may span 6th-8th grades or 7th-9th grades or be housed within K-8th grade buildings.
Regardless of the exact structure, middle schools are an important time of transition, and SEL can play a critical role in helping students navigate the many changes they experience when they’re leaving elementary schools and as they prepare for high school.
Potential next steps for middle school teams:
- Develop a middle school graduate profile that aligns with the districtwide vision or high school graduate profile.
- Review existing SEL programs and practices from feeder elementary schools and consider how middle school SEL efforts can reinforce and extend what students have already learned. If multiple elementary schools are feeding into the middle school, bring all schools together to discuss how best to align SEL practices and develop shared language.
- Review existing SEL programs and practices at the high school level. Speak with high school leaders to identify what strengths and needs they see, and how middle school SEL can support students in the transition to high school.
- 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 middle school SEL goals and continuously improve implementation.
By attending to students’ developmental needs and aligning to long-term goals, middle schools can ensure all students have opportunities to celebrate their strengths, 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.