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How to create SEL activities for middle school students

Morgan HugoboomJanuary 9, 2023

How to create SEL activities for middle school students

With students facing numerous changes and transitions during middle school, social-emotional learning is a valuable way to support students during those years. For many, middle school is the first time students visit a different classroom for each subject throughout their day. They no longer see the same students and the same teacher all day. Instead, their day is broken into multiple classrooms, teachers, and new relationships to build. 

Middle school is also an age when students enter a transitional stage of emotional development. They are no longer seen as children but they aren’t seen as adults, either. During these years, their friendships, relationships, and emotions become more complex.

This is why it is important to create social-emotional learning (SEL) activities for middle school students.

Social-emotional learning helps students develop the skills to navigate these complex scholastic, emotional, and peer dynamics. As a result, students can remain focused and engaged in their classrooms. It also creates a stronger connection between teachers and their students, allowing for a more collaborative and meaningful classroom experience for everyone.

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are five core competencies in social-emotional learning:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Responsible decision-making
  4. Social awareness
  5. Relationship skills

By teaching students the emotional skills found in SEL, teachers empower students to manage themselves, their emotions, and their relationships in a healthy way.

Wondering how to create  social emotional learning activities for your middle school students? Let’s get started.

Examples of social-emotional learning (SEL) activities for middle school students

Below are some examples of SEL lessons and activities you can use in your middle school or elementary classroom immediately. These can also be easily adapted for use in SEL programs in elementary and high schools. 

For more information on providing SEL programs to your elementary, middle, or high school class, check out how to create a social-emotional classroom environment.

Daily greetings

Did you know that simply greeting your students at the door can have a measurable impact on their behavior for the rest of the class? According to one study of over 300 students, “…when teachers started class by welcoming students at the door, academic engagement increased by 20 percentage points and disruptive behavior decreased by 9 percentage points.” Begin each class by welcoming your students as they enter your room. Greetings can include a high five, a fist bump, a wave, and so on. Let each student choose which greeting they’d like to use that day.

Daily check-ins

Similar to the daily greetings above, daily check-ins are a popular SEL activity because they are easy, free, and effective. Daily check-ins can take many forms depending on the dynamic of your classroom. At their core, they involve sitting down with your student and checking in with them: how are they feeling today, what did they do over the weekend, how has their day been so far? 

Regular check-ins have a few benefits:

  • They build a stronger bond between you and your students
  • Students feel more appreciated, valued, and recognized when you show interest in them beyond academic performance
  • You gain more insight into how a student is feeling or any external factors that might be impacting them in school

Check-in chart

A check-in chart is a helpful SEL activity for middle school students who wish to remain anonymous when giving feedback. Here, a chart lists different levels of feelings on the board, from “I feel great” to “I’m struggling and could use a check-in.” Students write their names on the back of a sticky note and put their note in the row that aligns with how they feel that day. The names are all on the backs of the sticky notes, so no names show outward and students remain anonymous in their feedback. But it allows the teacher to review each name during class and see who needs additional support.

Note: this SEL activity can also be done as a printed chart that students complete at their desks. They sign their names on the paper but remain anonymous to their peers as the responses go straight to the teacher.

SEL questions for middle school

When using the check-ins above, it’s important to also know what to ask your students. SEL questions can be incorporated into other areas of SEL programs for middle school students (like with the daily check-ins). Or, they can stand alone as their own activity. 

Social-emotional learning questions invite self-reflection, help students develop critical thinking skills, provide opportunities for sharing feelings or experiences, and more. 

They can be used in several ways:

  • Small group or partner discussion

Offer each group 3 to 5 SEL questions. Each student chooses a question from the list that they feel comfortable answering and discussing with their group.  

  • Classroom discussion

Offer the class 3- to 5 SEL questions. Each student chooses a question from the list that they feel comfortable answering and discussing with their class.

  • Anonymous questionnaire

Each student completes a written questionnaire that includes 3 to 5 SEL questions. Responses are collected by the teacher and remain anonymous.

Setting goals

Goal setting helps to foster self-management competency in social-emotional learning. Students learn how to set important goals for themselves, how to manage their time and energy to achieve those goals, and how to overcome obstacles to remain resilient. 

When helping your middle school students in this SEL activity, remember to have them set SMART goals: 

Specific

Measurable

Achievable

Relevant

Time-bound

Goals don’t have to be related to school. Your students can create goals like “Join a new club” or “Help my little sister learn to ride her bike.” Students can record their goals on a bulletin board or in private (such as in a journal that they keep at school).

Scenario activity

Scenario activities are valuable SEL lessons for elementary and middle school students because they help your class learn through real-world examples. Have your students complete a worksheet that presents different scenarios and asks students to identify how they would handle each one if they were in the same situation. 

Or, give them a worksheet where they translate sentences into the appropriate response. For example:

  • Instead of saying “I can’t do it” when something is hard, I can say _________________
  • Instead of throwing something when I’m angry, I can try _________________

Incorporate SEL into your regular lessons for middle school

Social-emotional learning doesn’t have to happen in a vacuum. You can incorporate SEL programs for middle school right into your normal academic lessons. 

When discussing books or literature, invite the class to talk about how the feelings of the characters. You can ask questions like:

  • How might the characters feel in a certain scene? 
  • What feelings or factors might have led them to make a certain decision? 
  • How did events impact other characters differently? 
  • How might two characters feel differently about an experience that they both shared?

During a social studies lesson, go deeper into the people behind historic moments in time. Discuss the feelings that might have prompted a historical figure to make the important decision that they did. Invite further social-emotional learning by asking questions like:

  • What factors led to a historical figure’s actions or decisions? 
  • Why do you think that they choose to do this?
  • How do you think others at the time felt about this event?
  • How do you feel about the event or decision? What do you think was the appropriate response?
  • Can you think of a time when you felt a similar emotion or experienced a similar problem? What did you do?

With a few pointed questions, SEL lessons for middle school students can easily be woven into existing academic frameworks. These questions can even prompt more engaging discussions about the lesson material and a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the lesson and its greater context.

Conclusion

Social-emotional programs for elementary, middle, and high schools are quickly becoming the norm across the country. They are especially valuable in middle schools as students build more complex peer relationships, experience new classroom dynamics in a more varied daily structure, and navigate adolescence. Schools can support students during this time by providing them with SEL skills like critical thinking, stress and emotional management, goal setting, and self-reliance. 

By supporting the student both in and out of the classroom, we can build a happier, healthier, and more successful student body.

Photo credit: Google Education

Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE SEL TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

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Your toolkit for a successful year

FREE SEL TEMPLATES to lighten your workload and effectively manage your classroom

Download now