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12 SEL activities for high school students

Ryan CrawleyOctober 28, 2021

students eating pizza

Most high school students know the importance of developing good skills in Math, Reading and Writing. But there’s one more skill that often takes a back seat in the high school curriculum: social and emotional learning, or SEL. 

It’s a concept that’s been used in education since the 1990s. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL helps students of all ages to do better in school by applying five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness: students learn how to recognize their emotions and how they affect their behavior
  • Self-management: teaches students how to control their thoughts, emotions and actions and set realistic goals
  • Social awareness: demonstrates the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand how people in different backgrounds and cultures see things
  • Relationship skills: teaches students how to build and maintain healthy relationships with people from diverse backgrounds 
  • Making responsible decisions: students can choose how to act or respond to a situation based on learned behaviors such as ethics, safety and the well-being of others

While the responsibilities that come with social and emotional learning may seem like common sense to many high school students, others may struggle. It’s not an easy fix. And in some ways, today’s obsession with social media makes it more difficult for children to move forward. 

For example, in 2016, Microsoft created an artificial intelligence chatbot on Twitter that was designed to analyze social media sites and the corresponding posts and comments. Unfortunately, this chabot became a monster when it started to gather peoples’ behavior on the various sites and duplicated hostility in its own posted tweets. In the end, it took IT experts about 16 hours to deactivate and eliminate the chatbot and its account.  

12 top social and emotional learning activities for your high school students

While there are plenty of SEL qualities that high school students can use to be more successful, here are some SEL lessons that any educator can integrate into their high school curriculum: 

1. Review current events

Your students might think you’re just making small talk, but reviewing current events that display proper SEL behavior or show signs of poor behavior is a good start. During the discussion, you could point out how things could have fared better if the behavior had been managed more appropriately. Students will begin to understand how poor decisions can lead to an instant downfall, so managing emotion is the key. Once students realize the consequences of improper behavior and how it affects the future, they will make their choices more carefully.

2. Greet your students 

Do you greet each of your students by name as they enter your classroom? Try it! Once it becomes a daily habit, you might be surprised to learn that your students are repeating this practice with their peers and other adults! Greeting one another in a welcoming and civil manner is just a small step in bringing back humanity. 

3. Journal writing

Students are less likely to share their thoughts in a one-on-one discussion or a small group. But, they will open up in journal writing. There’s something very liberating about putting thoughts on paper that one would never say in front of their peers.  

Journal writing can be used for reviewing numerous SEL skills. It just depends on the writing prompt at the moment. For example, asking high school students to write about moments where they wish they would have shown empathy and compassion to others could make them change their behavior next time around. 

4. Setting goals on paper

There’s something magical that happens once goals are written down on paper. It becomes a daily reminder that in both the short and long-term, the student is working toward accomplishing a bigger task. While the present day may not be all sunshine and rainbows, stepping back and allowing students to see the big picture and an attainable goal should act as a motivating factor. An educator or guidance counselor can help students determine how to achieve these goals if necessary. 

5. Share success stories

Students who are currently struggling may give up after years of constant difficulties. However, hearing how others facing similar circumstances have succeeded may just give them the push they need. Here are a few examples: 

  • Elvis Presley flunked music in high school. 
  • Sylvester Stallone was down to his last dollar and had to sell his dog until he wrote the movie Rocky and gave himself the main role. 
  • Mark Twain struggled throughout life, including watching his brother die and seeing three of his four children dying before they reached adulthood.
  • Albert Einstein was never really thought of as a bright student and had difficulty finding work as an adult. 

True stories like these can help students manage their emotions during a rough patch. 

6. Write a short biography about another student

Your students probably think every other classmate’s life is simple compared with theirs. (And we know many adults who make this mistake, too!) Allow your students to see the light by putting them in pairs and asking them to write a short biography about each other. Get creative with the pairing! You might be able to create lifelong friendships! 

7. Give each student a mentor 

Let’s face it. We could all use a mentor in our lives. Whether we need help to fix our car, wash clothes, balance a budget or deal with other issues that need problem solving. High school students are no different. Maybe they need a mentor’s help to manage their emotions, get better grades, make friends, or any other SEL issues. These mentors could be a classroom peer or even a responsible adult from the community. 

8. Use literature

There are countless novels in which characters make poor decisions and, in turn, create their own nightmares. If students are able to read about these types of circumstances, they might be able to see the similarities in their own lives and decisions. 

9. Create SEL artwork

Self-doubt is something almost all high school students are facing and many talented students feel safer expressing themselves through their art instead of words. Try introducing an art project about positivity and optimism. You could see improved behavior!

10. New ways of seeing the world  

We often struggle because we can’t put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. Your students have to learn to see issues from many angles. Take a story from the newspaper or even a fictional tale and view the problem from both the protagonist’s and antagonist’s point of view. 

11. Use a quote of the day 

You’ll find plenty of motivational quotes online. Find some that deal with SEL problems and talk about them at the beginning of each class. Start a morning meeting and ask the students what these quotes mean to them. Some of their answers could be quite eye-opening. 

12. Create office hours for SEL issues

Make sure your students know that your door is always open to discuss SEL matters in private. They might just take the opportunity to open up about some of their problems. Even if only one or two students take advantage of this service, it’s worth it. 

Skills that will last 

There are days you might wonder if you’re really making a difference in your students’ lives. The truth is, you probably are, but few students will actually admit it. Teaching students can be a thankless job some days when the failures seem to outnumber the successes. However, by providing SEL activities and strategies to encourage your students, you can be assured that the positive skills they are learning will last a lifetime. 

Photo by Max Fischer from Pexels

Social Emotional Learning