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What is social-emotional learning (SEL) for high school?

Morgan HugoboomJanuary 17, 2023

What is social-emotional learning (SEL) for high school?

High school is a critical time for many students. Classes are more intense, responsibilities are greater, and expectations are heightened as they prepare to move on to college or a career after graduation. 

Social-emotional learning for high school provides students with vital tools to help them successfully navigate all of these new challenges. Students are more engaged in their classrooms and perform better academically. They’re less likely to exhibit negative behaviors and are more likely to successfully manage stress. After graduation, students who experience an SEL curriculum are better prepared to lead their peers, problem-solve in difficult situations, and set and achieve goals. 

For both today and tomorrow, social-emotional learning prepares students for continued success. Let’s take a look at what social-emotional learning is in high schools and why it’s such an important part of today’s educational landscape.

The 5 core social-emotional learning competencies

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), there are five core pillars that make up the SEL framework.  

1. SEL competencies for high school are:Self-awareness

Understanding one’s motivations and weaknesses, adopting a growth mindset, and cultivating a sense of purpose or identity

2. Self-management

Self-discipline, stress and emotional management, setting goals, and also developing/executing plans in pursuit of those goals 

3. Responsible decision-making

Analyzing data to make sound decisions, anticipating consequences of actions or decisions, and critical thinking

4. Relationship skills

Effective communication, ability to engage in constructive debates, conflict resolution, countering negative peer pressure, working well in a team environment, and using leadership strategies

5. Social awareness

Showing empathy towards others and understanding towards other views (even when disagreeing), and considering the impacts of one’s actions on others

The skills listed above are critical to success both in and out of the classroom. Promoting SEL for high school students helps them develop the tools necessary to manage workloads and extracurricular obligations, set and achieve goals, navigate social dynamics, and more. 

Through social-emotional learning, high school students become better prepared for all aspects of their lives.

Why you need SEL in your high school classroom

The value of SEL is both immediate and long-term as it promotes growth that begins today and continues into the future. Some of the more immediate benefits of teaching SEL in high school include:

  1. Promotes academic success
  2. More engaged and motivated students
  3. Fosters a more positive school environment
  4. Helps prepare high school students for college
  5. Builds valuable career skills
  6. Reduces teacher burnout

Students taught under an SEL framework also learn skills that foster success throughout college and a career. Critical thinking can help them solve complex issues in their academic or personal life. Social skills lead to more productive workplace relationships and greater success in building professional networks. Self-management can result in a lifetime of setting and achieving goals both personally and professionally. 

According to research by The Aspen Institute

“Children with stronger social and emotional competencies are also more likely to enter and graduate from college, succeed in their careers, have positive work and family relationships, better mental and physical health, reduced criminal behavior, and to become engaged citizens.”

Incorporating social-emotional learning is an opportunity to provide meaningful and impactful development that can truly prepare students for successful adult lives. 

Examples of SEL activities for high school

While social-emotional learning always centers around the five core competencies listed above, the implementation of SEL will look different in each school or classroom. Below are a few common ways to incorporate SEL into a high school class.

Social-emotional learning check-ins

The SEL check-in is a foundational tool across all levels of social-emotional learning. It is easy to implement and sets the foundation for a more cohesive, engaged, and productive classroom.

The social-emotional learning check-in is exactly as it sounds — checking in with students and asking about them. This basic tool might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy for both students and teachers to forget to invest in one another beyond grades and homework as they focus on academic demands.

These SEL check-ins allow teachers to connect with their students beyond academic performance. Teachers learn more about the lives of their students — what they like to do for fun, what they experience outside of school, and how they’re feeling that day. Students feel more valued and appreciated because their teacher shows interest in who they are as individuals, rather than simply as students trying to get good grades. 

Teachers can use SEL check-ins for their high school class by taking 5-10 minutes at the beginning of every class to sit down and make small talk with different students. The conversations don’t have to be complicated or groundbreaking. Asking about a student’s morning or something that they enjoy doing outside of school is a great place to start. 

When teachers take the time to learn more about their students, they can create lessons that better fit the unique needs and dynamics of their class. When students feel understood and respected as individuals, they’re more likely to participate and succeed in that classroom environment.

SEL questions for high school students

Social-emotional learning questions and prompts are designed to prompt discussion, reflection, or development of the core SEL competencies. Teachers can use SEL questions in several ways depending on what will work best for their classroom. 

Examples include:

  • Privately in a classroom journal
  • One-on-one with a teacher
  • Together in a paired or small group discussion with classmates

Responding individually helps a student reflect on their own motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. Discussions in pairs or small groups provide a wider array of responses, experiences, and viewpoints for students to consider. Not only does this help them understand something from all angles, but it offers opportunities for students to practice discussing complex issues with their peers. 

The specific prompts used can also vary depending on the setting, the ages of the students, and where the teacher would like to focus on improvement. 

Examples of SEL prompts  include:

  • Describe ways in which you contribute to the school community.
  • What is something you are good at? Something you want to get better at?
  • What are some of your short-term and long-term goals? 
  • Analyze how you might have made better use of available support and overcome obstacles in working on a recent goal.
  • How do you like to work when you work in groups? How can you work together with someone who likes to do things differently?
  • What are some qualities that you want in a friend? How would you describe a good friend?
  • What are some conflicts that you have seen happening in the classroom? How do you think kids could prevent them? Resolve them?

From the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) 

Incorporating SEL into the regular curriculum

While elementary and middle school students do well in straightforward SEL lessons, high school students benefit from more complex social-emotional learning that is woven into their preexisting curricula. Instead of static lessons or worksheets on how to understand someone else’s feelings, high school students perform best when they can learn through action, real-life examples, and experience. 

For example, social studies and literature lessons can incorporate social-emotional learning questions for high school students. When learning about a historical character or event, teachers can ask SEL questions like: 

  • How can this event relate to an event from today (either one that you have experienced personally or a larger current event)? Where do the situations, parties involved, and external factors overlap? Where do they differ? 
  • Analyze the opposing viewpoints of each side in this scene or event. What influenced their decisions and what were the impacts of their actions?
  • What were some of the obstacles facing this scene, movement, or historical figure? How were they overcome?

Teachers can promote relationship skills and social awareness by hosting discussions on the learning material. As students participate in small group or classroom discussions, they practice debating, articulating their viewpoints, communicating, resolving conflicts, showing empathy, and working together toward a common resolution. 

When incorporating SEL into existing lessons, small changes can promote social-emotional competencies within an academic framework. Minor shifts in classroom schedules can allow for dedicated SEL time before students pack up and leave. Group discussions can become platforms to hone communication and relationship skills. At each point, teachers can customize their SEL approach to fit the unique needs of each class. 

Using social-emotional learning in high school requires teacher support and training

Social-emotional learning cannot succeed without tiers of support for teachers and staff. Schools should establish a cohesive SEL framework so all teachers, guidance counselors, and support staff follow the same practices and share the same goals. 

It’s also imperative that high schools provide professional development and other tools to help teachers implement an effective SEL curriculum. Schools can develop mentorship programs and peer support systems where teachers can work together and share resources. Interactive tools like Classcraft help teachers by encouraging student engagement, promoting SEL development, and providing comprehensive metrics about which initiatives are most effective.  

Social-emotional learning for high school students needs a dedicated support system and trained staff to truly succeed. By treating SEL as another important component of professional development and a focus for teachers, schools can ensure they have a network of educators who can deliver high-quality SEL learning.


Social-emotional learning is crucial for the immediate and long-term success of high school students. By investing in social-emotional learning and by supporting teachers in the implementation of a program, high schools can help guide students toward a lifetime of achievement and fulfillment.

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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Social Emotional Learning

Your toolkit for a successful year

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

Download now