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Student Well-Being From Our Research Center

Middle and High School Students Need Social-Emotional Learning, Too. Are They Getting It?

By Arianna Prothero — October 12, 2021 7 min read
Conceptual image of students interacting.
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In the secondary school years, students are grappling with some big questions: Who are they? How do they fit into the world? How do they form healthy relationships—in particular romantic ones? These questions grow to a crescendo in high school where students face another daunting query: What will they do with themselves once they graduate?

Even in normal times, the journey through grades 6-12 can be fraught for students, but the pandemic has made it especially complicated as many are struggling with more anxiety, depression, grief, uncertainty, and loneliness. These emotions get in the way of students being able to process and learn new information—just as schools are pushing to make up for lost learning time.

That’s why experts in social-emotional learning and child development say the secondary school years are a crucial time to focus on teaching skills, such as responsible decisionmaking, emotional management, and nurturing relationships.

But the older students get, the less schools have traditionally emphasized social-emotional learning.

“Not that I don’t think that schools think it’s important, it’s just where are you going to find the time and who’s going to teach it when they’re focused on different academic subjects?” said Tia Kim, the vice president of education research and impact at the Committee for Children, a nonprofit that promotes social-emotional learning and student wellbeing.“In our experience, that’s what we’ve heard—where logistically are you going to fit it in?”

It’s harder to find time to include explicit social-emotional lessons in a secondary school schedule, she said, where students are changing classes and teachers every hour. When schools do carve out the space to teach social and emotional skills, it is often during a specific class period such as advisory or English.

There is also more emphasis—or pressure—in secondary schools to focus on academics, said Kim, leaving educators to feel like they don’t have the time to teach social and emotional skills. And finally, SEL curricula are often targeted more to primary school-age children.

“Most SEL programs are curriculum based, lesson based,” she said. “I think that can go over pretty well when you’re talking about elementary school kids, and I think for the most part you can get away with it in middle school. But I think as you get older developmentally, that’s just not engaging.”

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Previous polling by Education Week has found that schools tended to emphasize social-emotional learning much more in the early grades and less so as students went on to middle school and high school.

Those attitudes may be beginning to shift.

New polling from the EdWeek Research Center in September finds that 53 percent of district leaders say that a lot of focus is placed on social-emotional learning for students in grades 9-12, and 56 percent said the same for grades 6-8. Those figures are nearly on par with the 58 percent of district leaders who indicated a lot of focus was placed on SEL for grades 1-3.

In early 2020, when Education Week last put this question to district leaders, 38 percent said schools in their district placed a lot of emphasis on social and emotional learning in middle school and 31 percent said the same for high school.

Survey: In your district, how much focus is placed on social-emotional learning for students at the following grade levels? EdWeek Research Center

COVID-19 has brought with it an overall rise in interest among educators and policymakers in investing more in building students’ social and emotional skills to better equip them to handle the pandemic’s unique challenges.

A majority of district leaders planned to spend federal COVID-19 relief aid on social and emotional learning and supports, the most cited use in an April survey by Education Week. At the same time, district leaders reported that social, collaboration, and communication skills were among the greatest learning-loss challenges during the pandemic.

Teenagers voice unmet needs, mixed feelings

So, from the student’s perspective, how are schools doing when it comes to teaching social and emotional skills?

The EdWeek Research Center put several questions to a nationally representative sample of middle and high school students at the beginning of this school year to get at whether students felt they were being taught important social and emotional skills, and whether their schools provided the support students needed to build relationships and sort out their identities. The survey was conducted online from Aug. 30 to Sept. 7.

The feedback was mixed.

A little under a third of students said their school had not provided them with the help or support they feel they needed over the course of the pandemic to improve on a range of skills central to social and emotional learning, such as making responsible decisions, establishing positive relationships, and managing emotions.

Survey of STUDENTS: Since the pandemic started, my school has provided me with the amount of help I need to do a better job at .... EdWeek Research Center

Many students indicated they could use more guidance in answering some of the big questions around identity. When asked if adults at their school were helping them figure out their identity—who they are, what they want to be, where they belong, and what they believe—a little less than a quarter of students said they completely agreed with the statement. Nearly half said they partly agreed.

EdWeek Research Center survey of adults and students: Adults at my school are helping me [students] figure out my identity [their identities] — who I am [they are], what I [they] want to be, where I [they] belong, and what I [they] believe.

Teachers, on the other hand, had a more positive evaluation of the situation, with 40 percent saying they completely agreed that adults in their school helped students figure out their identities.

Students are also craving more guidance on how to develop healthy relationships and learn more about gender and sexual identity in their sex education programs. A little over a quarter of students who had already taken sex education said those topics had not been covered and they would like to learn about them.

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Of students who haven’t had sex education yet, 58 percent said they wanted to learn more about healthy relationships, which was the most popular topic, and 28 percent said they wanted to learn about gender and sexual identity.

EdWeek Research Center student survey: Have you ever taken sex education at school — either as a stand-alone class or as part of another class?

Large shares of students indicated they at least feel somewhat respected by adults in their school and are given at least some say in how their school is run.

Thirty-six percent completely agreed and 43 percent partly agreed that adults in their school take them seriously and they don’t sound “preachy” or like they’re looking down on students. Again, when the same question was put to educators in a separate survey, findings were a bit rosier.

EdWeek Research Center survey of adults and students: Adults in my school take me [students] seriously; they don't sound "preachy" or like they're looking down on me [students].

Only 8 percent of students said they were not given any opportunities to take on leadership and decision-making roles in their schools.

Finally, majorities of students and teachers agreed that students feel like they can ask teachers for help when they need it, and that students are comfortable talking with other students and teachers in their school about how they’re feeling.

EdWeek Research Center survey of teachers: In my school, students feel confident that they can work in teams with other students and solve problems/disagreements if they arise.

Social-emotional skills for the digital age

There is no question that the pandemic has been hard on students’ social and emotional well-being.

Forty-four percent of middle and high school students reported in Education Week’s survey that their level of social anxiety and loneliness has gone up.

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Teachers reported in a January EdWeek survey that their students struggled more with procrastination and class participation than they did a year before and that many of their students were more often distracted by anxieties, worries, and fears during class.

But things were hard for adolescents and teens even before the pandemic, said R. Keeth Matheny, a former high school teacher in Austin, Texas, who developed a popular SEL program for his school.

He said the demands on teens’ and tweens’ social and emotional skills have changed drastically from when he and many other educators were young—in large part because of social media.

“If you made a mistake, it was a mistake, and people didn’t know and define you for the next 20 years based on that,” Matheny said. “Being a teenager today has lots of big challenges with it—not just the emotional part of being a teenager and impulsivity of being a teenager. When you are a teen, you do make mistakes and say and do things that you then later think back on and go ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ But all of the sudden now, those things are recorded for posterity.”

We’re seeing our teenagers and tweenagers have significant mental health challenges.

The adolescent years are a time when students are pushing boundaries and trying to work out who they are, he said, and they need more guidance on how to make responsible decisions and grow into their identity.

Matheny now runs SEL Launch Pad, a consultancy that helps schools institute SEL programs. Because of his experience with high school students, many of his clients include secondary schools.

“While I do believe that work at younger grades can be very impactful, … I also think the teenage years are very tumultuous with big emotions and novel situations and extreme social pressure,” he said. “We’re seeing our teenagers and tweenagers have significant mental health challenges. And this work can be such a powerful support in the teenage years, whether we’re talking about emotional management or self-advocacy or self-awareness or relationship skills.”

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Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Older Students Need Social-Emotional Learning, Too.

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