Special Report
Student Well-Being

Why High School SEL Programs Feel ‘Lame'—and How to Fix Them

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 12, 2021 12 min read
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High school-age students have a sixth sense for when things feel dopey, dumb, sus, cheesy, corny, basic, cringe, or “cheugy.” (That last term is au courant according to The New York Times, which may mean it’s already out of date.)

Nowhere are the pitfalls greater than in well-intentioned social-emotional learning programs for secondary students. To put it bluntly, if you’re doing mood meters, “scared straight” lectures, or feeling sticks with high school students, there’s probably a good chance that the students are tuning them out.

The big problem, researchers and practitioners say, is that too much of what constitutes SEL learning feels patronizing to teenagers and fails to address their core psychological needs and motivations: developing an identity and sense of agency, being recognized and respected by peers, finding ways to excel, and committing to specific goals and activities.

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Programs that explicitly teach SEL skills generally have a good track record for younger children. But for older students, the paradigm looks different. It’s less explicit and requires creating leadership opportunities—formal and informal—where students will have to exercise their relationship and self-regulation muscles.

And it means adults have to do things differently, too, to create a school climate that supports rather than contravenes those efforts.

“When we think about working with younger students in general, often being a great teacher feels very theatrical. And as students get older, it’s actually the opposite,” said Jeffrey Imwold, the managing director of student support services for KIPP NYC, a chain of charter schools. “Students will know when you’re being inauthentic. What matters is how you show up for them and deliver the material—and it can be really hard to show up authentically.”

What do we know from research about high school SEL?

There are fewer resources for teachers and school leaders who want to devise strong SEL programs at the high school level, according to several recent reports from the RAND Corporation, a research and analysis firm.

Using a nationally representative sample of teachers, it found that more than half of secondary teachers said they didn’t often make connections to SEL through academic work, and just 19 percent used written lesson plans to promote SEL.

There is also less research on SEL at the upper secondary level. In a second report, RAND found just eight programs for high school-age students that had at least some positive research—and not a single one had been evaluated using a random-assignment design, the most rigorous way to assess effectiveness.

Researchers who study social-emotional learning say the focus on doing “programs” is perhaps part of the problem. Too many are retrofits of initiatives aimed at younger children that feel phony to older students, said David Yeager, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Yeager analyzed six dozen studies on anti-bullying programs and found that most of them were beneficial through about 7th grade, but had no overall benefits in high school. Like failed anti-smoking or anti-gang initiatives, too many SEL programs just don’t align with what older students need, he concluded.

“Teenagers are really sensitive to social status. Anti-bullying programs don’t deal with the teenage need to have status. They just tell you, don’t do it,” he noted. “That argument doesn’t work for 14- or 15-year-olds. Anti-bullying efforts need to give kids alternative routes to status, rather than telling them to not care about status.”

Thus, successful SEL approaches are often implicit, getting adolescents to exercise their SEL muscles without necessarily knowing that that’s the intent—a little bit like sneaking kale into a fruit smoothie.

Here, Education Week outlines five ideas for thinking about SEL programs in high schools—both what to do and what to avoid. They aren’t a recipe and should be tailored to districts’ local context and instructional goals. But they could help district and school leaders avoid SEL efforts that feel lame. (Or cheugy.)

1. Integrate high school SEL programs into academic learning.

Research indicates that it’s difficult to teach noncognitive skills, including core SEL concepts such as self-management and responsible decision-making outside of content. That’s partly because these skills look different depending on the task at hand. (Compare, for example, persistence in writing an essay to persistence at solving a multi-step mathematics problem.)

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And when students engage in rich and robust classroom discourse—learning how to disagree constructively and how to persuade others—those are as much SEL opportunities as they are academic ones, noted Eugene Pinkard, the director of practice and leadership at the Aspen Institute’s education and society program.

There are some major challenges with this type of high-quality integration. For one, noted Cami Anderson, the founder and CEO of ThirdWay Solutions, a consulting firm, even rich, well-regarded academic curricula often lack the scaffolds and supports that help teachers and students engage with the social-emotional implications of each lesson. (Anderson, a former Newark, N.J., superintendent and administrator in the New York City district, worked on SEL and curriculum in both positions.)

“It needs to be rigorous and content-rich, but also provide opportunities for meaning-making around SEL skills,” she said. Take, for example, a lesson that focuses on Ruby Bridges, who helped desegregate New Orleans schools in 1960. Great content will have students reading Bridges’ reflections, as well as those of students and parents who opposed integration, and situate the historical moment within the larger civil rights struggle.

But teachers can also use the lesson to prompt dialogue about what kinds of social and emotional strengths Bridges drew on.

“As a facilitator, there’s a lot to unpack there around moral decisionmaking. When do you decide to steer into conflict? What are the personal consequences of that decision? Where does that land you in terms of emotion? How do you take care of yourself personally? Where is the line around empathy?” Anderson suggested. “To me, that is the work. ... But it would require some really high-quality, adult-facing training” for teachers.

2. Aim for coherence across the system.

Many school systems now use regular climate surveys and check-ins to get a picture of overall student health. But coherence goes beyond that, the researchers and practitioners said, and it is harder to achieve in high schools if one teacher, for example, gives multiple revision opportunities for work and another doesn’t, or if departments use divergent grading approaches.

“Part of the problem with high school SEL is that it’s so compartmentalized. It’s not obvious how to use and transfer those insights,” said Yeager. “If your health teacher says ‘Here’s how to succeed,’ your health teacher isn’t the one handing out your math grades.”

To create common, coherent experiences for students, some districts are investing in specially designed academic lessons that also purposefully build SEL skills. Beginning in 2015-16, the District of Columbia Public Schools began to create an academically rich set of lessons, called Cornerstones, nested within its English/language arts and social studies curricula.

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Each cornerstone is anchored in complex text, includes a field trip or partnership with community groups to make the work feel authentic, and generally ends with a performance or set of outcomes in which students share their work with each other and with the community. In 10th grade, for example, D.C. students experience “Life I Choose,” a cornerstone lesson focused on narrative poetry and what it means to be successful in life.

Situated within a larger ELA unit about narrative, “Life I Choose” includes learning about poetry slams; as it progresses, also students will write their own poems and revise them using a framework. They’re helped by a teaching artist who partners with the district and the cornerstone culminates in an opportunity for students to present their own slam poetry in a legit performance space.

Such lessons flip the paradigm of how SEL works, said Karen Cole, the district’s deputy chief of academic and creative empowerment.

“In most SEL, we present it as something you should do with students to prepare them to be successful in academics,” she said. “But the idea of Cornerstones is that when you acquire academics, it develops you as a person in a way nothing else does.”

3. Focus on how adults can foster a good school climate.

It’s tempting to think that SEL is something that teachers “do” to students. But much actually hinges on getting educators to make changes to the overarching school climate. Schools should be nurturing places where systems and structures support SEL work, teachers are trained on learning development, and thoughtful SEL experiences are devised for students, Pinkard said.

“Where I’ve landed is to give kids beneficial messages and interventions that aren’t too long, and therefore not insulting about telling kids what to think or how to think,” added Yeager. “Work on the adults in the school to change the climate to be more student-centric.”

Some aspects of creating school climate can be harder to tackle than others. Schools’ dress codes and conduct manuals, for instance, can convey a quiet authoritarianism that undercuts some of the values schools purport to care about, like fostering citizenship and independence.

Similarly, said Yeager, it’s all well and good to say that you support students to have a growth mindset to, for example, overcome shyness or loneliness.

“But if you’re in the kind of school where there are few opportunities for you to feel like a worthwhile person—there’s no leadership opportunities, no clubs, if there are no affordances for real contributions to community or peer group—it’s hard for you to believe that things can improve for the better,” he noted.

The good part, the SEL leaders say, is that teachers will get on board with these efforts if school leaders convince them it will support the outcomes they care about.

“When you have an SEL classroom, students want to be there and it’s less work for you; and more importantly, it creates the kind of student behavior you want, and turns the classroom into the kind of classroom you want it to be,” Imwold said.

One way to show high schoolers you’re serious about creating a positive climate? You don’t necessarily have to create your SEL initiative from scratch, Anderson said, but you do need to let the end users—students—weigh in on what they want and need from the efforts.

4. Don’t neglect extracurriculars and other out-of-classroom opportunities to let students lead.

From devising cheerleading routines, building the sets for the school musical, athletic scrimmages, and the studio arts, there are tons of opportunities to build in SEL learning competencies beyond the classroom.

“We find [students] develop so many of these competencies through the extracurriculars and they frequently talk about their experiences in extracurricular opportunities,” said Imwold of KIPP NYC. “That’s where I developed social awareness or self awareness; I realized I was not a football player, and I found my people through theater, and that became the defining experience of my time in high school.”

Similarly, said Pinkard of Aspen, “don’t make the mistake of assuming all of this learning is in the classroom. The SEL experiences that we’re describing require students to be in places to engage each other outside the classroom, and with adults and community members outside the classroom.

“If you want your students to give a speech about something that’s important in their community, you can’t expect that to just come out of their head or simply be composed in the classroom,” he said.

The District of Columbia’s “Our City” cornerstone looks at the city’s neighborhoods and how their residents can advocate for better services through their advisory neighborhood councils, Washington’s most local level of government. It concludes with students interacting with the commissioners at a municipal building.

And the Oakland, Calif., district uses capstone projects that require students to interview community members and researchers or conduct surveys to explore a social problem.

5. Consider peer mentoring programs.

Saul Vargas, a 2020 graduate of KIPP NYC high school, has a unique insight on what works for high school-age students: As a peer leader, he and a partner regularly met with underclassmen in groups of about 12 students about how to make the big transition to high school.

“We talked a lot about organization, about making friends and reaching out to teachers—just learning how to manage yourself and be independent, because you’re in transition from a place in middle school where your hand is being held,” he said in an interview. “In high school, you either do the work or you don’t.”

Peer mentoring of this sort is an approach that checks off a few SEL boxes at once: It gives one group of students an opportunity to lead, while helping younger students exercise their SEL skills in an authentic way.

The charter school’s program was sometimes more prescriptive than Vargas would have liked—he wasn’t a big fan of icebreakers and preferred sharing his own challenges and solutions with students. But he found the experience ultimately powerful—especially when he found success mentoring students who were struggling.

Vargas’ proudest moment was speaking with a student who was struggling with motivation and filing assignments. Vargas helped her see the work as an investment in herself, rather than something to please adults.

“One of the problems with her specifically was that she felt that teachers sort of undervalued her and didn’t think she was good enough to perform and talking to her about that and convincing her that you don’t need external validation to do well,” said Vargas, now entering his sophomore year at Princeton University. “In the next two to three quarters, her grades improved. She started getting 80s and 90s … and it felt like a successful moment.”

Samara Fraser-Wellington, now a junior at the school, also sat on its restorative-justice team, where she helped resolve interpersonal issues among students.

“Sometimes you have to sit and listen to things you don’t necessarily agree with yourself but you have to still figure out how to help them,” she said. “So I think that was the hardest part when I first started. I think the most rewarding part is knowing what they get out of it, knowing I was able to help them, and hearing people say thank you. That makes me smile.”

The programs do take some work to set up. Students will need some training and guidelines: KIPP used an extra class period and a summer retreat to help its peer leaders learn how to model a lesson and host a dialogue.

Coverage of leadership, summer learning, social and emotional learning, arts learning, and afterschool is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.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 Why High School SEL Programs Feel ‘Lame’—And How to Fix Them


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