Students in today’s society enter school buildings all across the world facing a multitude of new opportunities and new experiences. However, not all experiences in school are positive. For some students, they come to school carrying significant physical and/or emotional baggage.  Recently, a shift in educational thinking has centered around social and emotional learning (SEL). This shift focuses on the softer side of student performance, concentrating more on educating the whole child, and less on academic rigor and achievement. The need for social and emotional learning is most prevalent in the high school setting, where students today face enormous challenges, both with their personal development and potential future plans that include college and/or career readiness.

Differences Between High School and Elementary or Middle School Classrooms

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is widely considered the leader in SEL initiatives for the past two decades (2021). The cornerstone of SEL efforts is the delivery of five essential skills and competencies for students: Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Traditionally, well-researched strategies and implementation have existed in elementary classrooms for quite some time, and recently, these same strategies have been recognized as needed in the high school setting. Core competencies of SEL can serve as protective factors that contribute to healthy youth development for all age levels. For elementary age students, the need for SEL initiatives can stem from the early detection of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), which can include any childhood experience that impacts life outcomes. For middle and high school students, SEL competencies are linked directly to increased academic success and college and/or career readiness, which blends well with the developmental and cultural needs of high school students and also academic expectations held by high school teachers.

Adding Social-Emotional Learning Components to High School Classrooms

Before adding any SEL components to a lesson or high school classroom curriculum, intentional time must be spent on the “why” behind implementing such critical pieces of learning. Much like presenting academic content, SEL strategies must be explained to promote buy-in among students, staff, and community. Focusing on the core competencies of SEL, the following are ways SEL components can be added to high school classrooms.

Social Awareness

More than ever, awareness of the different types of cultures, beliefs, social norms, etc between our students is paramount. Helping students understand that other people have different perspectives and are worthy of respect are critical classroom lessons that will never go out of style. Social awareness includes empathy, appreciating diversity, and can be done by analyzing literary texts, print media, and can include writing prompts in the high school curriculum.

Responsible Decision-Making

This competency involves making personal and social choices related to ethics, safety, and social norms, as well as considering the consequences of those choices. Students can analyze situations, recognize and solve problems, and evaluate ethical responsibility. In my school, a newly created team, The Ethics Squad, participates in regional and national competitions between other schools and students debating, analyzing, and explaining ethical case studies. This team has opened the door for many students to participate in scholastic competitions while gaining knowledge in responsible decision making.

Relationship Skills

Is there anything more “high school” than relationships? Navigating the difficulties and trials and tribulations of relationships in high school can consume all four years, if students aren’t careful. Strengthening relationships is key to a more fulfilling life, and this competency can include students working on relationships with family members and peers, and build resolve within students themselves to better themselves.


Emotional intelligence is critical to student success, and developing self-confident and successful students should be our ultimate goal as educators. In this competency, it is important that students focus on their strengths and not their weaknesses. This practice can build capacity in the self-motivation and self-discipline needed to achieve individual goals. This can be done by interest inventories, self-assessments, and other internal questionnaires.


Finding a sense of self-worth and purpose as teens is incredibly difficult. However, students need time and strategies to develop their own interests and begin thinking about themselves with their goals in mind. Strategies and implementation of this competency include college and or career readiness goals, interest inventories, and specific and targeted activities to help high school students map out their postsecondary goals.

The concept of the traditional high school model has changed from what it was as early as ten years ago. Students today are faced with navigating all high school has in store for them, with many of them already dealing with negative perceptions of themselves, poor social skills, and an inability to regulate their emotions. Implementing a Social-Emotional Curriculum is a crucial step in the development of our young people. SEL initiatives in all educational settings can serve as integral parts of both education and human development. SEL components in high school classrooms can meet the social and emotional needs of historically underserved populations, while preparing them for life after high school.