In elementary school, it’s common to have social and emotional lessons built into the curriculum, and the research shows that they have a strong, positive impact on student outcomes and school climate. But a 2019 survey of 15,000 K–12 teachers and 3,500 principals confirms what many probably suspect—that by the time kids reach high school, standalone SEL lessons are rare. The study’s authors suggest that “explicit, stand-alone lessons tend to be better suited for, and more likely to be adopted in, elementary schools.” And as kids enter the teenage years, they found, teachers tend to use more informal practices—for example, squeezing in short exercises when busy academic schedules permit.
The relative scarcity of high school SEL lessons, says David S. Yeager, assistant professor of developmental psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, is a question of quality. “Typical SEL programs ... have a very poor track record with middle adolescents, even when they work with [younger] children,” writes Yeager in a 2017 report. “Programs for adolescents are sometimes simply aged-up versions of childhood programs—for instance, they communicate the same message, but now the character doing the talking has a skateboard and a chain wallet.”
That’s almost certainly not good enough. Teens are not outsized elementary students—nor are they mini-adults, ready to take on adult schedules and responsibilities without lots of help. Virtually all of the cognitive science and research from the last two decades reveals that the adolescent brain is still undergoing dramatic change. In particular, a profound reorganization of the prefrontal cortex is believed to reflect their continuing struggle with executive function skills like self-control and emotional regulation, while a more mature rewards center in their brains pumps out a steady stream of new desires, interests, and social attractions. Teens are, as a result, more sensitive to social rejection and much more likely to take risks to impress peers; more prone to addiction and depression; and more likely to experience the onset of mental illness than any other age group. That’s borne out in a battery of studies that show rising rates of teen anxiety, depression, suicide, and mental health issues.
Former high school teacher Ronen Habib knows that our SEL practices need to catch up to the science and extend into high school, and he has personal experience with the kind of stress and anxiety that teens face. Three years into his first teaching job at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, Habib felt overwhelmed by burnout and exhaustion, feeling he’d “lost touch with why I became a teacher in the first place—which was to deeply inspire and connect with kids,” he says. Then one of his students died by suicide—“It totally broke me,” he recalls.
After therapy and mindfulness practice helped Habib get back on his feet, he thought: “Why are we not teaching these same skills to kids, because they’re trainable skills. We assume kids don’t know how to add fractions, so we teach them, as we should. Why do we assume they know how to self-regulate? Why do we assume they know how to raise their base level of happiness?”
Redesigning the First Few Minutes of a Class
For Habib, changing how he approached his students and his job started with capitalizing on the first few minutes of class each day. “We can’t take for granted where our students are. Every student comes into the classroom from a different place,” he said. “Some students just saw their parents fight. Another student is hungry. They’re all over the place. You need to help them to bring their lid back down so they’re able to actually be here with you. And you do that through connection.”
Based on these ideas, Habib designed and taught a popular Positive Psychology class to Henry M. Gunn High School juniors and seniors and thinks every school should have one—but if you don't, changing how you approach the first few minutes of class is a good place to start.
Here are a few practices Habib recommends for the beginning of class. They are designed to prime kids’ brains for learning and provide students with a portable model they can use every day—even outside the classroom.
Gratitude circles: “Even before the bell rang, my students knew they needed to sit down, take out their journal, and write three things they feel grateful for.” After journaling, Habib stood in a circle with his students, and each shared something they felt grateful for. “It doesn’t take long, like two minutes, and it ups the base happiness level for everyone,” he says. “These two minutes establish what’s called emotional resonance in the classroom—when brains are in sync in a positive way because people are experiencing positive emotions together.”
In Redwood City, California, high school teacher Aukeem Ballard employs a similar 60-second closing circle exercise he calls “the three As,” during which students can volunteer statements he calls appreciations, apologies, and ahas. Ballard says it helps his class reflect positively on their day and builds classroom community.
Playing games: Habib also suggests trying two to three minutes of warm-up games like “pass the ball” or “counting to 10”—lighthearted games designed “just to create joy and connection,” he says. Among stressed-out teenagers, “laughter is so contagious, it’s powerful.”
Laura Davis, a high school teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii, likes to use a rotating set of fun warm-ups like “three-sentence story” or “eye scream” once a week at the beginning of class. “Many students tell me that warm-ups are the best part of their day,” Davis writes.
Mindfulness practice: Finally, Habib suggests leading students in a couple of minutes of mindfulness practice, such as mindful breathing, where students take one, then three more, mindful breaths and notice what happens somatically in their bodies.
When teachers give students the space to quiet down and reflect on where they’re at, says Aukeem Ballard, it’s a concrete way for them to practice emotional intelligence skills such as self-awareness and self-management. “The hypothesis is that if you can do that, then you are better equipped to interact with your environment in a proactive way, instead of in an extremely reactive way,” Ballard explains.
Easing Up on Homework
Habib’s homework awakening came during his years teaching AP economics—micro and macro—at Gunn High School. They were intense, rigorous courses, with lots of homework. The trouble was, Habib discovered that some of his students were cheating, and when he tried making homework assignments more complex and cheat-proof, kids devised new ways to cheat.
When a fellow economics teacher explained that he preferred a zero-homework policy, Habib recalls, “my brain exploded, like, that’s a real thing? It just completely opened up a new arena of possibilities for me.”
He eliminated homework the following school year. In its place, he developed strong formative assessments that provided deeper, more accurate reads of students’ knowledge and skills. Where prior formatives had been less important to students’ grades, because homework had played a larger role in the grading equation, now a solid formative assessment became a catalyst for students to up their game. “It was amazing—the kids were a lot more engaged and asking much better questions,” says Habib.
With all the time he saved not grading homework, Habib headed to the gym. “I took care of myself, which made me a much better teacher—a lot more centered, a lot more energy. And happier.”
The effort to make human connections, says Habib, should underpin all social and emotional work in schools—and high school is no exception. “For kids to know that there is at least one adult, for example, in a school that cares about them is massively important.” In large schools with 1,500 or more students, this can be challenging. “There’s always about 50 kids that no one knows,” he says. That’s when schools need to do relationship mapping. “You get all the teachers in the gym; you print all the kids’ names on whiteboards. And you tell teachers to put a dot next to students that they know,” says Habib. “The students who don’t have dots, you assign teachers to them and tell them to form a relationship with this kid. It’s so critical.”
Teacher David Tow makes a habit of checking in regularly with his high school students. It’s important to ask each student, “‘How are you doing?’—and mean it,” says Tow. “For the past six years, I’ve stood at the door and welcomed my high school students in with a handshake and a variant of that question. If I sense any problems, I might ask ‘Really?’ or ‘You sure?’” It’s reassuring for teens to know that “an adult in their life cares about their well-being,” Tow writes. “Student responses, even if they don’t answer honestly, can reveal volumes about their actual mental and emotional status.” For online classes, have students queue up in a virtual “waiting room”—you can often find this feature in the settings of a tool like Zoom—so that you can admit and greet each child by name.
Tow also makes a point of scheduling a “substantial check-in” with every student each month and sets standing office hours, which he uses “to meet with students about more than just academic concerns.”
Building In Your Own Self-Care
A happier teacher is critical when it comes to modeling mindful, emotionally regulated behavior to students. “A very simple technique for teachers is to take a minute, put a hand on your stomach, take a deep breath, and notice your stomach rise and fall with your hand,” says Habib. “Believe it or not, doing that actually makes a huge difference: It reminds you that you have a body. It reminds you to take deep and healthy breaths.”
Teachers are always busy. “But the truth is, you can give yourself 30 minutes to work out every day, or go on a walk—it’s your choice,” he says. It’s a mindset that requires being “ruthless with protecting your time.” This means, for example, closing the classroom door during the after-lunch prep period to do a 15-minute meditation, or working out in the school gym before prepping for the next class. “That doesn’t mean that you always close the door,” he added. “But it means that sometimes you can’t serve students, and that’s OK.”