Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Making SEL More Relevant to Teens

Three social and emotional learning activities that are designed to address high school students’ need for status and respect.

April 5, 2019

According to a 2018 survey, current and recent high school students don’t believe their schools have done enough to help them develop socially and emotionally, and most graduates don’t feel prepared for life after high school.

We’re also learning that some social and emotional learning approaches simply aren’t as effective with teens as they are with children. Why? It may be that teens need more opportunities to actively explore who they are and who they want to be in the world.

So how can we better address teens’ developmental needs?

Researcher David Yeager and his colleagues argue that it’s important to address teens’ need for status (“How do others treat me?”) and respect (“Am I granted the rights I expect to be granted as a student?”). If teens feel competent, autonomous, and valued in their community—if they have a sense of high status and respect, in other words—they’re likely to be more motivated and engaged.

Here are three ways you can help teens develop greater self-awareness—and ultimately enhance their sense of status and respect among peers and adults.

Invite Students to Use Their Character Strengths

If teens crave respect, it’s important to create a school climate where their strengths are recognized and valued.

Take time in class to have your students identify their personal strengths, such as hope, humility, honesty, kindness, and perseverance. You can begin by asking them to take a 10-minute online survey designed by positive psychology researchers.

After they learn about some of their key strengths, ask them to choose one strength to focus on every day for a week. Have them describe the strength in writing and propose several different ways they might use it each day, and challenge them to act on that strength throughout the week.

For example, if a student wants to capitalize on kindness as a strength, he might perform a random act of kindness for a peer, write a thank-you note to a teacher, or volunteer to care for abandoned animals at a local shelter over the weekend.

As an alternative to focusing on one strength all week, students might choose to focus on a different strength each day. Whichever option they choose, have them write about what they did, how it made them feel, and what they learned from the experience.

Research tells us that this activity can increase well-being and reduce symptoms of depression. It’s easy for us to focus on our weaknesses and personal challenges, but when we spend time making the most of our positive qualities, we can build greater self-esteem and confidence.

Encourage Students to Imagine Their Best Selves

Another way to help students clarify who they are and how they want to be in the world is to invite them to envision their ideal future.

Ask your students to respond to the following questions in a 15-minute free-write: What is the best possible life you can imagine? Consider all the areas in your life that are important to you—relationships, school, career, hobbies and interests, etc. Be as creative and imaginative as you want, and don’t worry about spelling and grammar.

Ask them to be as specific as possible, and tell them that it’s easy to focus on current obstacles to reaching goals, so they should let go and simply dream about the future and exactly what it could look like.

Researchers suggest that it’s important to create mindsets that blunt the power of perceived threats to teens’ status and respect, and this exercise can help students feel a greater sense of control as they clarify a vision of their future self.

Challenge Students to Explore Their Purpose

Once students have practiced using their character strengths and imagined their future selves, create opportunities for them to think about how they might contribute to something larger than themselves.

The Purpose Challenge Toolkit features research-based online activities that prompt students to imagine how they might leave their mark on the world—and make it a better place.

Here are some examples:

  • Respond to these questions: “Imagine you’ve been given a magic wand, and you can change anything you want in the world. What would you want to be different, and why? Is there anything you can do to help move the world closer to this ideal? If so, how?”
  • Discuss what this Viktor Frankl quote means: “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”
  • Create a tattoo design that symbolizes the things that matter most to you.

Apart from these prompts, it’s crucial to connect students’ sense of purpose to what they’re learning. Are they studying social issues that matter to them? Are they learning as a means to an end—or to make a difference in the world?

Many of our students face significant obstacles in their lives due to factors beyond their control (like health challenges, poverty, and institutionalized racism). Prompting students to connect with their strengths, identify what matters most to them, and envision ways they might contribute to the world may ultimately help them to feel more respected and empowered.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 9-12 High School

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