SEL for Middle School Teachers

Social emotional learning (SEL) is fast becoming a hallmark of empowerment for middle-school-aged children, a set of tools that supports them in their secondary education and well into adulthood. Children invited to participate in SEL frameworks are, according to the American Psychological Association and others, better positioned for academic success, a reduction in anxiety and problematic conduct, and improvement of goal setting. 

While SEL often begins in elementary grades, middle school children benefit extraordinarily from the continued practices as they enter a foundational moment in their development.

SEL in Middle School

SEL is best understood as a process. Students, educators, parents, and policymakers work together to teach skills for healthy relationships, decision making, and goal setting. As such, this process takes a commitment of time, patience, and willingness among students, peers, and educators. These communities work in tandem toward a goal of what is typically referred to as social emotional competence (SEC), which is a set of knowledge, skills, and attitudes adopted to promote students’ ability to regulate actions, build identity, and communicate thoughts and emotions constructively, not impulsively. 

And, developmentally, adolescence happens to be a time to strike while the iron is hot. 

Middle school youth are embarking on a phase in which they can articulate beliefs and broaden their social network. They gain access to social media networks that may have negative impacts, are subject to bullying, and face steeper challenges in academia. They’re also, of course, presented with more opportunities to take risks through social pressure, making the SEL programming a scaffolding for thinking critically about the choices they make. Learn more about how to select the right SEL program for your classroom.

The result is a slew of challenges to implementing SEL at these grade levels. Students are, suddenly, moving from classroom to classroom, their focus shifts to studies on a level not present in primary school, and recess disappears. That means students should be exposed to this learning directly, and schools should maintain a culture of equity promotion in all classrooms, for the duration of middle school years. Research shows that SEL-related programs are only effective with a minimum of two years of consistent programming and integration of these vital skills. 

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) identifies five areas for SEC:

  • Self-Awareness. Social-emotional competence means to be aware of emotions and thoughts while acknowledging room for growth and possessing a constructive attitude about that growth.
  • Self-Management. Social-emotional competence means to be adaptable in different situations, whether managing stress or working to achieve a new goal. 
  • Social Awareness. Social-emotional competence means to empathize with others, no matter their background. This also means being able to identify social resources, like family or a group of peers and/or educators.
  • Relationship Skills. Social-emotional competence means to develop mutually rewarding relationships with others through clear communication, negotiate constructively, and openness to seeking and accepting help. 
  • Responsible Decision-making. Social-emotional competence means to make decisions based on respect, empathy, and consequences. This may involve evaluation of social norms, safety concerns, and ethical standards. 

Those are all widely accepted pillars of instilling the values of SEL in adolescence. 

SEL Curriculum for Middle School

SEL programs for middle school tend to focus on four approaches: promotion of skills, academic integration, teaching practices, and organizational reform. These are built through relationships with adults and peers. 

  • Skill-focused promotion programs. These encourage “active learning” and role-playing activities that allow students to understand and absorb. These activities can make middle schoolers significantly less physically aggressive at a key point in their adolescence, as well as be less likely to dabble in drug use.
  • Academic integration. These are programs focused on embedding SEC values in a school’s standard curriculum. In the case of a program like the Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy, they might, for example, learn to attach personal goals to their reading exercises. In general, there is more emphasis on sharing personal values and reflecting.
  • Teaching practices. This approach to SEL programs zeroes in on relationships—peer-to-peer, with teachers, etc. Teachers receive extensive professional development in order to be able to apply SEC in all areas of interactions with a student. Teachers who are part of programs like EL Education, one such program that takes this approach—and has shown success in standardized testing scores in reading and math—are careful to be interactive in their teaching approach, rather than lecture, and they give students space to construct their identities and work independently. 
  • Organizational reform programs. This is an especially comprehensive approach that implements SEL at the school level and student level. Involved might be community-building routines that apply SEL, while structurally there might be a culture of student exhibitions and field trips that loop in family and the larger community. Discipline is also designed in this approach to be restorative. 

Popular programs include Second Step, Responding in Peaceful and Positive Ways (especially helpful for reducing risky behaviors), Reading Apprenticeship Academic Literacy (an SEL curriculum for middle school), Lions Quest Skills for Adolescence, and resources like the Sanford College of Education’s SEL Playbook. This guide from CASEL provides more options for middle-school-specific programs.

SEL Activities Middle School

There is a near-endless supply of SEL-embracing activities for middle schoolers, particularly as the practice evolves and teachers and students learn what works well. 

A few to consider, as you set SEL lesson plans for middle school:

  • Toss stress. A pre-activity exercise for an SEL activity is to try and let students work with a clean slate. Encourage them to write their stresses and fears on a slip of paper, and then tear it up. This allows them to get a better handle on what they’re bringing into a space or conversation, emotionally. 
  • ‘Cold’ conversations. Have students go in “cold” to a conversation with someone they’ve never interacted with. Equip them with five questions to ask each other, then have them introduce that person to the class. This strengthens empathy. 
  • Journaling. While useful at all age levels, this activity is useful for making middle school students feel empowered. They should also be prompted to consider what self-care means to them and what person in their life makes them feel confident or makes them feel grateful. 
  • Celebration planning. Give middle school students a small budget to coordinate a class celebration. While the focus will certainly be the event, the process is the point: students learn to work together, work with a budget, and socialize with peers they might not engage with otherwise.
  • Attitude latitudes. Prime among SEL topics for middle school is an understanding of attitudes and boundaries. Scholastic recommends, with worksheets, an exercise that asks students to consider what it means to have an “attitude” and how they feel they react in certain situations. It also equips them with a better understanding of their social-emotional outlooks and how they relate to others.

SEL middle school activities that involve mindfulness, like meditation, are also helpful as introductions to SEL activities for middle school. It’s a method to calm them down and activate their memory. 

When choosing an SEL program, middle school teachers should look for options that offer SEL instruction in academic curriculum, as well as programs that create rules and best practices to support students’ social and emotional development. Teachers can choose to teach dedicated SEL lessons, incorporate these concepts into regular curriculum, or encourage SEL competencies through students’ social interactions. This guide includes evidence-based SEL programs for middle school. 

National University Master of Arts in Social Emotional Learning

National University, with a global alumni community of more than 175,000, is a catalyst for those looking to implement and expand the theories of SEL in communities. Students learn the principles of SEL and how to transform educational communities with them as they set a middle school SEL curriculum—or in any grade level.

National University offers a Master of Arts in Social Emotional Learning, preparing aspiring professionals for a career in the application and research of SEL.  


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