The Need for Social-Emotional Learning Curriculum in High Schools

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration

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, with much of this baggage stemming from poor social and emotional skills.

Recently, a shift in educational thinking has centered around social and emotional learning. This shift focuses on the softer side of student performance, concentrating more on educating the whole child and less on academic rigor and achievement. Ultimately, connections made to students’ social and emotional wellbeing have correlated to positive outcomes for students in their academic performance.

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 career readiness.

Why is Social-Emotional Learning Important in High School?

K-12 education is primarily designed to foster enriching academic experiences that prepare students to make important choices about life after high school; but it also serves as a network of support for students’ social and emotional needs. Many would argue that the chief goal of our education system is academic success. However, now more than ever, we realize that our students also need social and emotional support along with authentic and engaging learning experiences.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is important in high school simply because of what it encompasses. SEL curriculum often includes practices that help students with key areas: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. These core competencies are pivotal in the high school setting for students to master.

The high school setting is already filled with trepidation, particularly for new ninth grade students. High school is the first time where students are asked to make adult-like decisions and face rigorous academic challenges, all while navigating the traditional pitfalls that affect teenagers. Implementing a curriculum focusing on SEL practices can benefit individual students, as well as increase the overall climate and culture of a school.

Ways to Support Social-Emotional Learning in High School

Social-emotional learning can be implemented and supported in a variety of ways, and requires schools to often think outside of the traditional classroom setting.

Feeling Welcomed and Connected

Schools that are focused on students’ social and emotional learning start with getting students “plugged in” to all their school has to offer. This is especially critical for new ninth grade students. Oftentimes, students who fail to make connections with adult advocates or peers in ninth grade suffer long-term consequences, including increased chances of dropping out or not graduating on time.

For many schools, connecting students starts with some type of orientation session, geared specifically for freshman students or new students to the school. At my high school, we implemented “Mission Transition,” a one-day, drop-in style event where new ninth grade students and new students to our school, regardless of grade level, could learn more about our student clubs, activities, take guided tours, walk their schedule, and get a general idea of how the first day of school would go.

This event was not only great for students; it made many of our parents feel at ease with our policies, procedures, and protocols, making for a smooth start to the first days of school for all. Events like “Mission Transition” and other orientation-type activities are critical to make a great first impression and start students out on a positive note.

Student Choice/Individual Learning Time

A major component of SEL curriculum is providing all students access to adult advocates in the school building. Yes, students build relationships with their teachers. But oftentimes, particularly in the high school setting, students have relationships with their coaches, directors, counselors, and others that have been formed through extracurricular activities.

A new trend in education is flexible learning time, with schools adopting flexible, modular schedules that include built-in time for student choice. This idea was born out of the need for students to have the ability to make choices on how they spend their time and rethink the traditional bell schedule. Giving students time during the school day to connect with an adult advocate who may not necessarily be their teacher is powerful, and gives students another support system to continue to build upon their social-emotional competencies. Additionally, during flexible learning time, students have access to counselors, mental health resources, and tutoring resources.

Advisor/Advisee Programs

In some SEL models, schools often implement a crucial piece to student success, an advisor/advisee program. In this model, students are broken down into smaller groups, usually 8-12 students, and stay with the same teacher all four years of high school. Schools build into their schedule specific time dedicated to adviser/advisee opportunities, which provides another layer of support for students who need a positive adult role model in their life. This builds community amongst students and their teachers, and often leads to differing activities that students can participate in during their four years of high school.

The concept of the traditional high school model has changed from what it was as early as ten years ago. Today’s high schools are charged with not only preparing students for academic success, but preparing them for the various challenges a global, 21st-century society will present. Students today are faced with navigating all their high school years have in store for them, with many of them doing so already dealing with negative perceptions of themselves, poor social skills, and an inability to regulate their emotions. High schools today truly are living, breathing establishments that seek to build up the whole child, and implementing a social-emotional curriculum is a crucial step in the development of our young people.

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