Why High School SEL Programs Feel ‘Lame’—and How to Fix Them

In the secondary school years, students are grappling with some big questions: Who are they? How do they fit into the world? How do they form healthy relationships—in particular romantic ones? These questions grow to a crescendo in high school where students face another daunting query: What will they do with themselves once they graduate?

That’s why experts in social-emotional learning and child development say the secondary school years are a crucial time to focus on teaching skills, such as responsible decision making, emotional management, and nurturing relationships.

But for older students, the SEL paradigm looks different. It’s less explicit and requires creating leadership opportunities—formal and informal—where students will have to exercise their relationship and self-regulation muscles.

“When we think about working with younger students in general, often being a great teacher feels very theatrical. And as students get older, it’s actually the opposite,” said Jeffrey Imwold, the managing director of student support services for KIPP NYC, a chain of charter schools. “Students will know when you’re being inauthentic. What matters is how you show up for them and deliver the material—and it can be really hard to show up authentically.”

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Free Guide: 5 Strategies for Teaching SEL to Teenagers (Downloadable)