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Navigating SEL for Teens

Help for educators in selecting the right social-emotional learning program for their teen students' needs
Teenager smiling in a group

Research has made clear the benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL) in early and elementary education. Often used as an umbrella term for a variety of learning concepts, SEL describes the process of developing skills to build and sustain relationships, manage emotions, regulate attention and cognition, and resolve conflicts effectively. SEL programs are designed to develop skills often categorized under a variety of monikers — soft skills, non-cognitive development, 21st-century skills, character education, and trauma-informed learning.

As SEL programs become more popular and specific, educators increasingly need to identify which programs (1) meet their program goals and student needs; (2) fulfill certain requirements; (3) align with existing school-, district-, and state-wide regulations and initiatives; and (4) can be adapted and implemented with success in their unique settings.

For educators who work with teens, there’s also another big issue: much of the SEL guidance to date has focused on helping younger students. Adolescence is also an extremely important and sensitive time for developing social and emotional skills. Research shows teens feel their social and emotional skills are often not well supported in middle and high schools. And sharpening SEL skills can help adolescents navigate new and changing environments and experiences that impact future successes in school, work, and life.

Building on more than a decade of research, a practical and comprehensive new guide from the Wallace Foundation aims to help schools and out-of-school educators choose SEL programs for adolescents. The guide, “Navigating SEL from the Inside Out,” details variations among a wide variety of programs available to schools and focused specifically on middle and high school students.

Expanding the Guidelines

The guide, created by developmental psychologist Stephanie Jones and her research team, takes a deep look at 18 evidence-based SEL programs for adolescents, outlining their features with the goal of helping system leaders make decisions about the SEL program that will work best in their respective settings based on specific needs and opportunities.

“We know SEL programs work,” write Jones and her co-authors in the report. “But we don’t know as much about what is inside them that drives those positive outcomes or differentiates one program from another in ways that impact their feasibility and fit across diverse learning settings.”

Choosing the Right Program

The guide provides a detailed look at specific program goals. While some are designed to help teens regulate their behavior and build positive relationships, others aim to support the development of certain mindsets or character traits. Programs are likely to have the most impact when they are closely aligned with school and community needs and goals. The guide comes with worksheets to help educators zero in on those goals. As school leaders and teachers make decisions about what program is best suited to their needs, the following guiding questions can help.

Does the program…

  • address specific SEL goals like bullying and violence prevention, character education, resistance to peer pressure, and other behavior management;
  • meet the specific needs of a student body and align with a specific mission;
  • fit within existing academic schedules;
  • integrate into existing school climate and culture initiatives and behavioral support systems;
  • complement other education and programming goals;
  • ensure programming equity and benefit for all students; and
  • connect and reinforce programming between regular schooling and out-of-school time?

The report also includes longer profiles of individual programs that detail the specific SEL skills targeted and instructional methods used.

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