We often hear employers and college recruiters talk about soft skills – those skills that go beyond technical knowledge about a job or academic test scores – and the importance of those skills when they are searching for qualified candidates. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 92 percent of surveyed executives said skills like problem-solving and communicating clearly are equally or more important than technical skills. And the College Board notes that colleges are seeking students who have exhibited leadership, a willingness to take risks, initiative, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to service, and special talents or abilities.
The qualities that colleges and employers are looking for in a perspective student or employee directly align with the competencies of social and emotional learning (SEL). So if schools want to make sure high school students are prepared for college and career, implementing a strong SEL program helps them do that. But is your SEL program up to the rigor needed for high school?
SEL for high school
CASEL defines SEL skills as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision-making, and relationship skills. We break these down further to include the skills of optimistic thinking, goal-directed behavior and personal responsibility. College and Career Readiness skills are in direct alignment with these competencies. In fact, 8 out of 10 of the Top Skills for 2025 identified by the World Economic Forum involve social and emotional competence.
When considering SEL programs for high school students, it’s important to keep in mind that the types of program and strategies that are effective to teach SEL in elementary school don’t necessarily transfer well to the high school age group. That’s because the social and emotional needs of high school students are different, and they are motivated in different ways. High school students are developmentally more self-aware than elementary school students, and as part of their development, having a sense of agency and voice is crucial to their growth.
With high school students, the methods to assess SEL skills are different too. In elementary school, it’s standard for teachers to assess students’ SEL competence based upon observed behaviors because these teachers spend the full school day with their students and have good insight into students’ daily behaviors and interactions. However in high school, block scheduling, a focus on delivering subject-matter content, and lack of SEL training for high school teachers can make it challenging for teachers to have a comprehensive view of their students’ social and emotional skills. Therefore, self-assessments are an innovative way to measure SEL competence for this age group.
Another thing to consider is that elementary school teachers are also often trained in SEL practices, and in many cases, it is part of the required curriculum. That’s not always the case in high school so it’s important for school administrators to be intentional about providing training and resources specifically to support SEL in high school.
Best practices for implementing SEL in high school
When considering best practices to implement SEL in high school, creating structures that support students taking charge of their own SEL growth is ideal. Here are some ways to do that:
- Use SEL self-assessments to identify which competencies high school students need support in. It’s important though, to make sure the assessment is tailored to the high school age group.
- Help students set goals. In and of itself, in any area of life, goal-setting can help build social and emotional competence. This is also a great way to give students a voice. Help student set goals related to academics, class participation, or other areas of their life and celebrate their progress toward meeting those goals.
- Pose “challenges” to help students build specific social and emotional skills, and then celebrate the completion of each challenge. For example, to support a student’s competence in optimistic thinking, challenge them to practice “gratitude on cue.” In this strategy, the student is instructed to pick a daily task like brushing their teeth, and use that task as a cue to think about what they’re grateful for. This helps gratitude become a daily habit which builds competence in optimistic thinking.
- Find ways to engage students in their own self-reflection and growth. After they learn about their SEL competencies through a self-assessment, have them reflect on those competencies and write down their thoughts on why they’re important and how they could help the student in different areas of their life. This is a good way to help them engage in and take ownership of their SEL growth.
- Make sure staff is trained in SEL. Teachers need to understand SEL and be able to model social and emotional skills. This puts them in a better position to support students. Administrators should also make sure to allow time for staff training on the SEL tools and programs being used.
We see time and time again the impact of high school SEL programs that are grounded in data and include the strategies above. Emilie Tregellas, a school psychologist at the Oak Creek-Franklin Joint School District in Wisconsin, says goal-setting has been an important part of her district’s SEL program for high school, and that it is “helping us connect a lot of pieces, including, the ability to teach kids a lifelong skill that is going to make them career and college ready,” she said. “We can all benefit from knowing our strengths and how to set goals.”
The Grundy Center Community Schools in Iowa found that engaging students in reflecting on their own social and emotional competence was extremely helpful. “When I read their reflections, they were very authentic and honest about what they needed to work on,” said Student Achievement Coordinator Cara Doak. “I asked them to think about little things they could do to improve their areas of need. Students who struggled with social awareness or relationship building realized that they could make an effort to listen to other people or take action to show their appreciation for their friends and family members.” She said setting goals is also an important piece of their program. “When students set goals, we discuss habits they might create and/or habits they may want to eliminate in order to stay on track with their goals. Additionally, we talk about what skills they have and what skills they want to grow in order to achieve these goals.”
Social and emotional learning is important for any age group, even adults. However, to create an effective program, it’s important to take into consideration the specific needs and learning styles of the age group you are serving. Incorporating the practices noted above will help to ensure your students are college and career ready by the time they graduate.
About the author
Christine Nicodemus is Chief Product Officer for Aperture Education. She previously was COO of Ascend, a company which she co-founded, and which was acquired by Aperture in 2021 to expand Aperture’s SEL offerings for high school. Ascend created gamified goal-setting software for schools and after school programs.