<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://dc.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=57860&amp;fmt=gif">
Social-Emotional Learning

8 Social-Emotional Learning Activities for High School

Educators work hard to provide high school students with the necessary skills to succeed in the classroom and beyond. While the focus in high school is often grades and test scores, many districts are starting to incorporate social-emotional learning (SEL) into their portraits of a graduate.  Students need both academics and SEL for college and career readiness, leaving many district leaders, school administrators, and classroom teachers asking the question, "How can we bring social-emotional learning into our high schools?" 

While SEL has wide adoption in elementary schools, many schools and districts still find it challenging to incorporate social-emotional skills into high school curricula. SEL is important for all young people, from elementary to high school, but you may feel like you have to choose between teaching academic subjects or social-emotional skills. 

What if you could have both? Here are eight SEL activities for high school students from expert SEL organizations that you can incorporate directly into classroom curriculum and lesson plans.


Why is Social-Emotional Learning Important for High School Students?

Social-emotional learning skills can improve students' attitudes, relationships, mental health, and academic performance. Research from the College and Career Readiness and Success Center shows that strong social-emotional skills can help students regulate their own emotions, make friends, resolve conflicts, avoid engaging in risky behaviors, and make ethical and safe choices, all of which are integral to post-secondary success. 

Integrating social-emotional learning into academic lessons can strengthen both areas for students. When students have strong social-emotional skills, they are more likely to achieve academic goals and thrive in the classroom. Likewise, academic lessons can be enhanced when paired with SEL strategies and provide an excellent platform for practicing SEL skills. 

Below, you'll find activities that address each of CASEL's five core competencies of SEL:

Pro Tip: Through Panorama's Playbook, educators can access research-backed lesson plans and SEL interventions from leading SEL curriculum providers such as Newsela, Second Step, Character Strong, Learning for Justice, and many others. 




1. Identity Representation in Books


Courtesy of Newsela

Overview: Help students feel welcome in class and foster a sense of belonging by offering books that feature characters with diverse identities. Students will build awareness of their identities and learn to evaluate resources for identity, belonging, and inclusion, and take action so that they and their classmates feel welcome and represented. When students see themselves reflected in the books they read and their classroom materials, they feel like they belong. This move gives students agency and allows them to make a change in their classroom to help them and their peers feel welcome.

Instructions for Implementation: 

  1. Register yourself and your students for Newsela. Assign this article about Marley Diaz and #1000BlackGirlBooks to your class.
  2. Before Reading: Write, pair, share: What is your favorite book or story that you have read? What makes it your favorite?
  3. Reading Strategy: Have students highlight the cause of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign in GREEN and highlight the effects of it in BLUE. Make an annotation that summarizes the reason why Marley created her campaign.
  4. After Reading:
    Custom Write Prompt: What does Marley Diaz mean when she says she wants to create "mirrors and windows for people"? In your opinion, does her campaign successfully create those mirrors and windows? Explain.
    Write a Story: Outline and write a short story that is a mirror to your own life and identity. The story can be autobiographical, or it can be fictional yet inspired by your experiences.
    Evaluate Your Classroom Library: Each student selects a book (or a few) from the classroom or school library. You can also evaluate articles on Newsela. Make a sticky note for each book or article, indicating the identities represented. Then, organize the post it notes on the board or a table by grouping them based on identity factors. Which identities are most represented? Which ones aren't represented enough? Make a wish list of books to add to your library!

Pro Tip: Students can use this to examine the materials in any subject. Consider whether diverse identities are represented in your curriculum materials in math, or science, or social studies.




2. Fist to Five


Courtesy of CharacterStrong

Overview: Use this research-backed, formative assessment strategy to gauge students’ opinions, level of comfort on a topic, and/or readiness for a task. This interactive technique is quick, can be done several times throughout a lesson or discussion, and provides instant feedback to the lesson.

Instructions for Implementation: Pose a topic and allow participants to share their feelings on it by holding up a number representing where they fall on the scale of 0 (fist) to five (all five fingers up). A fist indicates that they are feeling very uneasy and need more support or instruction. A five indicates that they are comfortable, excited and ready to go! For example, after introducing a new math concept, you could ask your students to use “Fist to Five” to indicate how well they understand the information.

Pro Tip: Work with students to create a description for each number. What does a “1” mean to students in your classroom? What does a “4” mean? This will help everyone establish the differences between each level.


3. Visualizing Success


Courtesy of Newsela

Overview: In order to be successful, students need a balance of belief in their abilities to achieve, as well as an understanding that hard work and overcoming challenges is necessary. This activity demonstrates a real-world example of someone who had a positive mindset and determination to keep trying. This activity uses an article about Olympian Ashley Caldwell and how her growth mindset powered her three Olympic appearances, but it can be adapted to fit your curriculum. 

Instructions for Implementation: 

  1. Register yourself and your students for Newsela and assign the article “Heading to her Third Olympics” to your class.
  2. Before Reading: Have your students try a visualization exercise.
    First, close your eyes and imagine what it looks, sounds, and feels like to accomplish a big goal you have. 
    Second, imagine that you are trying to achieve your goal and you make a mistake or have a failure along the way.
    Third, imagine that when you make that mistake or experience a failure that you recover and move on from it. 
    Finally, imagine that you accomplish your big goal.
  3. Reading Strategy: Have students highlight in GREEN what Ashley says and does to overcome challenges she faces. Have them highlight in YELLOW Ashley’s thoughts and mindset.
  4. After Reading:
    Write Response: How does Ashley show that she has a growth mindset? Cite two pieces of evidence from the article that support your response.
    Peer Interview: Pair students and have them interview each other: What is a big goal you want to achieve? How do you set yourself up for success? What do you do when the going gets tough? What advice do you have for someone else who is struggling with a challenge? Students can continue this for homework and interview a family member or friend after school. 

Pro Tip: This activity can be modified to explore the lives of change-makers in any subject! How does growth mindset show up in your curriculum materials?


Social Awareness

4. Different Perspectives in Literature


Courtesy of Second Step

Overview: Build students’ perspective-taking skills by prompting them to consider the perspectives of fictional characters in different situations. The ability to take others’ perspectives is a key skill for empathy and pro-social behavior.

Instructions for Implementation: 

  1. Have pairs of students select two characters from a book that you are currently reading in class or that students are reading on their own.
  2. Have students each write a brief paragraph about how the character they chose might feel about or respond to the situation. Then have students switch characters with their partners and write another paragraph.
  3. Have pairs of students compare their paragraphs. For example, they can discuss how their ideas about the characters’ responses were similar and different. They can also discuss how the characters’ perspectives about the situation were similar and different.
  4. Invite pairs of students to read their different perspectives to the class.

Pro Tip: This activity can also be modified for use in a social studies class. Ask students to consider the perspectives of historical figures or people living during different time periods. How can they empathize with people from different times and places? What similar challenges do they face, or what joys do they share?


5. Map the Climate in Your School


Courtesy of Learning for Justice

Overview: Students will observe trends and patterns in their school and draw conclusions about how their observations are linked to their experience of climate and culture in their school. Comparing maps can be an effective way to discuss broader issues of culture and climate within the school and discuss the existence of cliques and social boundaries.

Instructions for Implementation: 

  1. Gather the required materials for this activity:
    Art supplies such as markers, paint or colored pencils
    Poster paper
  2. Ask students to observe your school's hallways, common areas, and seating arrangements in classrooms and the cafeteria for a period of one week, paying attention to how students mix together (or don’t mix together).
  3. Ask each student to draw a map demonstrating the social boundaries of the school based on their observations. Compare students maps, using questions such as:
    Did students generally map the schools similarly? What were some elements that  showed up in most maps?
    How were groups labeled? Did the labels vary across maps?
    Did individual students notice different things? Why might this be?
    Does this information challenge any assumptions you may have had?
    What can you change in your classroom and school to reflect this new information?
  4. Consider hanging maps around the classroom and / or repeating this exercise at different points in the school year. To expand the exercise, ask teachers and staff members to complete a similar exercise and compare maps from staff members to maps from students.

Pro Tip: Integrate this activity with curriculum around research practices and data collection and visualization. This is particularly appropriate for statistics classes, or science and social-science subject areas that involve research. As students explore different ways to collect and present their findings, challenge them to think critically about potential biases in how data is gathered and presented. Bring the conversation to history and geography lessons by discussing subjectivity and inequity in map creation.

Relationship Skills


6. Social Contract


Courtesy of CharacterStrong

Overview: Establish an agreed-upon set of classroom values, expectations, and consequences that all students help create and sign. A social contract gives students a voice in creating their own class environment and deciding how their ideal class should look, sound, and feel. It also serves as a tool for addressing behaviors with clear, logical consequences that the teacher and students have already agreed upon and committed to.

Instructions for Implementation:

  1. Share Context About the Contract (5-10 minutes): Share with the class that -- because you believe all people in the room should have a voice in how the class functions -- you are all going to work together to create a set of classroom expectations. Explain that this will become a contract that everyone signs, and that it will be posted up as a reminder of what they created together and agreed to as norms.
  2. Posing Questions for the Contract (5-10 minutes): Ask students to individually respond to the following questions. They can use both words as well as images to help paint a picture. (Remind students that they need to be realistic when responding because we really want to use their ideas.) 
    How do you want to be treated in class? What does that look/sound/feel like?
    How do you believe I want to be treated as your teacher? What does that look/sound/feel like?
    What does the ideal learning environment look/sound/feel like?
  3. Group Work + Share Out: Have students share their ideas with each other and see if they can create a single inclusive vision for each question. Ask groups to share out as a class asking a few students to volunteer to write the key words and phrases on the board.
  4. Collaborate to Create the Contract: Work together as a class to summarize their ideas into a class contract that is posted on the wall, then have everyone in the class sign it.

Pro Tip: While this can be used to guide any classroom, it fits in particularly well with history and social studies subjects. What social contracts, written and unwritten, have people lived with in the past and present? How is your contract similar? How is it different? How does culture inform a social contract?

7. Meaningful Online Messages


Courtesy of Second Step

Overview: Much of students’ communication takes place online. Knowing how to understand and convey meaning in an online message can help students avoid conflicts. Use this activity to help students identify how differences between in-person and online communication affect perception, and explore how to avoid misinterpretations of online messages.

Instructions for Implementation: 

  1. Write a simple sentence where students can see it, then read the sentence using different tones of voice. For example, write, “That was great” and read it with the following tones of voice: neutral, excited, sarcastic, uncertain, and so on.
  2. Discuss with students how when we send messages online, the tone of voice is missing so the message can be misinterpreted. Discuss what other elements are missing when communication takes place online.
  3. Have students offer ideas about what they could add to the message to communicate its meaning in the absence of the sender’s tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language.
  4. Working in pairs or small groups, have students come up with their own examples of messages that could be misinterpreted. Have them add emoticons, abbreviations, punctuation, and so on to help convey the sender’s true meaning. Encourage students to stick to positive messages! Invite students to share their examples.
  5. Discuss ways to handle online messages that can be misinterpreted before jumping to conclusions about their meaning. For example, students could check with the sender about the true meaning, they could pause and think about things from the sender’s perspective before they assume its meaning, and so on.
  6. Click here to access instructions for adapting this activity for virtual use.

Pro Tip: You can stretch this activity to discuss how certain terms and words hold different meanings for different people and explore ideas of “impact vs. intent.” How can understanding meaning and context improve our communication skills? How can understanding meaning aid in conflict resolution?

Responsible Decision-Making

8. Responsible Citizens


Courtesy of Second Step

Overview: Help students identify their responsibilities as citizens in a select community. When students recognize their responsibilities as members of a community, it can help them develop empathy, respect, and a sense of commitment to teamwork to improve the community.

Instructions for Implementation:

  1. Discuss the different communities students are a part of (for example, classroom, school, city, state, province, country) and how, as members or citizens, each individual has rights and responsibilities.
  2. Choose one community that all students are a part of. Have students work in pairs to brainstorm their responsibilities as citizens of the chosen community. Have student pairs share their lists with the class.
  3. In pairs or as a class, discuss the following:
    How does having empathy and respect for others make you a better citizen in your community?
    Why is it important to listen to others in your community?
    How can showing compassion for others help your community?
    Why is it important to be able to understand other people’s perspectives when you are part of a community?
  4. Create a “Bill of Responsibilities” for the chosen community that identifies specific things citizens are responsible for in order to improve their communities.

Pro Tip: Use this activity to elevate civics lessons or literature analysis.

Download the Panorama Social-Emotional Learning Assessment with topics and questions for students in grades 6-12.


Topic(s): Social-Emotional Learning

Join 90,000+ education leaders on our weekly newsletter.