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Social-Emotional Learning

5 Social-Emotional Learning Activities for High School

Lara Fredrick
Lara Fredrick
5 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 grades and test scores are often the focus in high school, many districts are bringing social-emotional learning (SEL) into their portraits of a graduate—recognizing that students need both academics and SEL for college and career readiness.

SEL is important for all young people, from elementary through 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 five SEL activities for high school students that you can incorporate directly into classroom curriculum and lesson plans.

Table of Contents

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

Fist to Five (Self-Management)

Different Perspectives in Literature (Social Awareness)

Social Contract (Relationship Skills)

Meaningful Online Messages (Relationship Skills)

Responsible Citizens (Responsible Decision Making)


Key Takeaways:

  1. Social-emotional learning is crucial for high school students, complementing academic achievements with skills necessary for college and career readiness.

  2. SEL enhances attitudes, relationships, mental health, and academic performance, contributing significantly to post-secondary success.

  3. Activities such as Fist to Five, Different Perspectives in Literature, Social Contract, Meaningful Online Messages, and Responsible Citizens target various SEL competencies. These activities focus on self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, fostering holistic student development.

Gather baseline information on your high schoolers' social-emotional skills with the Panorama SEL Survey.


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 CASEL's 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 Second Step, Character Strong, and many others. 


1. 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.


2. 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?

3. 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?

4. 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?

5. 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.


Frequently Asked Questions: 

1: How does social-emotional learning (SEL) benefit high school students?

SEL enhances students' attitudes, relationships, mental health, and academic performance, preparing them for college and career success. Research shows that strong social-emotional skills help students regulate emotions, build friendships, resolve conflicts, and make ethical choices, all crucial for post-secondary endeavors.

2. Can academic lessons be integrated with social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies?

Yes, integrating SEL into academic lessons strengthens both areas for students. When students possess strong social-emotional skills, they are more likely to achieve academic goals and thrive in the classroom. Additionally, academic lessons provide an excellent platform for practicing SEL skills, fostering holistic student development.

3. How can educators assess students' social-emotional skills in high school?

Educators can gather baseline information on students' social-emotional skills using tools like the Panorama SEL Survey. This survey provides insights into students' strengths and areas for growth in SEL competencies, guiding educators in designing targeted interventions and support.


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


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