Social Emotional Learning in the High-School Classroom

Social Emotional Learning in the High-School Classroom

According to research done in 2018 for CASEL, 73% of high school students feel stressed out at least part of the time. The recent pandemic has only made students feel more stressed as they face a new normal.

For some students, these feelings are heightened by other issues they may be experiencing. In these situations, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) may come into play.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is important for all high school students, whether they are experiencing stress or not. Through learning about their own feelings—and the feelings of others—teenagers can more easily navigate tricky adolescent waters.

Read on to learn more about SEL and ABA and how they can benefit students no matter how they feel as they enter the classroom.

What is Social-Emotional Learning?

For most high school students, social-emotional learning is as important to them as academic learning. SEL skills can also positively impact academic progress. Through SEL lessons, students learn:

  • Self-awareness (their thoughts and feelings)
  • Self-management (their response to events around them)
  • Social awareness (the thoughts and feelings of others)
  • Relationship skills (interacting and communicating with others)
  • Responsible decision-making

There are numerous benefits to SEL for teenagers. In addition to positively impacting their emotional development and academics, other benefits of SEL include:

  • Improved classroom behavior
  • Decreased instances of depression
  • Better management of stress

SEL can exist as independent lessons with practice in application. SEL can also be tied into lessons in other subjects and everyday activities and interactions. Keeping diversity and inclusion in mind will ensure that every student is involved in these valuable lessons.

What is Applied Behavior Analysis?

The goal of ABA is to improve behavior through the use of interventions based on learning theory principles. It is frequently used with children on the autism spectrum, though all students can benefit from ABA.

Through ABA, students can learn to:

  • Complete tasks
  • Communicate clearly
  • Build new skills
  • Practice self-control/self-regulation
  • Transfer learning to new situations
  • Face challenging scenarios
  • Reduce behaviors such as self-harm
  • Combat anxiety

Through ABA, children are offered positive reinforcement, or rewards, for making positive choices. ABA encourages a repeat of positive behaviors. Negative behaviors are discouraged and met with negative consequences.

With practice, children will learn which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. When used in conjunction with SEL, ABA can be very effective.

SEL and ABA in a High School Setting

Including SEL in the high-school curriculum is important; as is implementing ABA concepts when needed.

SEL seems built for elementary school since students have the same teacher all day, and that teacher has multiple opportunities to practice SEL skills with students.

In high school, students are with different teachers all day, with various groups of students in each class. That does not mean SEL is difficult to fit in. It means the whole school community needs to build opportunities for students to practice SEL skills.

SEL and ABA strategies need to be relevant to teens. They are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. These are big concepts to deal with on their own. 


It can be helpful for students to have adults they connect with. A school can consider establishing an advocacy or mentor program in which kids are matched with an adult. That adult can check in with them regularly, and students will have an adult they can count on in times of need.

Another method for connecting with students is to quickly check in during a lesson using a strategy such as Fist to Five. Silently, a student can form a fist to indicate they are struggling or five fingers to show they are doing well. This way, teachers can easily identify students who need some extra help.


One way to have students explore their feelings is to allow them to take one step away. Students can examine literary characters or historical figures and discuss how those characters responded to situations. By exploring the emotions and behaviors of others, students can begin to sort through their own emotions and behaviors.

Current events can serve as a tool to study behavior. Teachers can guide students in a discussion about the behavior of people in the news. Students can identify how different choices might have changed a situation; they might even make a connection to their own lives.


It can be difficult for students to share how they are feeling. One method for drawing them out might be journaling. Teenagers who might not be able to verbalize what they are feeling may fare better writing it down; sharing of journal entries can be optional.

Art is also a medium through which individuals can communicate or calm emotions. High school students can be encouraged to draw, paint, or sculpt to express themselves and their interests. Teachers can even set themes for an art project, such as positivity or character traits.

Goal Setting

Many teens are anxious about the future. Teachers can help by asking students to set goals and then work with students to plan the best way to achieve them. Breaking their future into small, attainable goals can lessen anxiety and allow students to experience success with each goal they meet.

If students are having difficulty making progress at school, knowing that others have been in the same boat can offer reassurance. Share the stories of people who struggled before achieving their great success.

The Virtual Setting

Since the pandemic began, virtual learning has become a reality for many high school students. Learning in a virtual classroom requires a different set of skills, but SEL can still take place.

Many of the activities mentioned above can be adapted for virtual use. Breakout rooms can be utilized to examine current events or literature. Teachers can schedule one-on-one video calls or set virtual office hours to check in with how students are doing.

Teachers and other adults who work with students virtually can build SEL skills and ABA practices into their online lessons. This can benefit students who may feel isolated or have difficulty motivating themselves to attend class.

Supporting All Students

The teenage years aren’t easy. High school students often have more on their plate than they can deal with, and their behavior and emotions may be affected. Support from the adults in their lives may make all the difference in learning how to cope with day-to-day stress.

Consider making SEL skills and ABA practices part of the curriculum at your school. No matter what their position, staff can guide students to academic, social, and emotional success. To find out more about how we can help you help students at your school, contact us today.

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