Middle school movies that support SEL in the classroom

Help students recognize and understand social and emotional themes in popular films

No matter how we discover them, the best films move us in ways we’ve never imagined. No matter how old we are, they can make us both laugh and cry, and they help us learn more about ourselves and how we relate to others. Of course, many popular movies deal with social and emotional issues, and these can be great for teaching SEL in our classrooms.

The films on this list are excellent for encouraging students to reflect on and discuss a wide range of social and emotional issues. As teachers, we’re in a unique position to give these films the context they demand. Social and emotional learning doesn’t usually come from watching a movie by yourself—it comes from the rich discussions that form when you’re watching a movie with others and relating what happens in the film to real life. Because of this, it’s crucial that we don’t merely show these films without also giving kids time to reflect on and discuss what they’re watching. As students watch, help them interpret the films you show, and give them direct invitations to ask questions and think critically about what they’re seeing on the screen.

Note that our list includes some films that address complex and mature themes. One of the benefits of kids seeing these films in school, versus on their own, is that teachers can help guide and facilitate conversations about these issues. However—as with any movie you select for your classroom—determine ahead of time what’s OK for your students and the community where you teach, and always follow your school or district’s policies around showing films in the classroom.

Here are 10 movies for the middle school classroom that support students’ social and emotional learning:

1. Inside Out
Self-Control, Teamwork, Empathy, Integrity
A modern animated classic about emotions, Inside Out will help kids understand the power of our feelings and why it’s important to express them—whether it’s happiness, fear, or regret.

2. Science Fair
Communication, Curiosity, Perseverance, Teamwork
Following different student groups competing in an international science fair, this documentary highlights the perseverance and teamwork required to make it to the top. Help students analyze the variety of personality types they’ll see in the film—from shy to self-possessed and beyond—and how they help or hurt the contestants’ goals.

3. Far from the Tree
Communication, Compassion, Empathy
This moving documentary is about parents learning how to raise kids who are unlike themselves—whether they have a disability, identify as LGBTQ, or have committed a crime. Students will see how these parents grapple with empathy and develop tolerance and then consider how their own families handle their unique characteristics.

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