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Implementing SEL with a priority on social aspects can contribute greatly to creating a greater sense of belonging for students.

Putting the “social” back into SEL–and why it matters now


Implementing SEL with a priority on social aspects can contribute greatly to creating a greater sense of belonging for students

Key points:

Even before COVID-19, data revealed concerning trends related to youth mental health. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of high school students reporting persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness increased nearly 10 percent, from 28 percent to 37 percent.

COVID-19, and the isolation and uncertainty that accompanied it, only exacerbated this disturbing trend. Barely two months into the pandemic, nearly one-third of students reported feeling disconnected from adults and peers at school. A meta-analysis of 29 studies including 80,879 youth worldwide, published in 2021, showed that just one year into the pandemic, the prevalence of depression and anxiety doubled from pre-pandemic rates. The proportion of youth seriously considering suicide increased almost steadily from 2011 to 2019, rising to 22 percent by 2021.

CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey Data Summary & Trends Report: 2011-2021

Public health declarations did not lift in the U.S. until May 2023. It’s no wonder that, according to a an article on trends topping educators’ agendas, student mental health remained top of mind in 2024.

How do we begin to make progress toward reversing these disturbing mental health trends? Rebuilding that sense of belonging students reported they lacked during the pandemic is one way. Research shows when educators and administrators focus on SEL, school climate, and student voice, a synergy results, leading to outcomes that include more supportive relationships among students, their peers, their teachers, and their administrators. Ultimately, such outcomes add up to observable growth for students, both academically and emotionally.

Particularly for middle and high school students, implementing SEL with a priority on social aspects can contribute greatly to creating this synergy and greater sense of belonging. This means offering opportunities for students to interact with each other and their teachers, voice their perspectives, and navigate, in a supportive environment, feelings and obstacles that inevitably arise while doing so.

To begin considering how to apply a social lens (see image at the bottom of the page) to SEL for students in middle and high school, it is helpful to regularly return to the CASEL definition of SEL and SEL research specifically focused on adolescents, whether you are looking at a schoolwide initiative or classroom instruction:

  • Are students given the opportunity to practice the SEL knowledge, skills, and attitudes they are learning about?
  • Are they able to reflect their personal values in their work?
  • Do they find the work they are doing meaningful?
  • Are there opportunities for sharing?
  • How are students able to respond to their peers?
  • Are students able to make decisions and learn about consequences of these decisions in a safe way?

If, after asking these questions, you need to uncover ways to further social interaction, in-person and online, here are some suggestions to get you started:

Create a sense of belonging

According to a recent review of the literature on belonging, which has generally focused on adolescents in school settings, the most commonly used definition of the term focuses on feeling one is included, accepted, respected, and supported personally by others in school. Thus, it is essential to create opportunities that can instill these feelings.

Technology can be an asset here, particularly because time is a valuable commodity for teachers. Technology can enable an entire class to share input on a central question or theme efficiently and in real time. Not only does this input offer glimpses of how students are connecting with the material, but it can plant seeds of connection among students while also enabling them to share their perspectives in a safe, supportive way. Guardrails, like built-in moderation features so teachers can be confident that what is posted is appropriate for sharing, can help facilitate such an environment.

Incorporating time to chat, whether structured or not, is another way to cultivate a greater sense of belonging. This may be as simple as incorporating a daily check-in or 3-5 minutes for students to just talk. A more structured approach, such as community building circles, might be incorporated at certain times (e.g., beginning and end of a unit, after a school break, on Mondays to start the week) or regularly as part of a routine meeting (e.g., advisory period, clubs, team meeting). Either way, with consistency, you will begin to see benefits as relationships form and traits like empathy and confidence develop.

Such sharing should not be for students only. By sharing a bit about themselves, teachers can foster greater rapport with students in their classrooms.

Designate shared spaces and materials

In middle and high school, as students change classrooms and teachers more frequently than in earlier grades, it is easy for them to feel less connected to the physical spaces they occupy, the materials they use briefly, and the teachers they encounter while doing so. Giving students responsibility for their space in your classroom and items they use collectively, whether it is a class library, a science equipment stock room, or a cart of laptops, distributes responsibilities and also instills a sense of community and accountability as part of it.

Problem-solve together

Observation is at the heart of Social Learning Theory. Building from work by Bandura, Social Learning Theory proposes that adopting new behaviors and knowledge comes from observing others. Thus, activities like class discussions, peer collaboration boards, and opportunities to consider and apply learning to pertinent real-world scenarios in small groups offer the chance to grow academically as well as socially and emotionally. Research supports incorporating group work in the classroom, pointing to improved social skills, a greater sense of belonging, a chance to reflect on and define personal identity, and the chance to support peers. Particularly for adolescents, research finds that this age group is particularly values-focused and purpose-driven while also motivated to seek the respect of those around them.

Encourage student voices

While standards are in place to guide learning, they are not meant to confine it, and learning is most effective when students are given latitude in how they demonstrate learning progress. Giving students choices also helps them find more purpose in the work they complete. Particularly in the middle and high school grades, students are really seeking purpose in their assignments.

Allowing students to choose also gives them the chance to share their perspectives on how learning relates to them individually and as part of various communities, building self-advocacy skills needed throughout life. When shared out loud, with other students or the class at large, it also fosters connection and sense of belonging.

As these suggestions demonstrate, educators are well-positioned to contribute in immeasurable ways to students’ feelings of belonging and their mental well-being. By looking anew at lesson plans, instructional delivery, and classroom setup, to name a few, they can take a proactive role helping to reverse disturbing mental health trends through increased opportunities for social interactions within a safe, supportive environment.

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