Middle schoolers are at a unique stage; they’re no longer little kids, but not yet adults. They still have so much growing to do socially and emotionally. This is one of the many reasons that teaching social and emotional skills for middle school learners is so important. These years are a critical window to help learners gain skills for empathy, friendships, self-awareness, problem-solving, and decision-making.
Why Make Time for SEL for Middle Schoolers?
All kids and young adults need to learn social and emotional skills. That much is pretty clear. Simply put, these are the foundation to social, emotional, academic, and personal success. These are the skills that help students work well with others, manage their emotions, work through challenges, and meet goals. Just because these young adults are older doesn’t mean they will walk into the classroom with these skills in tact; many don’t. A number of young adults struggle with these skills on a daily basis.
In fact, middle school can sometimes be the time when challenges become more apparent. You might see young adults struggling to make friends, issues with mean behavior, learners who can’t keep up with the curriculum, or students generally making poor choices they later regret. These are just a few examples in the day-to-day life of what a middle school teacher (or parent) sees.
Understanding Growing Brains
Further, the brain of a middle schooler is simply different. Brain research has shown that in the adolescent brain, the emotions portions of the brain are developing faster than the decision-making areas. This ultimately means middle school kids are more likely to act before thinking. Teaching social-emotional skills to middle schoolers can help empower them to make better choices during this difficult time.
The good news in all of this is brain plasticity; this is the idea that brains are still growing and developing. With strategies, knowledge, and practice, our middle schoolers can strengthen their social-emotional skills now and for the future.
Strategies for Social-Emotional Support for Middle School
Below are 25+ strategies and techniques educators can use to teach and provide emotional support specifically for middle school learners. Remember that you don’t have to do everything! SEL isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Choose a few strategies that fit you and your school best and give them a try.
1. Start with Daily Greetings
Research shows that kids and young adults perform better when their teacher greets them at the door. In one study, academic engagement increased by 20 percentage points while disruptive behavior decreased by 9 percentage points. This is why daily greetings are just a simple and positive proactive approach that every educator can take.
When greeting students, it’s helpful to:
- Say the student’s name.
- Use a friendly nonverbal greeting (example: wave or elbow bump).
- Give an informal check-in.
- Provide some words of encouragement.
Put it all together and it might look like this: The teacher waves at Jacob. She says, “Hey, Jacob! How are you doing today?” After Jacob answers, she might say, “I know you are going to love our lesson today. It’s about snakes!” Of course, every situation should be individualized to the student to build relationships and help kids feel welcomed.
You can use a free printable daily greetings poster to allow students to choose a greeting themselves as they walk in.
2. Morning Meeting
Morning meeting is an ideal time to integrate social-emotional skills. It is a semi-structured time during the beginning of the day when students greet each other, discuss some topics, and complete activities together. Holding morning meeting on a regular basis gives teens the opportunity to develop strong relationships (student to student and student to teacher), while also providing a time to build on SEL skills like empathy, problem-solving, and conflict resolution.
A morning meeting focused on social emotional learning can consist of the following components:
- Daily greetings. Give learners a chance to greet one another.
- Introduce a skill for topic. The teacher will introduce a new SEL topic of the day. Possible topics might include empathy, showing kindness, listening, staying organized, studying for tests, peer influence, or anything else.
- Start a discussion. Lead a discussion on the topic of the day. Let students share ideas and discuss it.
- Do an activity. Practice the skill with a partner, group or individual activity. These don’t have to be long; they are just a strategy to help kids generalize the skill while learning together. For example, if you are learning about coping strategies that day, you might have kids color while listening to music.
- Reflect and check-in. Give a final chance for students to reflect on how that skill applies to their life. During this this, it also helps to give a final check-in or time for kids to share anything else on their minds before getting to a daily lesson.
At the middle school level, morning meetings can be part of a daily homeroom to simplify things. Learn more about starting up a morning meeting of your own.
If you’re already ready to go, grab these daily morning meeting activities to target social and emotional skills for the full year. They specifically designed for middle school learners!
3. Emotions Check-Ins
Everyone can use an emotions check-in each day, no matter the age. Make it a daily habit to talk about emotions with the mnemonic PASTA. This stands for:
- P: Pause and breathe for a moment
- A: Ask yourself how you feel.
- S: Say the emotion words out loud or write them on paper.
- T: Think about your feelings. Sit with them and let them be.
- A: Ask yourself what you need. Say or list what could help you.
Give this strategy a try with a free emotions check-in here.
4. Teach SEL Skills Explicity
While there are countless ways to integrate SEL skills, it’s also important to teach these skills explicitly. Just like we teach reading, writing, and math, social-emotional skills also deserve a place to be taught in the classroom. Teaching skills explicitly means carving out time in the day (or week) to teach, discuss, and practice SEL skills in a sequenced and meaningful way.
Get this SEL Curriculum for Middle School to help you get started.
5. Hold Class Meetings
Class meetings are a semi-structured way to address any needs or problems happening in the classroom at the time. It’s a helpful time to discuss expectations, challenges, and strategies moving forward.
6. Integrate SEL Skills in the Curriculum
Many SEL skills fit themselves nicely into the curriculum you are already teaching. Help students recognize and learn these skills by being targeted and explicit as you teach through them. For example, during literature, make it a point to highlight how other characters might feel (perspective-taking). Before a test, make a list of some concrete strategies for kids to work through challenges and difficulties (perseverance). These are just a few examples. The truth is that SEL skills are truly life skills, so we use them in everything we do.
7. Advisory Period
Advisory blocks are an ideal time to teach social-emotional skills explicitly. These are a period of time dedicated to meeting with kids to help them make connections and learn skills along the way. Some schools have adopted advisory periods on a daily basis for shorter periods, while others might schedule this time on a weekly basis for longer. It can be helpful if the entire school focuses on advisory period at the same time. Find a time period that works for you and your school and stick with it! This is a great time to teach SEL skills explicitly, make time for relationship-building, and help middle schoolers problem-solve through their own real-life challenges.
8. Journal Writing
Use SEL journal writing as a daily “do now” activity for students as they enter the room. This maximizes learning time, while integrating social-emotional skills and writing at the same time. Specifically for SEL Journaling, assign prompts to target a social-emotional skill each day. A few examples of prompts include:
- You are unique and have your own individual strengths! List, draw, or describe at least five of your biggest strengths.
- Let’s expand your emotional vocabulary. List as many different emotion words as you can think of. Then, talk with a partner and add to your list.
- Let’s think about it. Do your emotions impact your actions? Why or why not?
- What are some ways that having empathy can make you a better friend?
- We all have responsibilities in life. What are some things you are responsible for and why are they important?
Come up with your own daily topics, or use this Social Emotional Learning Journal for middle schoolers.
9. Provide Group & Partner Activities
Group and partner activities help kids build skills for teamwork, flexibility, self-control, conflict resolution, and problem-solving. Incorporate more group and partner activities in the classroom when possible to target some of these skills.
10. Create a Supported Study Hall
For students who need a little extra support, develop a guided study hall to help them work through their social, emotional, and academic challenges of the day. It’s important to note that this isn’t a special education resource room, but a support for all students who need a little more intervention and support. A guided study hall can be used like a check-in for the day, checking in with emotions and academic needs before giving independent work time.
11. SEL Question of the Day
Use a simple question of the day to target social-emotional skills. You can choose whether students respond in journals, writing right on the board, or responding on a sticky note that they can post on the board. Note that a SEL question of the day is a bit different from a journaling approach; it is intended to be simple, quick, and to the point. This technique only takes a few minutes, but can be engaging and meaningful for students. Some examples of questions to try are:
- Self-awareness is having a clear and accurate view of yourself. What words describe who you are?
- Dream big! If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?
- Self-management skills help you to be independent. What are some things you like to do on your own?
- What are some social expectations you are following today?
- What are some ways you show respect?
- Take some time to reflect. What makes you a good friend?
- How do you show you are responsible in school?
If this approach seems to fit what you need, give this set for SEL Question of the Day a try. It is digital, printable, projectable, and includes student journals too.
12. Play Team Games
Team games, sports, and activities build a number of social-emotional skills. Just a few include teamwork, perseverance, flexibility, planning, conflict resolution, and self-control. One way to integrate team games into the classroom is to hold team review games before a test or quiz.
13. Ask Relationship-Building Questions
Relationship-building is something we sometimes think of as a beginning-of-the-year activity, but in fact, it’s a strategy for the entire year. During the last few minutes of class, focus on strengthening those relationships with asking a question or two for students to answer. Use this free printable Relationship-Building Questions List to get started.
14. Weekly Goal Review
Meet with students individually for a few minutes each week. Develop a SMART goal that is important to them and make a plan to help them achieve it. This can be a goal directly related to academic content, such as improving a grade to 80% or higher by the end of the semester. A goal can be completely separate from the curriculum as well, though! Some examples for this might include joining a club, making friends, or going to bed on time.
One strategy is to have one binder per student (this is something homeroom or study hall teachers can do). Then, once a week, meet with each student to review the goal, discuss progress, and add next steps. This can build self-awareness and self-management skills kids need to help work towards their aspirations.
15. Integrate Mindfulness
Mindfulness is learning to be present in the moment, without worrying about what happened in the past or might happen in the future. This is a critical self-regulation skill middle schools can learn to help them stay calm when frustrated or upset, relax before a high-stakes test, or get focused in the morning.
A few ways to practice and integrate mindfulness include:
- Mindful breathing. Try out some breathing techniques in the morning, after lunch, or before a big test.
- Mindful journaling. Allow students to write in a journal when they first walk in the room to calm their minds. This can also be helpful for early finishers.
- Mindful coloring. During downtime or when students finish their work, allow them to color quietly on their own.
16. SEL Chats
A SEL Chat is a time when groups talk about social-emotional skills explicitly. With middle schoolers, you can bring up these conversation starters at the start or end of class. It’s helpful to put questions on a ring and bring up a few whenever time allows. This can help maximize learning time, even when you finish a little early with a lesson. Some questions might include:
- What are some of your biggest strengths?
- What is a goal you are working on?
- What three words best describe you?
- What qualities do you look for in a friend?
- How can you tell how someone else feels?
- What is a positive choice you made today?
- What are three “ground rules” for working with others?
Come up with your own questions that your students need. Another option is to use these pre-made social emotional learning task cards with questions for every competency area of SEL you need.
17. Clubs, Sports, & Activities
Extracurricular activities are wonderful outlets for middle school kids. These activities can help kids build self-awareness by finding out what they love, relationship skills by working with others, and self-management skills by showing responsibility. Make it a goal to find an activity every student can join (whether it is during school or after).
18. Teach Executive Functioning Skills
Executive functioning skills are the critical self-management skills we use to accomplish daily tasks. They include planning, organization, time management, task initiation, attention, flexibility, working memory, metacognition, self-control, and perseverance. There are many ways to integrate and teach these skills explicitly to students. Here are a few:
- Teach and practice executive functioning skills explicitly. You can do this during advisory period or guided study halls.
- Play games. Some of the best games for classes include Blurt (self-control, metacognition) and 5 Second Rule (time management). Learn more about other games to try.
- Start discussions. Use executive functioning questions to lead group discussions.
19. Use Literature
Literature naturally touches upon many social-emotional skills, such as perspective-taking, empathy, and much more. Make it a point to highlight and discuss these skills as students read their grade-level literature novels.
In addition to that, many short stories can be used as a read aloud to target a variety of SEL topics. While these stories are designed for the youngest of learners, even middle school kids love a good read aloud. Use this free printable list of SEL read-aloud suggestions to start building your library.
20. Quote of the Day
Quotes can be easy to assign, fun, and meaningful for middle school students to discuss. Post a quote of the day up and give some time to discuss or journal write about it. With quotes, it’s easy to connect them to a social-emotional theme. Here are a few examples:
- “You are enough and a work in progress all at the same time.” – Self-awareness, self-love
- “You never fail until you stop trying.” – Self-management, perseverance
- “Just be kind. You never know what someone else is going through.” – Social awareness, kindness, empathy
- “Friendship is a two-way street that is always under construction.” – Relationships, friendships
- “You are writing your own story. Your choices help decide how that story is written.” – Decision-making, choices
You can even have students look up their favorite quotes and submit them to you for approval to be the quote of the day.
21. Group Competitions
Get kids to work together with group competitions. Competitions can be fun and exciting for kids. They also build camaraderie when working on a team together. Make a weekly group math challenge or a building challenge that encourages teams to work together and try to win. This might look different for every classroom, but it’s something that every teacher can integrate in the curriculum from time to time.
22. Use a Daily Check-In Journal
A check-in journal is a written space for kids and teens to share and express themselves in a positive way before moving on with the rest of their day. Some activities in a daily check-in journal might include:
- Naming and rating the level of emotion.
- Expressing any feelings or thoughts for the day.
- Learning a new SEL skill.
- Reading positive affirmations.
- Practicing mindfulness.
Give this SEL Check-In Journal a try to get started.
23. Set Up A Chill Zone
Calm down areas don’t have to just be for younger learners; older kids sometimes benefit from having a safe space to calm down too. Create a small and cozy area in the classroom where learners can regulate themselves with calming tools such as coloring books, mindful breathing cards, and fidgets.
24. Integrate SEL & Art
Art can be a powerful tool in learning and practicing social-emotional skills. It is often a creative outlet that many kids enjoy, so it makes sense to integrate SEL skills right alongside art activities. Just a few art activities for social-emotional learning include:
- Making a collage (self-awareness)
- Paint with calming colors (coping strategies and managing emotions)
- Make different designs with clay (flexibility)
- Create a vision board (hopes and dreams)
- Design a poster with a partner (teamwork)
25. Provide Mentor Opportunities
Mentoring goes two ways: students can become a mentor to younger students or they can be mentored and support by someone older. Both strategies are extremely valuable and should be considered as a social-emotional support.
26. Weekly SEL Themes
Choose a weekly SEL theme for each week of the year. Some examples of themes might include:
- Empathy: Caring about others
- Organization: Staying neat and tidy
- Coping Strategies: Skills to help us feel calm
- Emotions: Understanding how we feel
Each teacher can take that theme and highlight it throughout the week in the best way for them and their classroom. This is especially helpful in a middle school setting so that skills can be taught across the board all at the same time.
Use this SEL Skills at a Glance list to help pinpoint some of the social-emotional skills you might want to cover each week.
27. Use a Check-In / Check-Out
A check-in and check-out system is an intervention for individual students. The idea is that students in need get extra social, emotional, and academic support from a trusted educator at the start and end of every day. It is a touch-base period that can help kids and teens get organized or just feel a positive start to the morning.
Check-in and check-out is more successful with small groups (or even individualized) so it might help to involve other educators and support staff in the building for this: paraeducators, school counselors, social workers, or anyone else with a little extra wiggle room in their morning and afternoon schedule.
28. Switch Up Lunch Schedules
Once in a while, schedule a lunch swap! This gives students a chance to talk, meet, and engage socially with other kids they might not otherwise chat with. It’s important to plan and prepare students for this swap so they understand what is happening.
29. Try an Escape Room Activity
Escape room activities build teamwork, perseverance, and relationships. While you can build your own escape room activity on just about any topic or subject, you can also use escape rooms designed for the classroom specifically on social emotional learning topics. Learn more about setting up your own escape room activity.
30. Use Videos
Short video clips can be a helpful tool to engage students while also learning valuable social-emotional skills. Use any movie or video clip with characters to talk about perspective-taking or empathy. You can also find other topic-specific videos on YouTube and BrainPop.
31. Assign Extra Credit
All educators know that fitting more into the school day can be a challenge. Consider adding some extra credit by having students complete social-emotional activities at home or on their own outside of school. Use these free social-emotional choice boards to give it a try.
32. Invite the Experts In
School counselors, social workers, and school psychologists are some of the most knowledgeable professionals when it comes to social and emotional needs. Collaborate with the educators in your building to develop the best school-wide plans for SEL. Also, if you feel uncomfortable with a specific topic, consider inviting a support professional into the classroom to talk about difficult topics, such as bullying, substance abuse, or mental health.
33. Create a Class Code of Conduct
Develop a class contract or code of conduct with your students. It’s important to make this with your students (not on your own and presented to them). Some ways you can guide the code of conduct include asking questions:
- How can we show responsibility in the classroom?
- What can we do to make sure we all have a voice?
- How can we resolve conflicts or problems?
- What are each of our expectations each day?
Develop the code of conduct and keep it posted. Refer to it from time-to-time to review the expectations.
34. Play Board Games
Board games can be a great way to work on social-emotional skills, while also giving a quick break in the day. While simple, games build on a variety of skills. For example, Scrabble can target skills for flexibility and problem-solving. Learn more about games for social-emotional skills.
35. Embed Organization Time
Kids and teens need organization time build into their days. Dedicate the last 3-5 minutes of each class to allowing students to tidy their binders, write in their homework logs, check their schedules, and just re-organize for the rest of the day.
36. Post a SEL Bulletin Board
Use a classroom or school-wide bulletin board space to post visuals for social-emotional learning skills. This can serve as a visual reminder and help educators make connections back to SEL skills throughout the day. You can even have kids help color and design the bulletin board with you for extra buy-in.
37. Involve Families
Spend time helping families get acquainted with social-emotional learning skills. Some options for this might include a parent SEL night once a month to introduce skills kids are working on or sending out a weekly newsletter. You can also send them more information on Social-Emotional Learning Supports for Parents & Families.