Keeping SEL engaging in early adolescence 


The eye rolls got more frequent in seventh grade. That I clearly remember. My affectionate, enthusiastic children became moody and distant. Even a decade of working in middle-grades educational research did not prepare me for my turn as a parent to middle graders. So, while I was not surprised when I saw the drop in enthusiasm for social-emotional learning (SEL) among seventh graders on a survey we recently conducted, it did make me want to dig deeper into what works in SEL during early adolescence.  


SEL is the “process through which all children and adults acquire and learn to apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions” according to the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2021). The five schools in the Newark Trust for Education’s Building School Wide SEL initiative made great strides in building inclusive and engaging cultures to promote social-emotional learning and character development. At the end of a 2.5 year grant program (that ran through COVID!), representatives from the four K-8 schools discussed the need to ladder SEL in ways that remained engaging for older students. At the Trust we are currently in discussions of how we can support schools in becoming middle-grades ready in SEL. As always, the answers must include student and family input, as well as school stakeholder involvement in design.  

More on the survey I referred to - we administered an electronic survey with 141 sixth and seventh graders at Franklin Elementary school in Newark, a longstanding partner and grantee of the Trust and a stalwart in integrating SEL within its broader school culture. The survey was part of a case study documenting the school’s five year trajectory in integrating SEL to boost student engagement and well-being. The survey was administered in April 2022 when students were back in school after more than a year of remote learning and began participating in-person in SEL-themed programs and activities like Spirit Weeks and an SEL rewards program titled Falcon Bucks. The school also practiced positive behavior approaches including student input on school rules, exposure to mindfulness, calming spaces, reflections on social behavior, discussions between adults and children regarding behavior, and group and individual counseling. In sixth grade the vast majority of students (over 80%) stated that they were always interested in SEL programs and activities, had chances to improve behavior, and found rules fair. A smaller majority always found peers to be kind (almost 60%).  


By seventh grade, interest in programs and events decreased (from over 80% to less than 55%), and only 40% of students found rules always fair and less than 35% found peers to be always kind. The vast majority of seventh graders still felt that students always had chances to improve, although it decreased from over 90% to around 80%, as compared to sixth graders. Our intensive mixed methods case study showed that seventh graders were exposed to the same high quality SEL approach as sixth graders. So the difference was that their needs and interests had changed as they went deeper into early adolescence (I now understand why so many eye rolls). 


Recently our team discussed an infographic developed by the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) summarizing research on youth development through childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. The graphic highlighted a marked shift in early adolescence (ages 11-14) to developing mindsets, from a prior focus in childhood on gaining knowledge and skills and self-regulation. Mindsets are defined by CCSR (2015) as “beliefs and attitudes about oneself, the world, and the interaction between the two. They are the lenses we use to process everyday experience.” This is different from the earlier phase where young children are preoccupied with gaining knowledge and skills that allow them to function in the world around them. In early adolescence they are motivated by experiences that help them develop mindsets supporting the development of a group-based identity, growth in competencies, and a sense of agency.  


A search on the CASEL program guide for middle grades-ready evidence-based SEL programs that integrate SEL into the school and improve student identity development and agency yielded only 4 programs. The guide is referenced by the Department of Education’s National Center for Safe Supportive Learning, and is widely regarded as a go-to for districts and schools seeking high quality programs. Removing the filter of integration of SEL yielded 28 results. Integration of SEL in school cultures is important though, because otherwise programs may not strike roots in schools and may prove to be transient. There are 86 programs featured on the site, of which the vast majority clearly cater to the needs and interests of younger children, rather than children experiencing early adolescence. 


As the Trust and schools that we partner with progress with our work in SEL, we seek to further build our capacity for integrating high quality SEL in the middle-grades and beyond. Our partners at Franklin Elementary are already seeking input from their middle-graders on activities that resonate, on texts that represent their lives and the world around them, and integrating SEL with ELA. Going back to the CCSR infographic, the idea that in early adolescence children are engaged in development of group identities and agency, and interested in further growing competencies developed in childhood are great clues for where we need to focus our efforts to tailor SEL for them. One example in the CASEL guide of a program that integrated SEL within the school while developing student identity and agency is Facing History and Ourselves. Through its emphasis on civic education, social justice, project-based learning, student voice, and student action, this program is a great example of an approach that has the potential to “meet students in the middle” and pique their curiosity and help them develop exactly what they are already seeking to develop.