SEL for Teens: A Powerful Learning and Life Skillset

Research shows that social and emotional learning (SEL) for teens, particularly those in high school, is an area that needs more resources and attention. In 2019, the Rand Corporation conducted two surveys that looked at different aspects of educators’ SEL efforts. According to the first survey, high schools were much less likely to have schoolwide SEL programs and curricula. The second survey found that secondary teachers reported much less SEL support than elementary teachers did. In fact, that survey report stated that “there is a need for SEL approaches that emphasize voice and relationships for adolescents.”

High school students have echoed the need for SEL for teens. In a 2018 report for CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), fewer than half of the students surveyed thought that their high schools were doing a good job helping them develop SEL skills.

Teens Need Help with Self-Regulation

With all the neurological and hormonal changes occurring in their bodies, teenagers may be the age group with the greatest need for social and emotional support. According to Stanford Children’s Health, “In teen’s brains, the connections between the emotional part of the brain and the decision-making center are still developing—and not always at the same rate.”

What’s Happening in the Brain

The brain’s decision-making center is the prefrontal cortex, which handles rational thought such as considering the consequences of actions and curbing impulsive behavior. That part of the brain does not reach full maturity until one’s mid-20s. Instead, teens process information with the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala.

All of this means that teens can be especially susceptible to stress. For example, the American Psychological Association has found that Gen Zs report more stress about issues in the news compared to adults. They are also the least likely to say their mental health is excellent or very good.

In addition, the teenage brain has heightened motivational centers, which drive exploration and sensation seeking. This in turn, can lead to risk-taking behaviors such as substance use. Teens are also dealing with hormonal changes that produce mood swings, causing them to experience irritability, depression, and anxiety.

The Impact on Teens

Adding to teen angst is a new neurochemical mixture of oxytocin, which promotes a need to connect and bond with others, and dopamine, which triggers the brain’s pleasure center. If it sounds like these two neurochemicals have positive effects, it’s because they generally do. However, they also instill a powerful craving for peers’ attention within teenagers (and adults). And since one of the quickest ways to gain such attention is by climbing higher in one’s social hierarchy, some teens become excessively concerned with their social status. In fact, teens will often trade safety for status by taking risks that confer status within their peer group.

So, teenagers enter high school, a place full of new academic and social demands, with that tumultuous neurological and hormonal mix in play. Almost two-thirds (61%) of teens feel pressured to get good grades. And while teens typically reinforce connections with their peers thorough social media, they can also suffer ill effects. These include disrupted sleep, exposure to bullying, becoming the subject of rumors, and making unrealistic, negative comparisons of their bodies or lives to those of other people.

All this points to the fact that SEL for teens is much more than a “nice to have.”

Benefits of SEL for Teens

The report from CASEL found that many students, especially the most vulnerable students, cited social and emotional problems as significant barriers to learning. Conversely, students in schools with robust SEL programs performed better academically and felt more engaged, motivated, and better prepared for success after graduation compared to students in schools with weak SEL programs.

The report’s findings showed that when properly implemented, SEL for teens has a measurably positive effect on learning engagement. In high schools with strong SEL programs, 88% of students felt motivated to work hard and do their best in school, compared to 39% of students in “low SEL” schools. Similarly, in “strong SEL” schools, 81% of students were engaged in the learning material, compared to just 16% of students from weak SEL schools.

Key Characteristics of SEL Programs for Teens

Social and emotional learning approaches used with young children are unlikely to be effective with teens. As part of their natural urge to become independent, teenagers often will disengage from programs that directly teach skills. Professor David Yeager, a developmental psychology researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, suggests using SEL programs that make teens feel competent, autonomous, and valued.

How can an SEL solution instill these feelings among a discerning teenage audience? Friend2Friend is Kognito’s game-based SEL simulation suite designed to prepare students in grades 8-12 to navigate challenges such as mental health and suicidal ideation, substance use, and violence. These simulations provide high schoolers with SEL activities specifically designed for their age group, so they won’t find the material boring or cheesy.

The evidence-based methodology underlying the modules of the SEL suite guides students through conversations with peers struggling with these sensitive issues. Then learners practice having conversations with virtual teens. The conversation scenarios provide learners with individual feedback, driving change in their skills in and attitudes toward seeking help for oneself or a friend.

The online modules can be included in a classroom curriculum or used as part of the program of a club or other extracurricular activity. Teens are more likely to feel like the modules are a good use of their time. The interactivity feels like more than a video, and shows how they can make peer connection or apply what they’ve learned to themselves (like if they need to go speak with a school counselor or talk with a trusted adult).

The Mental Health & Suicide Prevention module prepares youth to navigate mental health challenges they and their peers face, reducing stigma and normalizing help-seeking behavior. This module’s efficacy has resulted in its being listed in the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s Best Practices Registry. It enables students to identify the warning signs of psychological distress, including verbal, behavioral, and situational clues. They also build the skills needed to approach a peer in a manner that motivates them to seek support.

Coming soon in 2021, Kognito’s new Friend2Friend Substance Use Prevention module helps students avoid substance misuse now and later in life by giving them the tools to better navigate real-life situations involving substances. Youth learn how to identify substance misuse and support services as well as how to resist peer pressure. They also learn refusal skills and how to apply communication skills to help a friend. The module helps users analyze risks associated with substance use, reflect on personal values and goals, and evaluate which refusal skills to use to manage a situation involving substances.

And later in 2021, the new Friend2Friend Violence Prevention module helps students identify their own emotions and those of others within the contexts of bullying, harassment, self-harm, and threats. Students learn to recognize when a peer’s actions or statements need to be shared with adults and investigate ways to encourage a peer in distress to open up to an adult. The module explains users’ role in creating a safe and supportive school climate. They also learn about potential resources and the roles of trusted adults.

If your school district is looking for SEL for teens, we’d love for you to take a demo of Friend2Friend to see if it’s the right fit.

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