by ParentPowered contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education
Social emotional learning (SEL) helps students develop important skills for managing their emotions, building positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and setting goals for themselves. These skills are essential for success not only in school but also in life. Families and educators have immense opportunity to use social emotional learning activities for middle school students that build such crucial life skills.
Middle school is a critical window of time as students transition from childhood to adolescence. With the range of physical, social, and emotional changes they experience, great excitement, uncertainty, and vulnerability arise for many kids. That’s why social-emotional learning support from both educators and families is critical to student development in middle school.
Social emotional learning activities for middle school
We share some social emotional learning activities for middle school specifically designed to promote student development. For each area, we’ve included social-emotional learning strategies that an educator or family member middle school teacher can use during the school day, as well as those that can be used by parents or other caregivers at home.
Although middle schoolers often demonstrate their desire for autonomy from parents, family involvement is still crucial during adolescence.
Middle school can be a challenging time for students as they navigate their changing emotions. Social emotional learning strategies help students develop the social awareness and self management skills they need to cope with everyday challenges and thrive in school and beyond.
Whether you’re in 6th grade or 60 years old, strong emotions can feel overwhelming. One way to make them more manageable is to label them. This can help students build self awareness by giving them language to identify their feelings. Families can use this activity to help their children practice identifying their emotions:
- FACT: Strong emotions can feel overwhelming. This can be true at any age. Just naming feelings (exhausted, excited) helps to make them more manageable.
- TIP: Make a habit of checking in about feelings. As your child describes a moment from their day ask, “How did you feel when that happened?”
- GROWTH: Keep naming feelings. If your child seems to be feeling strong emotions, ask about it. Try, “How are you feeling right now?” Just listen as they share.
One way teachers at any grade level can incorporate social emotional learning skills is to add a quick journaling time to the lesson plan. This is a great social emotional learning activity for middle school students as it encourages self-expression and emotional intelligence. If your school has morning meetings, set aside some time for this student reflection before diving into classroom learning. The beginning of any class period is also a perfect time to use a check-in journal. Students can process any emotions that may have come up during the transition between classes.
Encourage student reflection by explaining that a check-in journal is a private place where students write their thoughts and feelings; they do not have to share its contents with anyone. In their individual journaling responses students may discuss their social relationships, academic challenges, or extracurricular activities. Students are welcome to share their individual journaling responses with the teacher and get support if desired.
Building healthy relationships
Middle school is a time when students are building new relationships and expanding their social networks. SEL helps students develop the social skills they need to build positive relationships with their peers and with adults.
Connections between students become more important at this age. This requires more robust social and relationship skills, which families can help with by talking through the ups and downs of friendships with their child. Here’s an example of how families can support middle school students to build positive relationships:
- FACT: Friends often come first for kids this age. It’s exciting! It can be hard too. Talking about friendships helps your child with the ups and downs.
- TIP: After school, ask your child, “Who are some friends you like hanging out with?” Find out more. Or try asking “What do you like to do together? When do you get to hang out?”
- GROWTH: Let your child know, “If hard things happen with friends, I’m here to listen. If you don’t want to talk, you can write me a note to tell me about it.”
The classroom is not only for academic learning; it’s also an environment rich with opportunities to practice communication skills, teach students about personal boundaries, and build a sense of community. Any instructional task involving collaboration can be used to develop social emotional learning skills.
For example, a whole-class discussion is the perfect time to have students practice active listening. First, solicit student feedback on this question: “What makes you feel heard when you contribute to class discussions?” Beginning with student reflection encourages critical thinking. Brainstorm sentence stems that students can use to respond to one another’s comments and create cue cards with phrases like “What I hear you saying is…” and “Can you clarify what you mean by…?” Don’t forget positive affirmations like “Thank you for sharing that idea.”
Responsible decision making
In elementary school, adults often make important decisions for students. But as students become more independent in middle school, they need to learn how to set personal boundaries and make their own responsible decisions. Social emotional learning activities for middle school students specifically can help them develop the critical thinking and decision-making skills they need to make positive choices for themselves and others, even in the midst of powerful emotions.
Here’s a great strategy for parents to encourage their students to make independent and responsible decisions:
- FACT: In middle school, kids feel a strong desire to fit in. Talking about social situations before they happen helps kids make healthy choices.
- TIP: Ask questions to help your child think about social situations. Try, “What can you do or say if a friend asks you to do something you don’t want to do?”
- GROWTH: Keep talking. Brainstorm things your child might say to get out of an uncomfortable situation. For example, “No thanks, I’m not into that.”
Although responsible decision making feels like an automatic process to adults, students in 5th or 6th grade may benefit from learning a specific process they can follow, like this decision-making process from Colorado Ed Initiative. Post cue cards in the classroom to remind students of the process.
Teachers can also plan brain breaks in which students play a fun game of Would You Rather. Adjust the questions to be appropriate for the grade level. Self reflection in a supportive environment is key here—challenge students to explain the reasoning for their choice, and ask other students if they can foresee any consequences that the first student didn’t think of.
Independence and executive functioning
In middle school, students are expected to play a bigger role in managing their own learning and relationship building than they were as elementary students. These demands require executive function, a term that covers a handful of different cognitive skills used to organize our behavior toward personal and academic goals. These behaviors include attention, task responsibility, problem solving, time management, and planning.
When students learn to take the lead on everyday tasks, they build the independence and self management skills that help forge healthy relationships and tackle academic challenges. Home chores are the perfect time to show middle schoolers that they can make mistakes and learn from them. This resilience will help them navigate all kinds of situations with increasing self efficacy.
Families can try this example at home:
- FACT: When kids take charge of everyday tasks, they build independence. It’s okay if they make mistakes. That’s part of the process. It builds their resilience.
- TIP: Think of an everyday task your child can be in charge of. It might be folding laundry or making their lunch. Show them how to do it, then let them lead.
- GROWTH: Mistakes happen when kids take on new tasks. Encourage them to keep at it. Avoid jumping in. Offer pointers instead. Remind them, “You’ve got this.”
Teachers can provide opportunities for student leadership by allowing them to select roles and responsibilities within the normal classroom routine. For example, during group work, one member of each group can facilitate student reflection while another can take notes to report back in the whole-class discussion. This helps build leadership skills and a sense of community.
Cultivating sense of self
Adolescence is a time of discovery and major growth, and not just in academic learning! Middle school students are formulating ideas about how they perceive themselves and their abilities. It’s important to provide a safe space for them to develop and test beliefs about their identity within the context of supportive and strong relationships.
Extracurricular activities are in a way SEL activities — they build a sense of community and foster individual student development. Here’s a great activity for families to help their child discover their own identity and personal strengths while building students self esteem and sense of self:
- FACT: Kids this age are discovering who they are AND who they want to be. It’s a big job. Encouraging kids to share what they discover supports this growth.
- TIP: Support self-discovery. Invite your child to talk about something they’re good at, something they’re working on, and something they want to try.
- GROWTH: Keep supporting self-discovery. Now, reflect on ways you can support their growing interests. Are there clubs, classes, or community opportunities?
Middle school students desire autonomy and acceptance as they develop their identities. The way in which teachers communicate to students, both during and outside of class meetings, can make the difference between a difficult time and a growth opportunity.
For example, providing student feedback is the perfect time to use strategic communication to show that the class is a safe space to learn and grow. But creating a safe space is more nuanced than simply laying on the positive affirmations.
In a study by Yeager and colleagues (2014), 7th graders received feedback cards on their essays and then were given the option to revise. The participants were more likely to choose to revise their essay when the feedback cards to students implied that teachers cared about student’s success (e.g. “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”) than when the feedback cards to students simply read: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”
Doubling as a self esteem builder, positive affirmations reflecting a teacher’s genuine investment in student development boost academic performance through growth mindset.
More tips for successful SEL in middle school
These social-emotional learning activities for middle school are provided to inspire educators and families to support not only academic achievement but also social-emotional growth in a time of great excitement and challenge. Here is some general guidance to keep in mind for those who want to invent their own fun game or facilitate class discussions surrounding SEL skills:
1. Adapt SEL programs and ideas to your students’ specific needs.
According to a 2022 report from RTI International, research suggests it is crucial to consider the challenges and changes middle school students face at each point in their development in order to select impactful strategies to develop SEL skills. For this reason, a 6th grade math teacher may focus on slightly different social-emotional skills from a 7th grade English teacher. Educators should also be open to student input on these initiatives and collect classroom feedback about activities.
2. Build in home-school partnerships for student development in the SEL domain.
Parents and caregivers are part of the school success team at every grade level! It’s up to educators to build trusting relationships with families. And this means going beyond just offering SEL activities for middle school students. When families ask questions, share student feedback, and provide insights about their child to the school, the team works better. By establishing two-way communication and collaborating with families to solve challenges together, educators set their students up for greatest success.
3. Make space for community.
Students don’t develop social relationship skills and self awareness alone! Build connections between students and caring adults at events like community service projects or career nights. Families can also bring social emotional learning to life at home through the simple conversation starters. Any of our shared SEL activities for middle school can be adapted between both home and school environments.
Want more insights about boosting social-emotional skills in students? We’ve compiled resources and stories from the field in this research round-up.
About the author
Curran Mahowald is a former high school language teacher turned education research advocate. In addition to having worked at ParentPowered, she has also designed parent-facing informational materials at Oakland Unified School District and currently works on improving national research-to-practice infrastructure at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. Curran holds an M.A. in Cognitive Science in Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and B.A.s in Linguistics and French from the University of Southern California.