Promoting Social and Emotional Learning in the Middle and High School Years

Three teens embrace in a school setting.

The effects of social emotional learning on adolescent development appear to be important, but somewhat smaller than those of programs for younger children.

The Issue

Adolescence is a critical period to invest in young people’s social-emotional competence (SEC) which is essential for youth to succeed in school, work, and civic life. This brief provides an overview of frameworks that define social emotional competence, and reviews the current landscape of universal school-based programs designed to promote its growth in middle and high school students.

Key Findings

  • Social emotional learning (SEL) programs can be organized into four categories based on their primary approach to fostering SEC: skill-focused promotion, academic integration, teaching practices, and organizational reform.

  • SEL programs aimed at adolescents have received both less attention and less extensive research than those focused on the elementary years.

  • To improve outcomes for adolescents, SEL programs should leverage the unique developmental needs of young people during adolescence, including their search for purpose and identity, the importance of peer relations, their attitudes towards themselves and others, and their meta-cognitive abilities.

  • Program developers should also consider the biology and social dynamics of adolescents as they develop the content and structure of programs.


SEL programming in middle and high schools is an important and worthwhile investment in the future. To realize the full potential of these efforts, we must design programs that are responsive to the needs of adolescents, engage and collaborate with families and communities, and use findings from research on school climate and structures to inform how America’s future middle and high schools are designed so that they support the SEL of all students.

About The Pennsylvania State University

Founded in 1855, The Pennsylvania State University is a renowned public research university that educates students from around the world and collaborates with partners to share valuable knowledge that improves the health and well-being of individuals, families and communities. For more information, visit To learn more about the Edna Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center, go to