In the fall of 2010, I walked in to teach my first SEL class at my new high school in Oakland. The principal had asked me specifically to work with 9th and 10th grade boys. He said if I could keep them engaged in advisory, I had a job; if I couldn’t, I was out by Thanksgiving. No pressure.
After school each day, I searched Google tirelessly. “High school SEL,” “Not boring SEL” “SEL for high school boys” “Advisory for HS” – I tried everything and found almost nothing. What I did find left a lot to be desired: one curriculum still used puppets for high school students (I thought this was a joke until I watched a video). I did find one curriculum out of the UK that had some good content – but it was developed at a boarding school that looked like a castle. A lot of the slides, which were not editable, had pictures of people playing cricket. This was not going to fly with young men of color at a public school in Oakland.
With no good options, I decided I had to develop my own curriculum. I started by building relationships: I talked to the young men about sports, skateboarding, favorite places to eat near school – easy, relatable stuff. Over the semester, I shifted from smalltalk to sharing a bit more of my own life: my own experience with anger as a teenager and pressure to succeed and fit in. As we built rapport, the young men started opening up. Technically, these lessons I was developing counted as social-emotional learning, but students just ended up calling the class “Big Life Questions with Pat.”
The nickname spurred my own thinking: high school students need more than traditional SEL. They need SEL that connects to the real-world. To their futures. To their daily realities. SEL that works for high schoolers must incorporate the three R’s: relevant to their lives, real world applicability, and relatable to students. Most of the time, I talked about meaning and purpose, less about traditional SEL topics like self-management and social awareness. I realized that when I connected these critical SEL skills to my students’ long-term visions for their lives and their personal development, there was way more energy in the room and more connection to the topic.
Fast forward two years: I was at the Stanford d.school’s K12 Innovation Lab on a two-year fellowship specifically to design a yearlong curriculum that would formalize what I’d been doing in Oakland and focus on supporting high school students to develop their own sense of purpose. This was the kernel of what is now Wayfinder, the country’s leading provider of high school SEL and future ready-skills curricula. Since our inception at the Stanford d.school, we have significantly expanded our curricular offerings and number of students we serve. We now serve hundreds of thousands of students in 34 states with four full years of HS curriculum focused on developing belonging and purpose.
High school SEL faces myriad challenges that elementary and middle schools don’t have to contend with: scheduling, teacher buy-in, and the “This is stupid / I don’t need this” mentality that’s the default attitude of many high school students.
Making meaningful, engaging SEL content for high schoolers is hard. Over the years, we’ve learned some critical lessons about how to make SEL land with 9th through 12th grade students that might be relevant to your school too:
- You have to make SEL applicable to the real world: At Wayfinder, we call ourselves Next-Gen SEL because we explicitly focus on the intersection of SEL and what we call future-ready skills -- in other words, competencies that will be useful and applicable in a professional and personal life regardless of one’s chosen career or the pace of technological innovation. CASEL has already done significant work on establishing frameworks to integrate the development of workforce skills and SEL. This combination is spot-on. At Wayfinder, our curricula teach SEL and future-ready skills side by side because, as I saw early on in those first days in my Oakland classroom, if you can connect students’ futures and their lives back to SEL, SEL becomes meaningful to them. Our 12th grade Purpose curriculum specifically includes a module on entrepreneurship, which students love. It includes a mock Shark Tank-style lesson that enables them to put their newly acquired SEL skills — like being driven by their values and adapting quickly to unexpected developments — into practice.
- Your content has to be thoughtfully designed, relevant, and – most importantly – FUN: Most SEL for adolescents feels like it was designed for children. It’s like someone stretched the fabric meant for kids’ clothing to make a garment big enough for teenagers…but you can see immediately the clothes weren’t designed to fit. High school students can instantly tell when something you’re offering them was originally intended for younger students. And the second they label something “corny,” you’ve lost them. To prevent this instant dismissal, we prioritize hiring curriculum designers who have previously worked in high schools and connected well with students. Their background and relational skills are key ways we ensure our content looks and feels age appropriate, addresses relevant topics, and strikes the delicate balance of being fun without tipping into silly.
- You have to account for varying levels of teacher buy-in: It’s no secret some teachers, particularly at the high school level, dislike SEL.There are, of course, teachers who are averse to SEL writ large, believing high school should focus solely on the core academic subjects. In my experience, this is only a relatively small percentage of teachers. A much larger group, I’ve found, is composed of teachers who are open to SEL but have yet to come across a program that they could implement effectively. In short, they need to be convinced. You can support these teachers in a few ways. To start, teachers want assurance that what they are doing will be effective. There’s now ample evidence to show what works when teaching various SEL competencies. We make sure that our lessons incorporate this research, and we link to the relevant studies so teachers can explore these topics on their own. Another common barrier to buy-in relates to the emotional facet of SEL. Facilitating big life conversations isn’t something that comes naturally to every teacher. We design with this group in mind by scaffolding facilitation guides with talking points and prompting questions, so teachers don’t have to come up with things they might not know how to ask on the spot
Finally, it’s crucial to be realistic about what additional work teachers can take on and to respect their time. At Wayfinder, we do this by ensuring – and actually verifying – that our lessons can be delivered with less than five minutes of prep. We’ve also created a lightweight version of our curriculum called the Activity Library, which enables teachers to build their fluency with SEL through smaller, “bite-sized” activities that require zero prep.
Together, these strategies help frameshift SEL from yet another thing on teachers’ plates and transform it into an asset that makes their time with students more meaningful.
Whenever I think back on that first year I taught in Oakland — the year I was trying to figure out a better way to teach SEL to high schoolers — I remember a 12th grader named Jason. Once class let out, Jason would stay behind to sit with me. We spent most of our sessions talking about his life after high school: which educational opportunities he might pursue, and what he actually wanted to do versus the responsibility he felt to support his financially struggling family. I remember sitting with Jason as we drew up decision trees that plotted his options. Using this process, Jason chose a middle path — community college where he could pursue higher education while also staying close to home to help and save money.
One day as we were working, Jason said to me, “Man, all this decision making stuff really helps. I like how we think about how the different parts lead to different paths.” What we did together was simple, but how much it helped Jason stayed with me. Knowing we made a difference in a student's life, both in school and in their life after, is what educators live for, and it's what motivates us the most. In fact, it’s the reason so many of us got into working with young people in the first place. SEL at the high school level, when done thoughtfully, presents an invaluable opportunity to make a lasting impact on the direction and path of our students’ lives.
Just please, no puppets.