We Need More SEL in High Schools (Here’s How)

ByCarly Berwick

When I first started student teaching at a high school where students were diligent and unfailingly polite, I asked my co-teacher where the tough students were. “Still in ninth grade,” she said. A decade later, I understand her real meaning: It’s not the kids who are tough, it’s the high school system.

Freshman year throws still-developing adolescents together and asks them to navigate shifting friends, classes, and clubs—and the allure of drugs, sex, and popularity—all while their bodies and brains are undergoing enormous changes. Many come from different, smaller middle schools and start high school with a range of backgrounds that impact how well or poorly they adapt. Though some high schools offer support for kids who show up confused or unsure—like tutoring and counseling sessions—many do not, which can leave students struggling to find their footing. Some never do.

According to several studies, more students fail ninth grade, and there are more disciplinary issues, than any other grade of high school. Ninth grade is also a critical make-or-break year for students that can determine whether they will graduate from high school and enroll in college. More recently, the system has been flashing red: Studies reveal major upticks in adolescent mental health issues and newly unsustainable levels of stress. A nationally representative survey found adolescents (aged 12 to 17) reporting a major depressive episode in the last year increased 52 percent from 2005 to 2017.

“When students make the transition to high school, they are in an incredibly vulnerable time of their life—their adolescent development, brain development, social circles, and peer relationships are changing all at once,” says Alex Seeskin, chief strategy officer at the Urban Education Institute at the University of Chicago, a research group that trains teachers and school leaders. “In the midst of all this change, students adapt a new set of academic and social identities that stick with them throughout the rest of their high school education.”

Yet high schools, for a variety of reasons, aren’t typically set up to address students’ social and emotional needs. As soon as they enter ninth grade, high school students are expected to take a rigorous course load, where their performance can impact college choices; teachers become subject-matter experts who typically instruct students in one class only; and guidance counselors are in short supply.

Recognizing the gravity of this transition, and the opportunity, some schools are giving students more support as they make the leap into high school. Through advisory groups, orientation days, peer mentoring programs, and other resources, educators are helping students, virtually and in person this year, develop both the social and emotional wellness and the academic confidence they need to succeed for the next four years.


Principal Sean Stevens tells his new high school students at KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy in New Jersey, that they are “eighth graders plus two months”—and will need help navigating an entirely new system. That might not feel like much, says Stevens, but one of the most important things a school can do to help students adapt is the simplest: acknowledge the difficulty of the transition and make them feel welcome.

For adolescents, in particular, a sense of belonging created within the first few weeks can translate into academic success and motivation to succeed, while a sense of disconnectedness can marginalize kids and increase their risk of disengaging—or dropping out. Research and brain science strongly indicate that students who feel their teachers and peers value them and their contributions are also more likely to be motivated, be confident, pass more courses, and graduate on time.

“[In ninth grade], students are learning how to do high school but also figuring out, ‘Do I belong? Can I succeed?’” says Elaine Allensworth, director of the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

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