Using Student Leadership to Make SEL Meaningful for High School Students

A recent focus on social-emotional learning (SEL) has compelled high schools to purchase curricula and add such models as advisory periods or homeroom to teach SEL skills. According to The Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, advisory periods provide a regular time for direct instruction on SEL skills, which is most effective when integrated into a whole-school approach to SEL. In my experience, however, many teenagers perceive isolated advisory SEL lessons as fake or irrelevant and disengage from these valuable learning opportunities. They often feel as though the teacher is lecturing to them and not taking their individuality into account. Our leadership team wanted to provide students with a meaningful SEL experience, and we decided to use student leaders to make this happen.

After the conclusion of the 2016 school year, our administrative team determined that our school was in an “SEL crisis,” with 29.4 percent of our students receiving at least one discipline referral. Our school, with a population of 1,200 students, had processed 1,710 referrals in one school year. Our administrative team was spending too much time reactively processing discipline referrals to build a positive school culture. Furthermore, a school climate survey given that year revealed that only 41 percent of students believed their classmates were caring and friendly toward one another, and 36 percent believed that students treated teach other with respect. We felt that to remedy this crisis, we needed our students to model and teach the important SEL skills that matter most.

We started by sharing our data with the student population through grade-level meetings. Most students were saddened but not surprised about our number of discipline referrals and poor climate survey results. We then used our school motto, “Be the Change,” to compel our students to step up and become student leaders. Our leaders would be tasked with running monthly advisory lessons alongside a teacher mentor. These lessons would focus on the important SEL skills we wanted to see in all our students. We had over 60 students volunteer for this position!

We started by providing a sense of teamwork among our student leaders, providing a student-designed T-shirt and taking team-building trips. We also created a regular meeting schedule where students were trained on upcoming lessons and encouraged to put their own spin on the final design. Our PBIS (positive behavioral intervention and support) Student Leaders, as they were ultimately called, even created their own Twitter account to promote their positive work. The student leaders eventually took off—planning and executing SEL lessons for their peers. They even planned a CommUNITY Day event that attracted media attention and an incredible positive response from students.

By the end of the 2019 school year, referral numbers decreased to only 791 processed—a drop of close to 1,000 referrals. More amazingly, the student survey results were much improved, with 52 percent reporting caring and friendly classmates and 49 percent reporting that their classmates treat each other with respect. Both results were higher than the district average on the same question.

And don’t think that our new 100 percent virtual environment has stopped our PBIS Student Leaders! They now implement weekly advisory lessons to their peers using the Character Strong program. Student leaders meet every Monday to plan their lessons, with senior leaders facilitating the entire meeting. They then consult with their mentor teacher during the week and implement their lesson every Friday. Is this challenging for them? Yes! They experience the same hesitance from students to turn on cameras and share ideas as the teachers experience in their classrooms. However, they continue to persevere and remain positive, learning important life skills for themselves and modeling the type of grit we want to see in all of our students. I am immensely proud of these students and the tremendous impact they’ve had on teaching SEL skills to their peers and positively impacting school culture.

Catherine Sutton is assistant principal at Calvert High School in Prince Frederick, MD and the 2020 Maryland State Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter (@suttoncathy).

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