Help your middle school and high school students soar.
When students struggle with reading, their confidence drops as they fall behind their peers. By the time they're adolescents, they may feel socially and emotionally isolated. Thus commences a domino effect of a lack of motivation to try to catch up, disinterest in learning, and ultimately, lowered future prospects. Often, teachers grow frustrated with behavior that arises from students’ negative emotions, such as acting out in class, a dismissive attitude, or lack of participation.
The best approach to overcoming these social-emotional obstacles to students’ academic achievement is to build social-emotional skills. As best-selling author and educational expert Eric Jensen states in his book, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, “There is no separation of mind and emotions; emotions, thinking, and learning are all linked.”
Middle school and high school students especially benefit from SEL support because their brains are in emotional hyper-drive—and it's neurological.
Put simply, the development of the adolescent “rational brain,” or the prefrontal cortex, is outpaced by the “emotional brain,” or the brain’s limbic system. That means that executive function skills like inhibitory control and emotional regulation often lose out to the powerful desires for instant gratification and peer approval. And emotions like stress, frustration, or embarrassment short-circuit the prefrontal cortex, making learning anything difficult for students.
The social-emotional impact on reading struggle, then, is real. And when educators help students build their SEL skills, the sky's the limit. Here are five areas of social-emotional learning to focus on.
For the most part, adolescents who struggle with reading have found school difficult and stressful for years. Such repeated failure results in a lack of confidence and even the belief that one is just not smart enough.
In reality, the problem is often not a matter of learning capacity; it is about finding the right way to unlock students’ true, boundless potential. And when students start academically achieving, their confidence will skyrocket, which in turn will help them learn even better, and the cycle continues.
The secret to ensuring achievement is the 80:20 ratio of success to challenge, a proportion which is not too hard to be overwhelming and not too easy to be busywork.
Middle and high school students who have regularly been left behind by their peers in classes are not used to a consistent 80% success rate. When they are set up to achieve at this rate, they experience a surge of confidence in what they can accomplish, rather than feeling down about what they haven’t mastered yet. The rush of dopamine that accompanies this success also ignites students’ intrinsic motivation to continue their streak of success.
For example, exercises designed for adolescent learners in the Fast ForWord® reading and language program are intentionally designed to deliver an 80:20 success-to-challenge ratio, with optimally timed rewards that keep students engaged and learning. This design fosters confidence and ensures success in reading and learning.
2. Healthy Self-Concept
Students’ increased confidence in their ability to learn and succeed builds a renewed sense of self, or a healthy self-concept. Instead of thinking, “I can’t do this” or “I’m not smart,” they develop a can-do attitude, believing “I am smart!”
One component of a healthy self-concept is growth mindset, the belief that education is what makes a person "smart," rather than some intangible, inherent capacity for learning. The validity of that belief is rooted in the human brain's capacity to change, termed neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the state of the brain as a pliable, experience-dependent organ that can be rewired continuously throughout life, so it’s never too late to learn new skills and information.
After early childhood, adolescence is when the brain is the most plastic, with incredible potential for long-lasting learning. As such, adolescents who need an extra boost in their learning—and their confidence—will greatly benefit from developing a growth mindset.
Educators can instill a growth mindset in secondary students with deliberate language. If a student says, “I can’t do this,” a teacher can gently correct them: “You can’t do this yet. But you will!” If a student says, “I give up,” a teacher can scaffold resilience: “I will teach you a new way forward.” Teachers should avoid declaring, “This is easy,” and instead make sure students know, “It’s okay to struggle.”
One of the leading neuroscientists who clarified the role of human neuroplasticity in learning was Michael Merzenich, often called "the father of neuroplasticity.” He is one of the founders of the Fast ForWord program, which harnesses neuroplasticity to efficiently train the brain in reading, cognitive, and SEL skills simultaneously. Talk about a growth mindset in action!
Self-management is the ability to regulate actions, thoughts, and emotions for purposeful, goal-directed behavior.
Adolescents yearn for independence and autonomy, and educators can help them develop the self-management skills they need to be successful. Self-management skills include focusing on the task at hand, goal-setting, planning, and time management.
An Edutopia article lists tools for student self-management, including team contracts, task lists, checklists, and flexible seating. You might also consider providing tools to cultivate self-accountability by tracking their own progress, whether with a grade log or reflective self-assessments. By seeing how well they have met their goals, students develop goal-oriented habits and enhance their self-management skills.
Closely related to self-management is self-advocacy, which is the ability to constructively seek and offer help when needed.
To some students, self-advocacy seems to come easily. These are the students who raise their hands, ask questions, and even know to ask for extensions on assignments when extenuating circumstances occur.
Other students, usually those who lack confidence in their academic capability or language skills, who fear embarrassment in front of their peers, or who have felt left behind so often that disinterest has settled in, have not developed self-advocacy skills. Unfortunately, when these students stall in their academic progress, they don’t seek help when they need it. They don’t ask for clarification when they don’t understand instructions. They let deadlines pass without submitting assignments.
Fortunately, technology offers a socially safe environment in which students can access more information or practice difficult items when the tasks are challenging or confusing, all without potential embarrassment. And when students get used to seeking and getting help on their own, from a computer program, they are empowered to seek help from an instructor or from peers when they need it.
Fast ForWord provides such self-advocacy tools in the form of in-line interventions. For example, in the SonoLab exercise, if a student is struggling with sound differentiation, they can click on the question mark on the top navigation bar to practice without affecting their progression or accumulated game points. This socially safe self-help tool allows students to learn at their own pace and seek the help they need without risking peer judgment.
5. Student Agency
Finally, self-management and self-advocacy combine to create student agency, which is the ability to take control of a situation to make sure all steps are met to achieve a goal. In essence, student agency is a student’s ability to exercise ownership over their learning. As these students learn the skills needed to become responsible adults, student agency is an important social-emotional learning capacity.
From the start of every session of Fast ForWord, students exercise agency. On the “Today’s Assignment” screen, students choose which exercise to begin with. Within each exercise, students hold themselves accountable for their participation and completion, whether and when to utilize the in-line intervention for extra practice, and how to proceed to the other exercises of the day. At the end of each session, students track their daily progress with “Today’s Report.”
What’s more, since Fast ForWord is an online program, students can easily work on it remotely and at home, which affords even more opportunities to practice student agency and autonomy. Of course, every student is unique and will need a different amount of instructor oversight to help them maximally achieve their goals.
SEL Strengths for Literacy Success
Adolescents have unique social-emotional learning needs because of their rapidly developing brains. Five social-emotional learning skills that middle and high school students can particularly benefit from are confidence, healthy self-concept, self-management, self-advocacy, and student agency.
And as your students' SEL skills grow, they'll see growth in their literacy skills as well! Throughout the process, they build a healthy self-concept and see themselves as they truly are—capable minds with tremendous potential for greatness.
Before joining Carnegie Learning's marketing team in 2022, Karen spent 16 years teaching mathematics and social studies in Ohio classrooms. She has a passion for inclusive education and believes that all learners can be meaningfully included in academic settings from day one. As a former math and special education teacher, she is excited to provide educators with the latest in best-practices content so that they can set all students on the path to becoming confident "math people."Explore more related to this author