10 Social Emotional Learning Activities for Middle School
Read our blog post about great social emotional learning activities for middle school students.

by Ready4K contributing author Curran Mahowald, M.A. Cognitive Science in Education

Social emotional learning (SEL) helps students develop important skills for managing their emotions, building positive relationships, making responsible decisions, and setting goals for themselves. These skills are essential for success not only in school but also in life. Families and educators have immense opportunity to use social emotional learning activities for middle school students that build such crucial life skills.

Middle school is a time of transition from childhood to adolescence. With the range of physical, social, and emotional changes student experience, it can be a time of great excitement but also uncertainty and vulnerability for many students. That’s why social-emotional learning support from both educators and families is critical to student development in middle school.

Social emotional learning activities for middle school

Here are some social emotional learning activities for middle school specifically designed to promote student development. For each key area, we’ve included social emotional learning strategies that a middle school teacher can use during the school day, as well as those that can be used by parents or other caregivers at home.

A group of middle school students run together with their backpacks to their school building.

Although middle schoolers often demonstrate their desire for autonomy from parents, family involvement is still crucial during adolescence.

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Managing emotions

Middle school can be a challenging time for students as they navigate their changing emotions. Social emotional learning strategies help students develop the skills they need to cope with everyday challenges and thrive in school and beyond.

For families

Whether you’re in 6th grade or 60 years old, strong emotions can feel overwhelming. One way to make them more manageable is to label them. Families can use this activity to help their children practice identifying their emotions:

  • FACT: Strong emotions can feel overwhelming. This can be true at any age. Just naming feelings (exhausted, excited) helps to make them more manageable.
  • TIP: Make a habit of checking in about feelings. As your child describes a moment from their day ask, “How did you feel when that happened?”
  • GROWTH: Keep naming feelings. If your child seems to be feeling strong emotions, ask about it. Try, “How are you feeling right now?” Just listen as they share.
An Asian middle school student writes in a journal at home.

For educators

One way teachers at any grade level can incorporate social emotional learning skills is to add a quick journaling time to the lesson plan. This is a great social emotional learning activity for middle school students as it encourages self-expression and emotional intelligence. If your school has morning meetings, set aside some time for this student reflection before diving into classroom learning. The beginning of any class period is also a perfect time to use a check-in journal so students can process any emotions that may have come up during the transition between classes. 

Encourage student reflection by explaining that a check-in journal is a private place to record their thoughts and feelings; they do not have to share its contents with anyone. In their individual journaling responses students may discuss their social relationships, academic challenges, or extracurricular activities. Students are welcome to share their individual journaling responses with the teacher and get support if desired.

Building healthy relationships

Middle school is a time when students are building new relationships and expanding their social networks. SEL helps students develop the social skills they need to build positive relationships with their peers and with adults.

For families

Connections between students become more important at this age. This requires more robust social skills, which families can help with by talking through the ups and downs of friendships with their child. Here’s an example of how families can support middle school students to build positive relationships:

  • FACT: Friends often come first for kids this age. It’s exciting! It can be hard too. Talking about friendships helps your child with the ups and downs.
  • TIP: After school, ask your child, “Who are some friends you like hanging out with?” Find out more. Or try asking “What do you like to do together? When do you get to hang out?”
  • GROWTH: Let your child know, “If hard things happen with friends, I’m here to listen. If you don’t want to talk, you can write me a note to tell me about it.”
A multiethnic group of middle school students sit on stairs together talking with each other.

For educators

The classroom is not only for academic learning; it’s also an environment rich with opportunities to practice communication skills, teach about personal boundaries, and build a sense of community. Any instructional task involving collaboration can be used to develop social emotional learning skills. 

For example, a whole-class discussion is the perfect time to practice active listening. First, solicit student feedback on this question: “What makes you feel heard when you contribute to class discussions?” Beginning with student reflection encourages critical thinking. Brainstorm sentence stems that students can use to respond to one another’s comments and create cue cards with phrases like “What I hear you saying is…” and “Can you clarify what you mean by…?” Don’t forget positive affirmations like “Thank you for sharing that idea.”

Responsible decision making

Elementary students have many important decisions made for them by adults. But as students become more independent in middle school, they need to learn how to set personal boundaries and make their own responsible decisions. Social emotional learning activities for middle school students specifically can help them develop the critical thinking and decision-making skills they need to make positive choices for themselves and others, even in the midst of powerful emotions.

A group of older middle school students stand around their lockers talking together.

For families

Here’s a great strategy for parents to encourage their students to make independent and responsible decisions:

  • FACT: In middle school, kids feel a strong desire to fit in. Talking about social situations before they happen helps kids make healthy choices.
  • TIP: Ask questions to help your child think about social situations. Try, “What can you do or say if a friend asks you to do something you don’t want to do?”
  • GROWTH: Keep talking. Brainstorm things your child might say to get out of an uncomfortable situation. For example, “No thanks, I’m not into that.”

For educators

Although responsible decision making feels like an automatic process to adults, students in 5th or 6th grade may benefit from learning a specific process they can follow, like this decision-making process from Colorado Ed Initiative. Post cue cards in the classroom to remind students of the process. 

Teachers can also plan brain breaks in which students play a fun game of Would You Rather. Adjust the questions to be appropriate for the grade level. Student reflection is key here—challenge students to explain the reasoning for their choice, and ask other students if they can foresee any consequences that the first student didn’t think of. 

Independence and executive functioning

In middle school, students are expected to play a bigger role in managing their own academic learning and social relationships than they were as elementary students. These demands require executive function, a term that covers a handful of different cognitive skills used to organize our behavior toward personal and academic goals. These behaviors include attention, task responsibility, problem solving, time management, and planning. 

For families

When students take the lead on everyday tasks, they build their independence to forge healthy relationships and tackle academic challenges. Home chores are the perfect time to show students that they can make mistakes and learn from them. This resilience will help them navigate all kinds of situations with increasing independence.

A middle school student kneels with dogs on a playground at the park.

Families can try this example at home:

  • FACT: When kids take charge of everyday tasks, they build independence. It’s okay if they make mistakes. That’s part of the process. It builds their resilience.
  • TIP: Think of an everyday task your child can be in charge of. It might be folding laundry or making their lunch. Show them how to do it, then let them lead.
  • GROWTH: Mistakes happen when kids take on new tasks. Encourage them to keep at it. Avoid jumping in. Offer pointers instead. Remind them, “You’ve got this.”

For educators

Teachers can provide opportunities for student leadership throughout classroom learning by allowing students to select roles and responsibilities within the classroom. For example, when students are split for group work, one member of each group can facilitate student reflection while another can take notes to report back in the whole-class discussion. This can help students develop leadership skills and a sense of community.

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Cultivating sense of self

Adolescence is a time of discovery and major growth, and not just in academic learning! Middle school students are formulating ideas about how they perceive themselves and their abilities. It’s important to provide a safe space for them to develop and test beliefs about their identity within the context of supportive and strong relationships.

For families

Extracurricular activities build a sense of community and foster individual student development. Here’s a great activity for families to help their middle school students discover their own identity and sense of self:

  • FACT: Kids this age are discovering who they are AND who they want to be. It’s a big job. Encouraging kids to share what they discover supports this growth.
  • TIP: Support self-discovery. Invite your child to talk about something they’re good at, something they’re working on, and something they want to try.
  • GROWTH: Keep supporting self-discovery. Now, reflect on ways you can support their growing interests. Are there clubs, classes, or community opportunities?
A middle school student runs with a soccer ball around cones during team practice.

For educators

Middle school students desire autonomy and acceptance as they develop their identities. The way in which teachers communicate to students, both during and outside of class meetings, can make the difference between a difficult time and a growth opportunity. 

For example, providing student feedback is the perfect time to use strategic communication to show that the class is a safe space to learn and grow. But creating a safe space is more nuanced than simply laying on the positive affirmations.

Two middle school students study together for a test.

In a study by Yeager and colleagues (2014), 7th graders received feedback cards on their essays and then were given the option to revise. The participants were more likely to choose to revise their essay when the feedback cards to students implied that teachers cared about student’s success (“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them”) than when the feedback cards to students simply read: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.”

Positive affirmations of a teacher’s genuine investment in student development are a simple yet powerful way to boost academic performance through growth mindset.

More tips for successful SEL in middle school

These social emotional learning activities for middle school are provided to inspire educators and families to support not only academic achievement but also social-emotional skills in a time of great excitement and challenge. Here is some general guidance to keep in mind for those who want to invent their own fun game or facilitate class discussions surrounding social emotional learning skills:

Two middle school students smiling and walking together down the hallway to class.

1. Adapt SEL programs and ideas to your students’ specific needs.

According to a 2022 report from RTI International, it is crucial to consider the challenges and changes middle school students face at each point in their development in order to select impactful strategies to develop social emotional learning skills. For this reason, a 6th grade math teacher may focus on slightly different social-emotional skills from a 7th grade English teacher. Educators should also be open to student feedback on these initiatives.

2. Build in home-school partnerships for student development in the SEL domain.

Parents and caregivers are part of the middle school success team at every grade level! It’s up to educators to build trusting relationships with their students’ families. And this means going beyond just offering social emotional learning activities for middle school students. When families ask questions, share student feedback, and provide insights about their child to the school, the team works better. By establishing two-way communication and collaborating with families to solve challenges together, educators set their students up for greatest success.

3. Make space for community.

Students don’t develop social skills alone! Build connections between students and caring adults at events like community service projects or career nights. Families can also bring social emotional learning to life at home through the simple conversation starters. Any of our shared social emotional learning activities for middle school can be adapted between both home and school environments.

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