Promoting Youth Mental Health Through Social-Emotional Learning in Schools and Youth Programs

youth working together

With everything that has happened in the past two years, it is no secret that the mental health of our youth is important. There are a variety of ways to support youth mental health: from counseling and therapy to self-care techniques and simply listening and spending time with them. Another vital strategy that can help support youth mental health, especially in schools or in a youth program environment, is to use Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) strategies. 

You may ask, what is SEL? Great question. According to Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading nonprofit in education and research, Social-Emotional Learning is an approach that teaches youth and adults to recognize and understand their emotions, learn how to manage them, and have empathy for others. Learning how to understand and manage your emotions helps build positive and healthy relationships, create and achieve goals, and make responsible decisions. 

Teens working together in a STEM projectSEL has many benefits for students and youth, including increasing academic performance, improving classroom behavior, social behaviors, relationship skills, and self-management. Research also shows that SEL benefits mental health by increasing a youth’s ability to manage stress, depression, and anxiety. SEL also improves self-esteem and emotional skills. The CDC reports that “more than 1 in 3 high school students have experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness since 2019” and SEL can be an effective approach to support youth with their mental health. Although it is important to note, SEL is not meant to replace nor should it be used to replace treatment, but rather as a way to learn how to manage mental health symptoms at school, home, or in youth programs.

So How Can SEL Be Implemented in Schools and Youth Programs?

SEL is not a program in itself but rather a framework or a guide in creating opportunities for youth to develop their social and emotional competencies, which in turn increases their social-emotional skills and helps them better manage their mental health. These 5 SEL Core Competencies are:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-management
  3. Social awareness
  4. Relationship skills
  5. Responsible decision making

Youth programs that promote SEL will want to target these five core competencies in their activities and services to maximize the full benefits of SEL. Research indicates that the most effective SEL programs incorporate four elements represented by the acronym. SAFE

  • Sequenced activities that lead in a coordinated and connected way to skill development,
  • Active forms of learning that enable children to practice and master new skills,
  • Focused time spent developing one or more social and emotional skills, and
  • Explicit defining and targeting of specific skills

5 Ways to Integrate SEL and Promote Mental Health

1.Check-In on Youth

This may be simple, but it teaches youth to think about and become aware of their thoughts and emotions. It also shows youth that someone cares for their well-being. Checking in with youth can be as simple as asking how they are doing. Be authentic and actually care and listen to them when they share their accomplishments or things they are excited about. Check-in constantly or make it part of your daily interactions with youth to gradually build a positive relationship with your students.

Black girl writing in a journal2. Have Youth Work with Others

Assign hands-on group projects. Working with others improves youth culture and helps youth build their social and teamwork skills. This article is a good start on how to teach and facilitate productive group work.

3. Encourage Youth to Write in Journals

Allowing time and space to journal that youth might otherwise not have or want to do initially do on their own gives them the opportunity to practice, explore, and express their thoughts and feelings. It can also help youth reduce stress. Make journaling a weekly or daily activity in your classrooms or programming by allowing students to write for at least 10-minutes. 

4. Have a Calming Corner or Area Dedicated to Relaxing 

Create a space in your room or building that is dedicated to relaxing and allow students to enter this area when they want to relax. Allowing students to take a break when they are overwhelmed, stressed, or anxious will enable them to take time for themselves and manage their emotions. Here’s an article with ideas on how to create a calming area in your room.

5. Teach Youth How to Recognize and Manage Stress

Teaching youth how to recognize and manage stress will be an invaluable skill for them to have. Youth can learn to manage stress by talking about their feelings, being active/exercising, or practicing mindfulness activities, including deep breathing, listening to music, or doing art. The APA has an article on signs of stress and some techniques for youth to help manage it.

For more information and research on Social-Emotional Learning, visit the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) website and the additional resources below to help you implement SEL in your schools and programs.

Additional Resources:


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