The Science of Learning Blog

July 13, 2020

Five SEL Skills That Struggling Secondary Students Need (And How Elements I Builds Them)

BY Amy Takabori

This is the third in our five-part series leading up to the launch of Elements I, the newest addition to the Fast ForWord Literacy program. See Part 2 about mastery-based learning and be sure to sign up for previews of Elements 1 ahead of its August release. 

Adolescents’ Highly Emotional Brains

Teens get a bad rap for being emotional and impulsive. It turns out the adolescent brain is responsible.

Thanks to neuroscience technology that provides a literal peek into the brain, we now know the neurological basis of teens’ disproportionate impulsivity, risk-seeking behavior, and hypersensitivity to peer pressure.

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.

five teenagers holding paper faces over their faces, ranging from upset to very happy

No wonder, then, that secondary students who struggle with reading and learning are in such dire need of social-emotional learning (SEL) support. For these students, a reading intervention that incorporates SEL skill training, such as the brand-new Elements I, is likely to be more effective than a reading program alone.

The Social-Emotional Impact of Reading Struggle

When students struggle with reading, their confidence drops as they fall behind their peers. By the time they are 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.”

But social-emotional learning is a broad topic. What should secondary school educators prioritize in their teaching? Here are five social-emotional learning skills that are particularly important for adolescent learners, along with how Elements I develops these SEL skills and reading skills simultaneously.

Five Social-Emotional Learning Skills for Secondary Learners

1. Confidence

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.

For middle and high school students who have regularly been left behind their peers in classes, they 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.

Elements I is the brand-new component of Fast ForWord Literacy for struggling secondary readers, and its exercises 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 an 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!

3. Self-Management

Self-management is the ability to regulate actions, thoughts, and emotions for purposeful goal-directed behavior. As a recent EdSurge article attests, secondary students thrive when their self-management skills are fostered.

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.

Some of the new Elements I exercises are intentionally designed to develop attention skills, building the cognitive capacity to stay on task. For example, SonoLab is an exercise that requires students to pay attention to a series of sounds and click on the target graphic when the sound slightly changes. Essentially, it trains the brain not to wander off!

Students also develop self-management by seeing “Today’s Report” at the end of every session, cultivating self-accountability by tracking their own progress. By seeing how well they have met their goals each session, students develop goal-oriented habits and enhance their self-management skills.

4. Self-Advocacy

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.

Elements I 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 Elements I, 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 Literacy is an online program, students can easily work on it remotely and at home, which affords even more opportunity 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. 


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. 

In the soon-to-be-released Elements I exercises, the design features build attention skills for self-management and provide self-advocacy tools. These two combine to provide students with a feeling of confidence in their ability to learn and exercise their student agency—providing a sense of control over the tasks and successful completion. Throughout the process, they build a healthy self-concept and see themselves as they truly are—capable minds with tremendous potential for greatness.

Learn more about Elements I and watch preview videos here.

4 comments on “Five SEL Skills That Struggling Secondary Students Need (And How Elements I Builds Them)”

  1. A very good enrichment article. I believe in this philosophy, and have read about this before and do my best to focus on building confidence in my students. I believe that all teachers need to be reminded of this yearly. Sometimes there are so many pressures to develop our students academic performance that we forgot to target their social development. This approach, like you said , allows students to build the confidence they need to be successful.

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