Are Conscious Discipline and SEL for Teens?

Often, social and emotional learning (SEL) programs are associated with early childhood. After all, the first three years of life are a period of incredible brain development and growth. But SEL is for teens too. In fact, SEL is for everyone. People of all ages can benefit from learning to manage their emotions, connect with others, resolve conflicts, and reach goals.

Conscious Discipline is SEL for birth through adulthood. At its core, Conscious Discipline is about giving adults the tools to create equitable classrooms and schools where every student feels safe and connected enough to learn. Educators maximize their positive impact in the classroom, and children are supported in reaching their full academic and prosocial potential. We want to see these types of classrooms at every level, not just early childhood.

Here are just a few examples of middle and high school educators who use Conscious Discipline:

Why SEL for Teens Matters

We know that the brain is rapidly developing during ages 0-3. But did you know that adolescence is another period of significant brain development? In fact, a “fundamental reorganization of the brain” takes place during adolescence.

This means that environmental influences have an especially strong impact on the adolescent brain. It’s a great time for both emotional and intellectual development. It’s also a time when teens can be easily swayed by harmful influences.

SEL for teens is not only reasonable, but essential. As adolescents grow into independent adults, they need skills like assertiveness, composure, decision-making, empathy, and resilience. These skills help teens resist temptation and make wise choices. They empower teens to set healthy boundaries in relationships. And they pave the way to success in the classroom, the workplace, and life in general.

When you implement Conscious Discipline with middle and high school students, you also:

  • Provide a sense of safety and belonging in the classroom so students are able and willing to learn.
  • Create a School Family environment in which students support and care for one another. This reduces conflict and increases teaching time.
  • Empower educators to feel more confident, composed, and prepared to handle any situation that arises, reducing burnout.
  • Restore the joy in teaching, learning, and relationships.

At any age, Conscious Discipline makes school a happier, healthier place. And when adults and students feel calm, happy, and supported, it’s much easier to learn and achieve.

How to Implement Conscious Discipline in Middle and High School

Conscious Discipline is not a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We give adults the mindset and skill set necessary to create safety, connect, and teach SEL skills through modeling and relationships. Then, educators have the freedom to customize Conscious Discipline for their students. It’s adaptable to all cultures, ages, and interests. Use what works for your students, and adapt what doesn’t.

Not sure where to start implementing Conscious Discipline in middle and high school? Here are some helpful first steps:

1. Internalize the Powers and Skills.

Start by internalizing the Powers and Skills of Conscious Discipline. The Powers give you the mindset needed to see teens and their behaviors differently. They help you harness the intention you need to effectively use the Skills.

The Skills provide the tools to maintain composure and wisely manage conflict and discipline situations. When you use the Skills in moments of conflict, you help children move from the resistant lower centers of the brain to the more cooperative higher center.

Many teachers start with the foundational Conscious Discipline book or Conscious Discipline online course. You can also sign up for the online course Powers of Resilience: SEL for Adults, which takes a deep dive into the Powers and emphasizes adults’ internal work first.

2. Model the Powers and Skills.

Begin modeling the Powers and Skills in your classroom. Demonstrate composure, assertiveness, positive intent, empathy, and so on. Students learn by example, and your actions shape the atmosphere of your classroom.

Junior high school teacher Afton Schleiff recommends verbalizing your thought process to model SEL for teens. For example, you might say, “I’m triggered right now. I need to take a few deep breaths before I respond.” In this way, you teach SEL skills in context and model the behavior you’d like to see.

3. Co-create your classroom environment with class agreements.

Both Afton Schleiff and high school teacher Steve Hummer use class agreements to give students a voice in the classroom. Class agreements increase buy-in and encourage students to respect the rules and expectations of the class. When the teacher fosters a School Family environment with Conscious Discipline, students are especially willing to cooperate and honor class-wide agreements.

There are several ways to utilize class agreements. Here’s one possible process:

  • In each class period, divide your students into groups to list class agreements.
  • Ask the groups guiding questions, like, “How do you learn best?” and, “What will support your learning in this classroom?” Some of your rules, such as the tardy policy and late work, may already be set. Show students where they can contribute with questions such as, “How should the teacher get the attention of the class?” or, “How will we support others?”
  • When the groups are finished, have each group share out. Begin creating a master list at the front of the classroom.
  • Ask students, “Can we commit to this? Can we agree to following these agreements every day?”
  • Once the class has committed to your agreements, make a final list for each class period. Hang them up in the classroom, display in a virtual classroom space, and/or print a copy for each student.
  • When students aren’t following the agreements, provide a gentle reminder: “Remember our agreements?” before progressing to consequences if necessary.
  • If an agreement is no longer working for the group, discuss it as a class and adapt as necessary.

4. Focus on composure and connection.

You don’t have to do everything at once with Conscious Discipline. Start slow. At first, prioritize connection and composure. Intentionally connect with your students, and provide opportunities for them to connect with one another. Practice the pause, remembering to compose yourself before responding in moments of conflict or stress. If you can nail connection and composure, you’ll see a huge difference.

Connection can be simple: Greet students at the door. Ask them about their day. Learn about and remember their interests. If you’re an English teacher, have kids keep a two-way journal where you occasionally respond to their writing.

Encourage connection between students with practices like high five partners, turning and talking, or “brain breaks” involving quick games like Rock, Paper, Scissors. It doesn’t have to be I Love You Rituals and peekaboo.

And without composure in moments of conflict or stress, you can’t access your best decision-making skills. So, remember to pause. Give yourself a moment to breathe. Remind yourself that you’re safe and capable, then respond. Don’t worry about getting the language exactly right at first. Your composure and intention make the biggest difference, and practicing the pause is key to early Conscious Discipline implementation.

5. Explicitly teach the Brain State Model and SEL skills like composure and assertiveness.

CD Brain State Model

Implementing SEL for teens gives you the opportunity to explicitly teach concepts like the Brain State Model. Teens are old enough to understand this information and use it in their daily lives.

Explain the survival, emotional, and executive state. Talk about the skills we can access in each state, and how it’s hard to make good decisions or perform well on a test if we’re in the lower centers. Then, give students strategies to reach the executive state. Share deep breathing techniques. If students think Balloon and Drain are silly, challenge them to get creative and come up with techniques of their own.

We can also give older students the language of assertiveness and conflict resolution. For instance, teach students to say, “It’s not OK with me when you ____________. Do ___________instead.” Remind students they’re free to customize the language in a way that feels natural for them.

6. Adapt rituals and structures to fit your students.

When you have the basic foundation in place, it’s time to adapt rituals and structures for your students.

Teachers who implement Conscious Discipline in middle and high school have successfully used the Greeting Ritual, School Family Jobs, the Safe Place, Wish Well, Celebrations, I Love You Rituals, and more. Are they used exactly how we’d use them in an early childhood classroom? No. Do they have the same powerful impact? Yes!

First, you don’t need to use terms like “Safe Place” and “I Love You Rituals” if they don’t feel right for your students. Some middle schools implementing Conscious Discipline call celebrations “Shout Outs” or “Snaps.” Others rebrand the Safe Place as the “Zen Zone.”  School Family Jobs become “classroom responsibilities.” It doesn’t matter what you call it!

In addition, your structures don’t need to be “cutesy.” Afton Schleiff’s Safe Place is a comfy armchair in a quiet corner, with a few helpful fidgets and calming tools nearby. She doesn’t wear a Greeting Apron, but she does stand at the door with a student Greeter to say good morning as students arrive. And although she doesn’t physically walk students through the Conflict Resolution Time Machine, she uses similar language when conflicts arise.

With older students, in fact, you can turn most of the rituals and structures over to them. In Afton’s class, the Wish Well, Brain Smart Start, and Celebrations are classroom jobs.

Conscious Discipline is not really about the structures. The structures provide visual aids and practice opportunities for the SEL skills we want students to learn. Teens don’t need structures as much as younger children, and it’s perfectly fine to tweak them in ways that work best for your students.

Final Thoughts: SEL for Teens

Conscious Discipline is not just for early childhood; it’s for everyone. Implementing SEL for teens provides relationship-based skills, a sense of belonging, and a felt sense of safety at a time when they are badly needed.

With Conscious Discipline, there is no one-size-fits-all kit or worksheet. The adult internalizes the Powers and Skills, then shares them with students through relationships and modeling. SEL becomes embedded in the fabric of your classroom or school culture. For these reasons, it’s easy to adapt and personalize Conscious Discipline to best fit your learning community.

You don’t need cute structures or rituals that feel silly to teens. Internalize the mindset and the skill set Conscious Discipline offers, and practice maintaining your composure so you can access these tools in moments of conflict. Strive to intentionally build an environment where your students feel safe and supported, and know they belong. The rest will fall into place.