How to Help Students Apply SEL to Their Real Life


SEL and mindfulness classes do a good job teaching self-awareness and inner development. But how do we help students use these skills to tackle real-world problems?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) teaches the key attitudes and skills necessary for understanding and managing emotions, listening, feeling and showing empathy for others, and making thoughtful, responsible decisions. For five years, I was an educator in the field teaching mindfulness and emotional skills to teenagers at six different high schools.

Students work on Project Wayfinder activities.

Over and over, I saw the power of mindfulness to transform the inner lives of students. Students became less stressed, more self-regulated, and more thoughtful toward their classmates. But I also saw that students did not understand how to connect these new skills and experiences to build purpose-driven projects in their real lives. There was a gap between the inner development and the real-world implementation.

That is where purpose-based education comes in. Purpose, as defined by Bill Damon of Stanford University, is “something that is meaningful to the self, and consequential to the world.” This new movement of purpose-based learning organizations is connecting the principles and practices of SEL to what students do in the world and to the question, “What do I do with my life?” It’s developing the connective tissue between internal skills and external projects, future plans, and big life decisions.

Over the past five years, half a dozen organizations have popped up around the country focused on developing purpose among high school students, including the Future Project, the QUESTions Project, NxU, Noble Impact, and Project Wayfinder (the organization I founded). This new movement in education can have a lasting impact, as long as it evolves in the right direction.

Here are a few suggestions—based on discussions with educators and leaders of purpose-based organizations—for educators seeking to develop more meaning and purpose in the lives of their students, and for those who want to take SEL and mindfulness to the next level.


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