"I never realized how deep I am,” said Elijah in eleventh grade, looking straight into WKCD’s video camera. “Even other people have told me how they think I should be a writer. I’m like, ‘Aw, I don’t know if I really wanna do that.’ But yeah, you just find out so much about yourself . . . things that you don’t even know.”

When asked, many students like Elijah will describe their challenges and discoveries as growing adolescents. They will tell you what holds them back in school and what helps them thrive, about teachers who care and the satisfaction that comes from feeling that they matter and that they can.

For more than a dozen years, WKCD has used digital media to collect and share these largely impromptu youth voices, believing in the importance of listening to students reflect on their own learning. Our Just Listen Channel on YouTube has over 300 short video clips. Here, we present some of what we heard when we asked students, in and outside our study schools, to talk about what social and emotional learning means to them. (Note: Multimedia clips with student voices are embedded throughout Learning by Heart: Five American High Schools Where Social and Emotional Learning Are Core.)


What most helps young people thrive in a challenging academic environment? Answers from students bear out what research has found: social and emotional factors constitute a crucial underpinning for learning. In this audioslideshow, middle schoolers at School of the Future in New York City give their own examples of how everyday interactions between students, peers, and adults affected how they learn in the classroom. Their descriptions reflect some key unspoken questions that adolescents bring with them into a school environment: Will I able to do the work here? Will I be smart enough?

The teachers and the students, they really do make you feel like it's home. Everyone has a voice in my school, and if we want to open our mind and do something, we can. The more you know, the better it is. And that's how you create safety--with the knowledge of others. - Max



How does social and emotional learning "go down" for a diverse group of Chicago high school students? Five youth from Chicago's Mikva Challenge share their thoughts and experiences on the interplay between emotions and academics in the schools they attend. The students are strikingly different from each other, but the themes they sound are shared: the importance of teacher-student relationships, the desire of students to stand out (or be invisible), the toll stereotyping takes on students, teachers, and schools.

Download discussion prompts and questions for teachers and students to spark reflection and debate about what these students say.


  • Student-teacher relationships
  • Encouraging discouraged students
  • Helping students believe in themselves


  • Standing out
  • Teachers who don't give up on students
  • Fighting stereotypes


  • (Not) juding a book by its cover
  • Being invisble
  • Helping students find their voice

One on ones really do go a long way. Just pulling the student to the side and telling them that you care about them, that you want to see them do better, to do good…It feels nice having someone rooting for you and believing in you. - Lisa


  • Becoming a leader
  • Politeness and honesty
  • High expectations


  • The teachers students trust
  • Supporting "good" and "bad" students allke
  • Putting in the effort


What helps students gain a sense of agency, a belief that they are capable? How does a school make its values visible to students? At Springfield Renaissance School, an Expeditionary Learning School in Springfield, Massachusetts, eight students talk about what helps them thrive, including: the daily advisory group called "crew," the month-long "intensives" in which students direct their own learning, timely counseling, regular reflection, exhibitions, and a curriculum of connection.

Developing agency Values made visible

Those are the things that make the school. The commitments that we made to not down-grade people, but boost them up so they have the same opportunity that we have to learn. The responsibility part, the friendship part, the cultural sensitivity part, they all tie in together. - Jason

Structural supports  


Separated by culture, class, and geography, twelfth graders at Quest Early College High School in Humble, Texas and Fenger High School in Chicago, Illinois talk about service learning, restorative justice, and how they've grown as students.

On the benefits of service learning On restorative justice
Senior reflections: Fenger HS, Chicago, IL Senior reflections: QECHS, Humble, TX