Middle schoolers are nothing if not complicated—kind and caring one moment and insensitive and offensive the next. They’re able to speak up in classroom discussions but can’t figure out how to start conversations with kids in the lunchroom. Most have been taught about inclusion since kindergarten but still feel uncomfortable when exposed to new people and situations.

Part of helping middle schoolers successfully navigate the labyrinth that is middle school is teaching social acceptance, a social-emotional learning skill that involves empathy, perspective taking, appreciating diversity, and respecting others.

It is important to have the conversation.

The world has changed so much as a result of technology. Students are exposed to so much more information, and it’s easy to assume they are more sophisticated than they really are. It’s no wonder teachers worry that kids won’t listen to teaching about social acceptance.

But the truth is, kids do listen. And conversations with trusted adults play an important role in helping them form their belief systems. With that in mind, here are four suggestions to help you tackle the four aspects of social awareness:

1. Dig into literature to build empathy.

teaching social acceptance

Build literacy and social-emotional skills while exploring meaningful texts. The experience of immersing yourself in a story allows kids to walk in another person’s shoes and is the perfect vehicle for teaching empathy. For example, we root for Parvana in The Breadwinner series by Deborah Ellis, even as we learn what it’s like to live in an oppressive society. Books like Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper, Lily and Duncan by Donna Gephart, and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jaqueline Woodson all build a greater understanding of the human experience. And don’t forget: Literature isn’t just for ELA class. Pair literature with world events in social studies or do a  book study on a social justice issue in advisory.

2. Practice perspective taking.

Perspective taking refers to a person’s ability to consider a scene or situation from a different point of view. It requires putting yourself in the other person’s position and imagining what you might feel, think, or do if you were in that situation.

One super simple way to begin to teach perspective is to actually have kids put themselves in someone else’s place. Ask two students to sit in chairs facing one another and take turns describing three to five things they see directly behind the other student.

What draws each student’s attention will depend on their own unique experience and perspective of the room. For example, one student might see a drawing on the white board and a stack of books, while another student may notice a row of computers and a bucket of balls.

Next, have the students get up and switch chairs. Once they change places, the students can see the scene from the other student’s perspective. They may be surprised to find they might not have noticed the things that caught the other person’s attention.

3. Create a culture that celebrates difference.

teaching social acceptance

Most middle schoolers feel immense pressure to conform, and the last thing they want is to draw attention to the things that make them different. But we all know that the differences between us offer many gifts. Create a culture in your school that places a premium on how different and the people in your school are. After all, groups of people from different cultural backgrounds, races, genders, and ability make for rich and interesting conversations and relationships. Read books about people from different backgrounds, listen to diverse voices on podcasts, watch films that present less common perspectives. Try one of these compelling lessons created by the Embracing Our Differences. Browse through these film kits presented by Teaching Tolerance.

4. Build respect by giving back.

Respect is built when we truly connect with others. And there’s no better way to connect than by reaching out to help others. Encourage your students to give back. To get started, brainstorm with students about issues that are important to them. Then group students with similar passions and challenge them to plan and execute a volunteer project that addresses that issue. Not only do volunteer experiences have a positive impact on our community, they teach important social-emotional skills, like compassion, social acceptance, and leadership.

To find an opportunity in your area, check out these volunteer project ideas.

Teaching kids social acceptance doesn’t happen in just one or two lessons. It is a skill that develops over time. To truly take root, we, as educators, need to be vigilant in ensuring that our curriculum and our students’ daily experiences are grounded in the acceptance of all people just as they are. Keep up the conversation by building empathy, examining different perspectives, celebrating differences, and building respect.

To learn more on this topic, here are some recommended resources that are available free online:

How do you help your middle schoolers build their social awareness skills? Come and share in our WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook.

Plus, Free Posters to Help Teens Make Better Choices? Yes, Please!

Teaching Social Acceptance in Middle School