Help students recognize and understand social and emotional themes in popular films.
No matter how we discover them, the best films move us in ways we've never imagined. No matter how old we are, they can make us both laugh and cry, and they help us learn more about ourselves and how we relate to others. Of course, many popular movies deal with social and emotional issues, and these can be great for teaching SEL in our classrooms.
The films on this list are excellent for encouraging students to reflect on and discuss a wide range of social and emotional issues. As teachers, we're in a unique position to give these films the context they demand. Social and emotional learning doesn't usually come from watching a movie by yourself -- it comes from the rich discussions that form when you're watching a movie with others and relating what happens in the film to real life. Because of this, it's crucial that we don't merely show these films without also giving kids time to reflect on and discuss what they're watching. As students watch, help them interpret the films you show, and give them direct invitations to ask questions and think critically about what they're seeing on the screen.
Note that our list includes some films that address complex and mature themes. One of the benefits of kids seeing these films in school, versus on their own, is that teachers can help guide and facilitate conversations about these issues. However -- as with any movie you select for your classroom -- determine ahead of time what's OK for your students and the community where you teach, and always follow your school or district's policies around showing films in the classroom.
Here are some excellent movies for the middle school classroom that support students' social and emotional learning:
A modern animated classic about emotions, Inside Out will help kids understand the power of our feelings and why it's important to express them -- whether it's happiness, fear, or regret. And check out our free movie guide!
- Why are all emotions important?
- What are some ways to regulate emotions?
- Talk about the value in being honest about feelings.
Following different student groups competing in an international science fair, this documentary highlights the perseverance and teamwork required to make it to the top. Help students analyze the variety of personality types they'll see in the film -- from shy to self-possessed and beyond -- and how they help or hurt the contestants' goals.
- Why is being curious so important?
- How can setting goals be helpful?
- Discuss the struggles some of the students had to work through to get where they are.
This moving documentary is about parents learning how to raise kids who are unlike themselves -- whether they have a disability, identify as LGBTQ+, or have committed a crime. Students will see how these parents grapple with empathy and develop tolerance and then consider how their own families handle their unique characteristics.
- What are strategies to connect and communicate about differences?
- Why is empathy an important part of relationships?
- Talk about differences between family relationships versus other types.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg headlines this documentary about her life and career. Politics aside, students can see how Ginsburg maintained integrity in her private trials and public fights for gender equality.
- What does it mean to have integrity? What does it look like in daily choices?
- How can compassion for others fuel the fight for equality?
- Discuss strategies to use when others are working against efforts you believe in.
Kids will get emotional as they watch this story of a fifth-grader born with a facial abnormality. Bullying is a strong focus in the film, and students can talk about why it's important to try to understand what their peers are going through and when to stand up for others.
- Why is it that some people choose to pick on those who are different from them? Why choose cruelty over compassion? And what does the movie tell us about people's motivations for their behavior?
- What effect does each character's circumstances have on your compassion for them?
- Talk about some of the strategies that characters use to face their struggles.
This highly acclaimed biopic of Fred Rogers' life showcases his passion for inspiring integrity and kindness. Whether or not they know who he is, students can argue whether the show's discussion of tough topics with young kids had a positive or negative impact on kids' social and emotional learning.
- How is Fred Rogers a good example of a person who has integrity?
- In what ways did he show compassion?
- Discuss the importance of the kind of acceptance Mr. Rogers showed toward everyone. How can we do the same?
Communication is front and center in this sci-fi alien tale. Faced with important choices around compassion, the characters make decisions that will get students debating the consequences of how we talk to, and learn to work with, each other.
- Why is it that some of the characters feel threatened and talk about war?
- What does the main character do to help avoid violence?
- Talk about the power of curiosity, especially when we feel afraid.
A unique mix of live-action documentary and animation, Liyana tells the emotional story of a group of African orphans and the fictional tale they created. The tale is based on their own experiences, which can be emotional and will open up students to new perspectives.
- How is storytelling one way to process difficult circumstances?
- How does it work in this movie? What would you say to the kids in the movie if you had the chance?
- Discuss some of the skills that help people through the hardest times. How do we build those skills?
This popular Marvel superhero movie is a great opportunity to take a film that kids already love and show them how their favorite characters handle integrity, decisiveness, and teamwork. You can also discuss the effect the film has had in African American communities and why it has produced such gratitude and pride.
- What are some different ways that hardship, anger, and isolation affect people? What are potential positive outcomes?
- What are some examples of teamwork seen in this film? How does each example illustrate teamwork?
- Talk about the rulers of Wakanda (or those who want to rule). Who has the most integrity? Why do you think so?
This R-rated film is certainly the most controversial pick on this list; the director has hosted special screenings of Eighth Grade in schools across the country. Discuss as a class whether the characters and issues surfaced in the film are true to real life, and talk about how students might deal (or have dealt) with these types of experiences. For more information about showing the movie Eighth Grade in your classroom, be sure to check out this article, as well as our discussion guide for schools.
- Even though the main character is quiet at school, what are some ways she shows courage?
- What does it mean to "find your voice"? Does anyone find their voice in this movie? How?
- Discuss what feels realistic or not about middle school in the movie. Does it feel at all similar to real life? Why or why not?
The lives of three stray dogs living in Istanbul, Turkey, intertwine with young refugees from Syria who are living on the streets. Because, from the dogs' perspective, politics and nationality don't matter, students can consider what the movie is saying about what truly matters.
- How does using the dogs as central figures really highlight compassion and empathy?
- If the people in the film showed more compassion to each other, how might that change their lives?
- Talk about how it sometimes feels easier to be compassionate with nonhuman animals than other people. Why is that?
A teen sailor defies all odds (and the courts) by fighting her way to her dream of sailing alone around the world. The movie offers a great opportunity for students to think about taking risks and the power of being passionate.
- What are examples of perseverance from this movie, and what are examples of specific strategies to overcome challenges?
- Though solo sailing isn't appealing to everyone, why is it important to have curiosity and passion?
- Discuss how sailing alone (and the moments of connection along the way) can be a metaphor for parts of everyday life.
A local high school basketball team's success means a lot to its players and the community as a whole, as the people living there have lost so much. Students can reflect on what it means to be a team both in sports and for life in general.
- Why is basketball so important to the community in the film? What drives the teens to continue, despite the hardships they face?
- Why is it so important for teams to have strong communication? Do those reasons also apply outside of sports teams?
- Talk about how the community has faced a lot of tragedy. What are some things that keep them moving forward?
People with a variety of disabilities compete in the Paralympic Games and strive to continue to participate, despite a lack of financial support. When facing their own challenges, students can draw inspiration from the athletes in the film.
- The people featured in the film face physical challenges. How can physical challenges become mental and emotional ones?
- What are some strategies the athletes use to overcome difficulties?
- Discuss how sports is a way for so many people—with or without disabilities—to find meaning and passion.
Set in a Māori community in New Zealand, this movie features a girl who wants to help her village and people but is prevented by tradition. Students can discuss the importance and potential limitations of such traditions. And you can use our ready-made movie guide!
- How does the main character stay true to herself, even when others are holding her back?
- What are some examples of courage from this film?
- Talk about the value and challenge of tradition. What are positive things about maintaining traditions, and what are some potential downsides?
Top photo credit: Courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action
Check out this movie guide that connects to SEL and digital citizenship!