The Case For Social and Emotional Learning Through Arts


The Case For Social and Emotional Learning Through Arts 

Behavioral problems are on the rise in American schools (Meckler, 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic exposed gaps in the educational system, including stress on tests and academic achievement. Post pandemic, a move to teach the whole child has become emphasized. This places the responsibility of addressing the academic, social, and emotional needs of students on the teacher (Broome, 2014). If students’ needs are met, schools are producing well-rounded citizens, thus education will result in a better society (Lee & Lee, n.d.).  However, in order for that to be effective students must be engaged and willing to participate. Approaching social and emotional learning through the arts is a way to garner student buy-in. (Pereira & Marques-Pinto, 2008). 

Visual and performing arts (VPA) programs can provide an outlet for students to process their emotions following traumatic events (Daugherty, 2021).  They can be used as a tool for communication, expression, and to develop whole-group resilience (Hanning, 2022). The creation of art helps to develop an organization of thought (Keane, 2017). Certain areas of the brain only respond to music, art, or movement. Indicating that VPA programs have the ability to develop multiple parts of the brain at a time (Kremer, n.d.). It is imperative that we as arts educators advocate for arts education amidst this educational shift (Edgar & Morrison, 2021). 

Among the growing responsibilities for educators, there has also been a cultural shift. The public trust in educators has dwindled (Merod, 2021). Educators report that they feel less support from parents and families. Arts can be the bridge to build back trust between students, parents, and educators. (Edgar, 2021). Excitement over a successful artwork can facilitate communication at home with family. Children want to share with their families artworks they are proud of (Kremer, n.d.). This type of communication and notable self-confidence in one’s child is transformative for a parent to see. 


What is Social and Emotional Learning? 

Social and emotional learning (SEL) has come to be seen as an integral part of human development. (What Is the CASEL Framework? n.d.). It references the process of learning to manage emotions, behavior, time, social relationships and make responsible decisions among other things. Post pandemic there has been an increased need for a curriculum that addresses the whole child.“…SEL programs may help to increase pro-social behaviors, to reduce conduct… promote positive attitudes towards the self, others, and school, and to enhance school success” (Pereira & Marques-Pinto, 2008, pg. 52). Many districts have already implemented SEL programs through core classes, but I believe overlaying SEL with arts programs is a better way to reach our students.  



CASEL is an organization specializing in SEL framework created by Dr. James Comer. This framework attempts to foster and develop skills and knowledge relating to social and emotional growth. CASEL works with districts to develop SEL programs within their schools (What Is the CASEL Framework? n.d.). Linda Lantieri (founding collaborator of CASEL) has been involved with projects that develop SEL frameworks through arts education as well (Eddy et al., 2021). CASEL developed five SEL competencies which are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. 

SEL Implementation 

There is a need for SEL to be available school-wide (Kremer, n.d.). Studies on SEL curricula show that while it does promote social-emotional skills, it focuses on academic performance which can lead to students becoming disengaged and unmotivated (Gershon Pellitteri, 2018). VPA encourages students to contribute to something larger than themselves. They engage in collaborative situations in which their cooperation is vital to the community such as in a choir or band (Maurer et al., n.d.). They have space to reflect on their experiences and apply personal meaning and relevance to their work. This personal relevance and importance of their role in the community help build student investment and motivation. 

Current Roles of Art Education Programs in Schools 

Arts, band, music, and dance classrooms are often referred to as comfortable spaces for students (Art Class Offers Escape, Healing for Students, 2021). Throughout the pandemic, students used art to escape and shared that art with their teachers. This gave educators the ability to provide intervention services. Interventions within the art classroom have been found effective even when other interventions were not (Kremer, n.d., pg. 28). I visited students who attempted suicide and remained a sounding board for them as they developed artistic ideas while recovering. Even while the rest of the world was uncertain, their art teacher was there to look at their work and talk to them about it. 

The Current Roles of Art Educators. 

Arts educators tackle SEL in everyday practice. We have the unique situation of teaching students for multiple years and are thus able to develop relationships that can only be fostered over a period of time (Edgar & Morrison, 2021, pg. 149). Children’s artwork offers a roadway into how the child is thinking and feeling. Art educators utilize the relationship developed between themselves and the student to interpret and provide the support needed for social and emotional development (Kremer, n.d.). 

Art educators know that in the practice of creating, observing, analyzing, and understanding art many of the SEL competencies are built upon. We often informally seek to build on social and emotional learning through classroom practices (Elias, 2019). “The relevant question is not if an art practice will affect a social-emotional competency, but how it will happen and what art educators can do to improve the odds that the impact is positive.” (Maurer et al., n.d., pg. 18). Given that VPA naturally aligns with SEL objectives, districts should consider the purposeful training and implementation of SEL through arts. Schools that previously could not have art programs could now obtain them through funding given to districts for SEL.  

The Purposeful Intersection of SEL and Arts Curriculum  

The Center for Arts Education and Social and Emotional Learning has a detailed chart mapping out the intersections of the SEL framework and how they naturally work with the artistic process. By overlaying SEL, the primary focus remains on teaching art while making a clear connection to SEL that informs the instructional approach (About, n.d.). SEL should not be implemented as a replacement for developing artistic growth, but rather as a way to use the power of the arts to develop the whole child. (Edgar & Morrison, 2021).

Art educators are in a unique position because of the very nature of their work. Unlike core teachers, they will not have to break away from valuable instruction time in order to incorporate SEL into their instructional methods (Hanning, 2022). Arts education allows students to develop social and emotional skills in unique ways not available in core classes. In arts disciplines, students encounter new roles, materials, and concepts. Their teachers are artists, performers, and musicians. They are given the opportunity to try on these new roles and experiment with these new materials and concepts. In this way, they are allowed to build skills based on their own experiences within these roles, materials, etc (Maurer et al., n.d.). 


Self-awareness within the CASEL SEL framework involves personal and social identity, connecting feelings and thoughts, examining one’s own biases, and experiencing self-confidence (What Is the CASEL Framework? n.d.). Students who struggle academically but succeed in the art room experience a balance in their self-confidence (Art Class Offers Escape, Healing for Students, 2021). In dance and theater, students must use their bodies to express themselves, forcing them to consider their own feelings and how they will communicate them (Maurer et al., n.d.). In open-ended creative prompts such as the one outlined in Protection Projects: How Art on a Cart Reframed Pedagogical Practice to Support Social-Emotional Growth by Hanning (2022), students learned about representation through their peers. Not only did they have to examine their own connections to the big idea of protection and what the word meant to them, but they learned how different their classmates visually represented the same concept. Thus bringing students into conversation with themselves about their own biases. 


Self Management is described as the ability to set and work toward personal goals. This would include the time management of a project (Eddy et al., 2021). Self-Management can be seen throughout the creative process as students reflect on their ideas, emotions, and concepts. (Hanning, 2022). Students concentrated on learning a technically demanding art form requires self-discipline, self-regulation, and perseverance to master that art form. (Maurer et al., n.d.).


Social awareness within the CASEL SEL framework involves the ability to empathize with others, see from another perspective, understand influences, express gratitude, and identify diverse social norms (What Is the CASEL Framework? n.d.). Social Awareness is developed as students engage each other in collaboration and conversation about each other’s projects. Not every student will have the same feelings or perspectives, and therefore students will become engaged in someone else’s perspective. This can grow compassion and empathy towards their peers because while their project and concepts may look different, they are based on the same big idea and therefore they have some understanding of each other. (Hanning, 2022). Collaborative work within an arts classroom requires students to negotiate meaning through social interactions (Hutzel et al., n.d.).

Relationship Skills 

Relationship skills within the CASEL SEL framework includes effective communication, developing positive relationships, demonstrating cultural competency, practicing teamwork, collaborative problem solving, leadership skills and resolving conflicts constructively (What Is the CASEL Framework?, n.d.). When students are able to critique their own work and that of their peers, they connect their own emotions, experiences and knowledge to the emotions, experience and knowledge of their peers through this process. (Maurer et al., n.d.). Performance based arts education helps to foster interpersonal skills because students must interact and engage with each other in peer-to-peer collaboration (Maurer et al., n.d.). These types of experiences also foster teamwork and accountability. Group performances improve self control and reduce behavioral difficulties because students had to work together to achieve the end goal. 

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making within the CASEL SEL framework includes demonstrating open-mindedness, reasoned judgment, analyzing data, anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, and critical thinking skills (What Is the CASEL Framework?, n.d.). Students who participated in the Protection Projects demonstrated open mindedness while examining their classmate’s projects. Each student’s project stemmed from their different backgrounds and cultures and what the word protection meant to them personally (Hanning, 2022). Personal and emotional investment in art work encourages students to take risks, analyze what they learned from the experience and try again. In doing so they are exposing themselves to more experiences and opportunities for growth, as well as developing their sense of self. (Maurer et al., n.d.). 


Moving Forward

While many schools and districts have adopted SEL into other components of their curriculums, they have left art educators untrained despite research finding that arts education may be the most effective way of delivering SEL (Eddy et al., 2021). Given that visual and performing arts programs can be useful in the development of SEL and thus academic excellence, they should be available in all schools (Talezadeh, 2012). Arts programs could be the most valuable puzzle piece in our post pandemic education. “This is a call to action for k-12 practitioners and administrators to utilize Title funding with the rationale that support must be for arts education, justified by the intentional implementation of SEL and the fertile ground arts education provides for instruction, not to fund standalone SEL practice.” (Edgar & Morrison, 2021, pg. 147). Local district policy, teacher education, and art pedagogy can come together to create innovative methods for practicing SEL competencies. In the long battle to keep arts in schools we may finally have a way of showing just how invaluable arts programs are to educational leadership. 



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