How to Successfully Teach Social Emotional Skills Through the Arts

5 Min Read  •  Social/Emotional Learning

More and more, I find that my elementary students need basic social emotional skills. While I integrate these into my lessons throughout the year, I also set aside time each week for an official class meeting where I can explicitly teach a social skills lesson. The book My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss is a great book for discussing and identifying emotions and matching them to colors. One of our Arts Integration Specialist Certification participants, Sheila Garth, is a school counselor, and she shared a great music playlist for this book. Omazing Kids Yoga found pieces of music that match these each of these colors/emotions. The playlist can be found here, and I have converted it to a student-friendly Padlet as well, found here:

It is important for students to name their emotions so that they can understand what they are feeling and how they should respond appropriately. On the flip side, it helps them read others’ social cues so that they know how others are feeling, which helps to build empathy. You can find more on this topic in a wonderful article by Social Emotional Learning Consultant Lorea Martinez, Ph.D. titled “Got SEL? Teaching Students to Describe Emotions

The following activity packs a punch- it is filled with not only a social and emotional learning experience, but ties in music vocabulary, dance/movement, parts of speech, and written/spoken vocabulary. And of course, color!

I begin by reading My Many Colored Days. After reading, I have students do a think-pair-share about the color they identify with the most. I ask students if they had trouble choosing one color, which prompts a discussion about experiencing a variety of emotions all the time. I also ask if any students like a particular color but they didn’t identify with the way it was described in the book. This typically ignites a conversation of their perspectives of the ways color make them feel. (More on this topic here, should you choose to go this direction instead, or as an extension.) Define the word emotion, and ask students to explain why they think it is good to be able to identify their emotion and the emotions of others. (Another think-pair-share here typically evokes a better discussion in my class.)

After reading, zoom in on each color/emotion. I do this over the course of a week or so, repeating a similar procedure for each color. Create a small anchor chart for the first color: red. Reread that page, and have students pull out a few words from the page that go with the color “red”. Try to help students avoid brainstorming “red” items, such as apples and firetrucks, and instead, use words like “bright”. Next, explain that you are going to play a piece of music that was selected to match the emotions of the color red. Have students draw an imaginary box around themselves for their personal movement space, and as they listen to the music, encourage them to move in according to the sounds they hear. If this is your first time using music/dance in the classroom, students may feel uncomfortable with this form of expression. Make sure not to require movement from those who are uncomfortable. You could scaffold this, if needed, by providing students with a small scarf, puppet, or beanie baby. Students could have that object dance instead of actually using their own body.

After listening and moving, bring students back together to the anchor chart. Have them brainstorm words that describe the music and their movement. (As students share movement words, invite the class to show that movement.) Add them to the chart, and have students add them to their color journal. Through this discussion, purposefully ask question prompts related to music and movement vocabulary, such as these:

  • Do you think the tempo matched the emotion? How?
  • How did the mood of the music affect your movement?
  • What instruments do you hear?/Why do you think the composer chose the instruments he/she did?
  • What kind of movement did you do because of the music?
  • How does the movement connect to an emotion? Do you feel like moving in this way when you feel that emotion? How else does your body convey that emotion? Can you incorporate that into your movement as you dance with the music?
  • How can you respond when you see a peer’s body language showing that emotion?

At this point, you could play the music again, allowing students to more purposefully incorporating a specific emotion with their movement, and add more words (or eliminate, if the class unanimously decides to do so) to the anchor chart/journal.

I have my students return to this journal of color words when we are discussing parts of speech, and they identify the nouns, verbs, and adjectives listed on their page. Since they have interacted with or moved with all of the words, it makes identification more accessible.

Extension for RED: Share this video clip on the ballet Rodeo. (See if students point out that the lighting, backdrop, and costumes happen to be RED and orange…)

Repeat this process for the other colors as well, following this procedure.

  • Step 1: Reread the page that matches the color you are focusing on.
  • Step 2: Have students pull words from the text and add their own. Add to the anchor chart/journal.
  • Step 3: Play the music and allow students to move.
  • Step 4: Add more words to the anchor chart/journal.


  • Provide the Many Colored Days playlist for students in this PadletThey will enjoy revising it and listening to the music as an independent activity. Provide further independent prompts, such as opinion writing based on the pieces.
  • Explore the pieces of music/composers and any choreography that accompanies them.
  • Have students point out when they are feeling certain emotions or when they notice those emotions in others.
  • Have students use their color words journal as a resource when writing color poems. Find resources for teaching this type of poetry here.

Explicitly teaching these emotions allows you to thread them into conversations in class, and ultimately allows students to become their best self. This will increase their chance for success, not only in academics but in life!