Alyssa Pilarcik | September 2019

Using Artful Thinking Routines to Promote SEL

“Sometimes I feel like the objects in the middle, all alone and even though I am there, nobody really sees me.”

This was a response a 5th grader wrote when asked to choose an artwork he could relate to and explain why. He chose Giorgio Morandi’s painting, “Natura Morta (1951),” which is a still life made up of static objects and muted colors.

Like me, I am sure you have a lot of thoughts running through your head.  When I read this response, part of me was filled with joy and excitement because let’s be honest, this is extremely thought-provoking for a 5th grader.  Part of me wanted to cry knowing that such a young child was dealing with such heartache. The other part of me laughed. Nobody had ever picked the still life before.  My students usually think the subject matter is boring and I only threw it in the mix for more options. 

This is the power of art. If you are having trouble connecting with your students, I challenge you to try incorporating the arts.  Not only will you learn more about your students, but they will learn more about themselves and the world around them.

Artful thinking routines can be used in any subject and can be designed to promote any component of SEL. Here are some steps on how you can use artful thinking routines to support an enhanced learning environment through social-emotional learning. 

Start small

Begin by using artful thinking routines to get to know your learners. For now, focus on simply learning about your students. Get to know things they like or dislike, the way they think and respond, and maybe even some of the feelings they are dealing with. 

I often use the activity I mentioned earlier.  I place images of several artworks with different subject matters, media, techniques, and colors around the room.  Students are asked to write about which one they relate to the most and explain why. 

Some students will be reluctant to open up right away.  Some will write something funny, but most seem to put a considerable amount of thought into their reflection.  You can repeat this activity, and depending on the day students might pick a different artwork. They may even pick the same one but for a completely different reason.

Dig Deeper

Next, gather data by reflecting on what you learned to design routines that will dig deeper. Think about the information you are still missing that would be helpful to know.  Look for or develop an artful thinking routine that might help elicit the information you still need. 

Consider doing a partner or group routine to learn more about students’ relationship skills.  Use art from another culture to tap into the social skills of your students. Focus the routine on expressing mood and feelings to explore self-awareness.


By this point, you have probably learned a lot about your students through assessing skills within different competencies.  All of your students will be very different. Some students will excel where other students struggle the most. This is where it becomes very important to personalize learning.  

Now it is up to you to create lessons and a classroom culture that further develops SEL skills. Consider where students excelled and where they need to continue developing skills.  Differentiate your instruction to meet the needs of each of your students.  Here are some things you should consider:

Grouping students 

Be mindful of how you group students based on what you have learned. Some students might work best and benefit more from having a partner where others might be more successful in a larger group.  Also, think about who you are pairing together. Consider pairing someone who struggles with decision making with someone who is a strong decision-maker.  


Determine how you can design lessons to better meet the needs of your students.  Look at specific skills within each competency and decide where and how you can build that into your instruction.  Maybe you need to do more project-based learning to promote more collaboration. Perhaps your lessons need to become more relative to increase self-awareness.

Classroom Culture

Learning about your students’ social-emotional skills can also help you establish classroom routines and expectations.  Consider morning or group meetings to allow students to make decisions, share their thoughts, ideas, and stories, and to actively listen to others.

Art and SEL

Remember, you can always revisit artful thinking routines to gather more information.  Art elicits feelings and emotions and therefore lends itself to SEL. Have students reflect on an image, a scene from a play, a dance, or a piece of music. Take advantage of the arts to learn more about your students and develop a personalized learning plan to help them be successful.

Continue incorporating and practicing skills from the different SEL competencies with your students. These skills allow your students to become more comfortable with themselves and others in the classroom and the real world.  They will learn that it is okay to be the only one to ever pick the still life.  

To learn even more about Social-Emotional Learning, visit And for more about artful thinking, visit Artful Thinking by Susan Riley, as well as Project Zero. Take a look at Artful Thinking Palette for different thinking routines.



About the Author

Alyssa Pilarcik has been a visual arts teacher in Frederick County Public Schools in Maryland since 2010 and lives with her husband and 2 sons. She holds a Master of Science in Instructional Technology, is a certified Arts Integration Specialist through The Institute for Arts Integration and STEAM, and is working toward her Educational Leadership Degree. Alyssa was nominated for teacher of the year for her county in 2018. She runs a choice-based classroom within a blended learning environment and has a strong passion to share her love of arts integration with educators and students everywhere.