Social Emotional Learning is a process more and more schools are utilizing to meet the emotional needs of all students. In an era of increased school violence, rapidly advancing technology and escalating academic and social needs of students, it’s more apparent than ever that we need to be focusing on the emotional well-being of our students and staff.
The arts have a natural connection to the SEL approach. The arts – including visual art, music, theater, dance and media arts – are an access point for many learners. All humans make connections to their world and express their understanding of the world in and through the arts in some capacity.
The arts foster empathy. They help students identify and process emotions. They provide safe opportunities to practice decision-making. When students make art together, they invest in the outcome. The arts motivate students to practice relationship skills in an authentic way.
As such, connecting Social Emotional Learning in and through the arts can have an incredible impact. This resource guide is meant to help support educators, administrators, parents and artists find the natural connections between SEL and the arts and to use those to help reach and teach every child.
According to Casel, “Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Here’s a look at those five core competencies, how they are characterized, and some arts processes and characteristics that can be used as a jumping off point to integrate SEL and the arts.
6 Practical Social Emotional Learning Activities
Let’s take a closer look at some positive SEL activities that could be used in any class.
It is essential that social emotional learning be taught and modeled for students. The ways in which teachers interact with students, manage their stress, and even communicate with co-workers are great ways to model SEL skills. Not only that, social and emotional can be embedded in your everyday lessons and activities! The following tips are six practical strategies to support positive SEL in your classroom.
Student-Created Rules and Norms
Every successful classroom needs established rules, rituals, and norms to ensure a structured learning environment. Traditionally, teachers will create their own do’s and don’ts for the classroom right up front, with no input from students. What a bleak way to start off a school year. Instead, have students create their own rules and norms for the classroom!
At the beginning of every year, split students into small groups and, using poster paper, have them generate a long list of the rules and norms they want to see in their classroom for the year. Groups will share out with the whole class, which will then agree upon 5 or 6 of the most important classroom rules. At the end of the process, the teacher should create a final poster with the chosen rules-and have every student sign it! Students will have more ownership in the classroom and hold each other accountable.
Doorway Greetings and Handshakes
First impressions are so important in the classroom, especially when fostering a nurturing social and emotional learning environment. No student wants to enter a classroom with a teacher slumped at their desk or busily writing the day’s warm-up. Like anyone else, a student wants to know, right away, that they are welcome in the learning space.
Greeting students every day at the door with either a handshake or fist bump establishes a moment of respect even before class even begins. As in any walk of life, light physical contact with another person enforces togetherness and comfort. Some teachers even develop a special handshake for each of their students! Keep this up throughout the year, and students will always know they are entering a space that supports them socially and emotionally.
Team Building Activities
Meaningful and challenging team building activities help foster an atmosphere of teamwork and collaboration. What is great about these activities is that they focus exclusively on SEL-no grades should be given! The main objective of a good team-building activity is to grow and nurture a healthy social atmosphere in the classroom.
Here are just a few examples of excellent Team Building Activities to start your year:
4 Ways to Help Students with Anxiety
In many schools, we are seeing a rise in our population of students with diagnosed anxiety. Data backs up our observations. According to the CDC, approximately 4.4 million children ages 3 – 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. Approximately 1.9 million have been diagnosed with depression. While these numbers are already high, they continue to rise (CDC data). Here are some specific strategies and social emotional learning activities that can help curb anxiety in your students:
Create a Routine Environment and Set Clear Expectations
Creating a routine is something is critical for students with high levels of anxiety. According to WayAhead, “Anxious children are prone to distress when there are unexpected changes in routine”
Setting and keeping a solid routine helps ensure anxious children know what is coming. When you know your routine will be disrupted, try to let students know in the morning. It may help to make notes on the board to remind the students of the changes throughout the day. Children are more relaxed when they know what is about to happen in the classroom.
Along with routines, students with anxiety need clear expectations. Clear expectations allow the student to know exactly what is required of them. When students must make a choice, offer a small number of options instead of many choices. This allows your student to still be involved in the decision making, but lessens the anxiety of “making the wrong choice”.
Model Healthy Strategies
Children mimic adults and peers. It is important that we model and teach healthy strategies for coping with stress. For example, a popular coping strategy for adults is taking some time to journal, exercise, or “cool off” when something stressful occurs. When students begin getting stressed and flustered we can offer a short break.
Another strategy to use when tensions are high is giving students play-doh. The dough allows them to squeeze and release their anxiety. This article from Katie Hurley stresses to practice the strategies you want children to use. Before a situation you know may cause stress, try to collectively take a moment of meditation. Focus on your breathing and calming the nerves. This will center children and they can become visibly more relaxed.
The bottom line is we have to practice what we preach. When we teach children these strategies, we must allow time to practice them. This way they become second nature.
Allow Stressful Situations
This may seem like a backwards tip. We want to HELP our students with anxiety. Why in the world would we want to allow these students to experience stress?
By removing stressful situations, we can actually make it worse for children. Avoiding stressors may temporarily help students, it does nothing to help them long-term.
This is especially difficult for teachers because many are nurturers by nature. We hate to see our students struggle and in distressing situations. But, we learn through the struggle. That is why we put texts in front of our students above their level: to push them to be their best.
Dealing with stress is the same thing. Allowing the student to cope with stress alongside you can be a growing experience. If we allow students to learn through stress, they will know how to handle it when they face them on their own. Which is the goal of teaching – students to be competent without us.
Engage in the Arts
The arts are a wonderful way to manage stress. There are countless research studies on the use of the arts to ease stress in both children and adults.
The arts allow students to express negative emotions in a healthy way. This is important for students with high levels of stress. When students are under high amounts of stress, we need to allow them outlets to handle this stress. Creativity is one of the channels we as teachers should explore.
The need for stress management in our classroom is no longer a “good idea”, but a need. Our students are facing more and more stress, and the effects are overlapping into our classrooms. We must be diligent in learning our students and the best ways to help them.
How to Support Students Experiencing Trauma
Did you know that between half and two-thirds of the students in your class, regardless of socioeconomic or cultural background, have experienced trauma? Trauma is defined as toxic stress in a child’s life that is beyond his or her coping skills. The CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study uncovered the link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults, as well as social and emotional problems. In fact, experiencing trauma under the age of eighteen actually changes the way the brain works. When a child is under constant toxic stress, their cortisol level is always high. This heightens their “fight or flight” response, and they are unable to regulate it on their own.
As teachers, we have an important role in helping these students. As we know, some children are so resilient. They are able to bounce back from these terrible circumstances and grow to be successful adults. So why is it that some students are resilient and some aren’t? Research has found that the common thread with those resilient students was a caring, supportive adult.
We are those adults. Our job is to not give up on children regardless of how challenging their behavior may seem. Our daily interactions can make or break the day for a student.
How can you tell if a student is experiencing trauma?
This is a trick question. Students who have undergone trauma may present with behavioral problems. These are your “shark” students, who lash out at you or others, who don’t follow directions, who seem oppositional, manipulative, or extra needy. Even if behaviors present in a shark-like manner, we need to remember that that child is really a goldfish on the inside, and still needs his or her basic needs to be met.
Other students may completely hide the fact that trauma has occurred. You may never know that these students have experienced trauma, because they put on the mask of a goldfish, while really feeling shark-like inside. It is more difficult to directly meet the needs of these students because you simply don’t know they are struggling.
Sample Social Emotional Learning Activities through the Arts
There are plenty of ways to put SEL through the Arts into action. Here’s a few ideas to help you get started.
THEATER-FOCUSED IDEAS (ANY LEVEL)
Drama is a great access point for integrating the arts and ELA standards, as well as a way to tap into character. Through the exploration of characters in a story, we consider the mood of a character, motivation behind actions, and cause and effect of those actions. In short, we have a chance to step outside of our own perspectives and view a situation through another’s eyes.
That kind of understanding is a way we can help our students access connections to their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It can also help develop empathy and emotional competence to promote a cohesive classroom community and positive interactions among peers.
Develop a language of social competence.
As you begin to access ELA standards this year, reading and writing stories, begin to draw attention to the Elements of Drama (space, time, imitation, action, language, and energy). Make sure you are paying particular attention to space, action, language, and energy. As you explore characters and their motivations, thoughts, and emotions, conflicts, and the cause and effect of their actions, begin to develop this common vocabulary between ELA, drama, and social-emotional competence. This will serve as a cohesive way for your students to discuss motivation, thoughts, emotions, conflicts, and cause and effect in your classroom community as well as in academic content.
Take a dive into voice and body language. Have students explore how vocal expression and inflection might change the intention of a sentence or story. Have students record their own voices and play back in order to allow students to develop self-awareness of how the way in which they use their voice might be interpreted by a listener. As with voice, allow students to explore how body language and facial expressions can impact how communication is interpreted.
Storytelling is a way to build community, increase knowledge, teach problem solving skills, improve vocabulary and comprehension, and develop empathy and character. You might use readers theatre, social stories, fables, or any other text of your choosing to access ELA standards, as well as to unpack social- emotional aspects of characters and promote competence. Students may even write and perform their own stories to integrate writing standards, as well as to explore all the elements of drama. As students engage in performance, reference the language of social-emotional competence and elements of communication (voice, body, and space).
VISUAL ART, MUSIC, AND DANCE ACTIVITY (ELEMENTARY)
Begin by reading My Many Colored Days. After reading, have students do a think-pair-share about the color they identify with the most. Ask students if they had trouble choosing one color, which prompts a discussion about experiencing a variety of emotions all the time. 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.
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).
After reading, zoom in on each color/emotion 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.
You can have students return to this journal of color words when 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 Padlet. They 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!
SEL and the Arts Tools and Research
There is so much more available on this topic. Below, please find curated resources, advocacy information, and research dedicated to social emotional learning activities through the arts: