What is Social Emotional Learning?

Social emotional learning is comprised of five core competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. The arts and arts integration can have a tremendous impact on working through those five competencies during social emotional learning activities.


Social-emotional learning in the classroom 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.

And don’t forget the effect SEL for teachers can have on your team members and staff. Employing social emotional learning strategies can positively increase teacher efficacy, lessen burnout, and promote a focus on more balance between school and home responsibilities. When paired with creative connections with the arts, social-emotional learning for adults can provide the relief teachers need while simultaneously feeding their desire to be heard and valued.

As such, connecting Social Emotional Learning theory 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.

The 5 SEL Competencies through an Arts Lens


The ability to accurately recognize one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values, and how they influence behavior; the ability to accurately assess one’s strengths and limitations, with a well-grounded sense of confidence, optimism, and a ‘growth mindset.’

We want our students to be able to identify emotions, recognize their strengths and areas for growth, and develop a sense of self-confidence. Several standards for the arts exhibit self-awareness in their artistic thinking processes, as well as in evaluation of the artistic performance/presentation.

Students are asked to develop (Anchor Standard 2) and refine (Anchor Standard 3) their artistic work, taking into consideration self-assessment, as well as peer and teacher feedback. All of these contribute to developing growth mindset, allow students to celebrate their successes, and identify areas for growth.


The ability to successfully regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors in different situations; effectively managing stress, controlling impulses, and motivating oneself. The ability to set and work toward personal and academic goals.

In terms of working towards personal and academic goals, the arts provide engaging, relevant ways for students to relate to goal-setting through arts-based performance and presentation. The entire idea of putting together a musical, theatrical, or dance performance or an artistic presentation is a goal-based process.
Students must work, individually or collaboratively, towards that performance/ presentation goal. Throughout the creation/rehearsal process, there is a great deal of regulation of time, emotions, thoughts, and behaviors to ensure that the end result is one that reflects the student’s work, efforts, and strengths.


The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds and cultures; the ability to understand social and ethical norms for behavior and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.

This idea of perspective-taking, of appreciating diversity, of respecting others is highlighted in Anchor Standard 10, “Relate artistic ideas and works with societal, cultural, and historical context to deepen understanding.”

We ask students to put themselves in the places of other people in other times and cultures to develop a greater understanding of the intent of a work of art. This ability to take the perspective of another person develops social awareness, increases empathy, and allows students to identify more openly with those of diverse backgrounds and cultures.


The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups; the ability to communicate clearly, listen well, cooperate with others, resist inappropriate social pressure, negotiate conflict constructively, and seek and offer help when needed.

The arts are collaborative in nature. Various types of different art-forms are ensemble- based: performing in a band or a choir, being part of a dance ensemble, putting on a play, developing a collaborative work of art. These endeavors all require a healthy ability to work with others, to communicate, to engage, and to work as a team.

Additionally, we examine in many works of art, particularly in theatrical works, relationships skills on display within a work, and we can examine and take the perspective of those characters, which in turn, hopefully develops our own emotional intelligence and ability to relate to others.


The ability to make constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on ethical standards, safety concerns, and social norms; the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and a consideration of the well-being of oneself and others.

Because the arts are so based in process, in collaboration, in critical thinking, and because the arts require us to self-regulate, to take on the perspectives of others, the arts also promote responsible decision-making. Being part of something bigger than yourself and having a vested interest in the creative intent of a work of art will, hopefully, guide the student’s responsibility to himself/herself, to the ensemble, or to the creator or a work of art. Students should treat a work of art with respect, honoring the relationships they have with peers who are part of the process, and consider the implications of their work and how it is perceived by others. There is power in art, and students should be taught to take the responsibility seriously.

Natural Connections

The arts are a really natural place for students to practice the skills and characteristics associated with self-awareness. So how can we encourage students to track this self- awareness through their participation in the arts? We can give students opportunity to acknowledge the feelings associated with the creative process in a number of ways.

  • Establish a community that encourages growth mindset. Make your classroom a safe space to make mistakes, put weaknesses on display, and learn from them.
  • Provide opportunities for students to celebrate their own successes and reflect on areas for improvement.
  • Encourage students to keep a journal for the purpose of their own social- emotional development. Prompt students to write about their strengths, establish goals for their own development, set mantras or intentions for a project, presentation, performance, Ask students to identify what works and what doesn’t, to identify emotions associated with feedback, praise, and criticism, to establish a vision of the type of student and artist they want to be.

6 Practical Social Emotional Learning Activities

Let’s take a closer look at some positive social emotional 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:

Marshmallow Tower

Students work together to create a free-standing tower out of marshmallows and tooth picks. This activity emphasizes communication and teamwork. And students get to eat marshmallows at the end!

Egg Drop Challenge

Smalls groups of students must build a construction out of simple household materials to support an egg from a 6-foot drop. A great exercise that supports problem-solving, communication, and collaboration.

Exquisite Corpse Drawing

Students take turns drawing individual parts of a person, each one building on the next without knowing what anyone else has drawn. By the end of the activity, students will have created hilarious drawings of wacky creature that will make everyone laugh. Hang these drawings around the room to create a healthy, fun social atmosphere in the classroom for the entire 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.

What can we do?

Luckily, it doesn’t matter whether we know trauma has occurred or not, the same best practice responses will work for all students. Here are a few ways that you can make your classroom a safe environment for students undergoing trauma:

  • Increase predictability with solid classroom routines – the less change, the better. Many times we change our routines because WE get bored. Doing this can have a negative effect on a student that is in need of stability.
  • Nurture positive relationships – Reflect on the students who you don’t know as well. Seek to build relationships with students who are hard to like or who are shy. Find out their personal interests and work on making a connection.
  • Provide regulating opportunities and teach self-regulation – Incorporate yoga or mindfulness into your classroom. There are many online resources that can lead your class through short exercises if you are not comfortable leading them.
  • Use restorative practices (teach behaviors instead of punishing them) – Rather than assigning a punishment for a student, match the consequence to the behavior and seek to find the reason the behavior happened. Work with the student to help him fix the problem that occurred.
  • Teach to Strengths – Instead of finding and trying to “fix” problems with a student, help that student find his or her inner worth by highlighting and building upon his or her strengths.

The Arts and Trauma-Informed Instruction Strategies

The arts can play a huge part in reaching students who have experienced trauma. If you combine the research for Arts Integration with the research on Trauma Informed Practice, it is clear that integrating the arts is best practice for a multitude of reasons. In the article How Art Can Help Children Overcome Trauma from Education Week, “Psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry found that areas of the brain can be reshaped and reorganized through activities that include touch and movement—the foundation of creative expression. Just as trauma is experienced—through nonverbal sensation—it can be released.”

Creative expression in a safe environment can have healing effects for all. Creating art can lower the high cortisol levels. Students can recognize this as a strategy for self-regulation.

Some students undergoing trauma can have academic gaps due to missed school or the inability to learn at potential due to their situation. If academics are a huge part of their day and they are not feeling successful, this is a barrier to their resilience. The arts are a place for students to shine, whether or not they are struggling with academics, helping students to build self-worth. Arts as a special are an extra opportunity for students to build a strong relationship with a caring, supportive adult in addition to providing that creative outlet.

Arts integration can provide even more opportunities for students to find their self-worth through success with the arts AND academics. Integration helps students master content areas through the arts, which provides a new way of looking at content that may have been seen as a challenge on its own. It helps them find connections that they hadn’t previously noticed. Arts Integration allows students to express themselves creatively on a daily basis, rather than just during their weekly art or music class.

Moving Forward

Helping students who have undergone trauma is not a quick fix. Sometimes, it seems like we’re doing everything we can and we don’t notice a difference. Even if you’re not seeing a major change, keep going- remember, it only takes one caring adult to reverse the effects of trauma – you can make a lifelong difference in the resilience of your students!

Sample Social Emotional Learning Activities through the Arts

There are plenty of ways to put SEL through the Arts into action. While you may have a specific social emotional learning curriculum, these ideas can be embedded into a variety of lessons:


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.

Deconstruct communication.

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.

Tell stories.

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).


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!

More Creative SEL Activities to Try

Looking for more social emotional activities to use with your learners that spark creativity and connection? Try these:

Social Emotional Learning Activities for Remote Environments

It’s no secret that remote learning is challenging. The limited interaction with others over a screen can have serious consequences both in the short and long term. However, there are some helpful activities that can help curb the strain:

social emotional learning activities for remote teaching


Social Emotional Learning Websites

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:

Additional Guides

Looking for more helpful ideas, strategies, and tools? Try one of our other resource guides:

creative thinking
student engagement guide
vocabulary resource guide