Choreographing Connection: The Interactive Dynamics of Social Emotional Learning in and through the Arts

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

This is the fourth of five posts within a series dedicated to social-emotional learning in and through the arts. Previous posts include:

When we, as arts educators, anticipate and plan for the ways in which students interact with themselves, others, and the big ideas of our disciplines, we can integrate SEL explicitly. As we frame social-emotional learning as the process of better understanding one’s self in order to develop more effective relationships, then we best guide our students in that learning through direct experiences. The coaching of students through a series of interactions that range in their involvement from the personal to the collective is what happens naturally in the arts classrooms.

I consider this sequence of personal, to collective, to cultural to be the pillars of social-emotional learning. Connecting to self, to others, and to the world around us is a simple way to progress through the five competencies of social-emotional learning (self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, and social awareness). Practicing these pillars in our own lives and designing experiences of them in our lesson planning, is how we choreograph connection.

Connecting to Self

Teaching students to check in with themselves, on how they are feeling and engaging, improves their work in our disciplines and helps them refine their relationship with themselves. The practice of checking in specifically with their nervous system invites a deeper practice of embodiment, as explored in the first post of this series.

We can invite students to feel their feet on the floor, feel their bodies in the chair, or their hand on the barre. We can invite them to feel their breath and notice if it is high in to chest or low in the belly. We can invite them to make friends with their breath before vocalizing, or sounding their instrument, engaging in breath phrasing while dancing, or controlling breath as they put brush to paper.

This breath awareness helps students develop a relationship to their bodies and serves as a grounding technique to combat the frenzy of a day. It also seeds a practice that can bloom over time in the form of reading body signals of safety and non-safety, hunger and fullness, social engagement or retreat.

Doing this kind of breath activity serves as a great primer for your lesson, allowing students to truly “arrive” in your class, and be in the present moment, putting down whatever stress or excitement came before. It also serves as a gift before departure, setting them up to face the rest of their day with more awareness and self-support.

Connecting to Others

Teaching students to be aware of the social dynamics while working in groups improves their rehearsal practice and supports them in their relationship skills.

Educators frequently rely on basic division to determine groupings on any particular day. You know the drill, “How many are here today? About 22? Students, move to groups of three, and if you need to, a group of four.” But does this grouping set your students up for success?

A trio can be great if you are directing a scene or playing a trio and one student can step out to observe and provide direction or feedback on the work of the others. But what if students are tasked to contribute equally. Can it happen? Do the students at the age group with which you are working have the skills needed to ensure one person doesn’t get left out? Or not to retreat passively and let the more assertive personalities take over?

Might you set the tone for SEL by acknowledging that very challenge at hand:

“Hey, class. One thing I notice is that trios can feel awkward during collaboration. Usually, one person may feel left out or may retreat. I am wondering if, in addition to the task at hand, the three of you could be aware of the potential of that dynamic and address it? Think about how things are going, who is doing the talking/leading and who isn’t? How can that get remedied? I am here for support. We’ll report on this dynamic, in addition to insights from your assignment, when we return to whole group.”

Simply drawing attention to the needs of each person within a shared experience, which can be done in all group sizes, can be a pivotal action toward developing relationship skills and social awareness without requiring a change of classroom procedures.

To explore other groupings, what would the value be of having students work in quartets over duets? Odd numbers? Even numbers? Does the grouping set up what you want students to get out of the experience? Or is this creating social dynamics that can be rehearsed, especially if the groupings aren’t arbitrary numbers determined by, say, instrument or dancers within a section of choreography?

Developing intention in how you are using groupings to support the learning targets. Deciding to remove or address the obstacles related to social dynamics, can make your classroom management, and the social emotional learning in your classroom, go from good to great.

Connecting to the World Around Us

Teaching students to consider how artists’ lived experiences shape the work they make, improves students’ cultural understanding of the arts, and helps to refine their personal worldview.

Culturally responsive teaching encourages us, educators and students, to see difference as well as commonality. In doing so, we are able to see the whole person. Seeing the whole person invites us to realize how our lived experiences vary and where they need more commonality, through justice and equality.

In the arts classroom, in all classrooms really, this takes shape with courage and curriculum. Courage leads because we must be willing to see ourselves and our actions for how they truly impact others. Curriculum provides a framework for the ideas that are important for us to explore, examine, and engage with in meaningful ways. Attention to voice and agency, power and profit, help us use the arts as a lens through which we can better see community and culture.

We can ask questions such as,

  • “What does the art tell us about this person, this era, this region, this issue, this perspective?”
  • “Who is making art and who is profiting from it?”
  • “Who owns this work and why?”

Students can then consider their own voice and agency, circumstance, and the messages they desire, or need, to make known.

  • “What does my art say about me, my era, my region, the issues I face, my perspective?”
  • “Who am I in the context of art-makers and who benefits from engaging with me?”
  • “Do I own this work? How can I ensure that I do? Why is it important?”

Teaching students to connect to themselves, to others, and to the world around them requires that we as educators be willing to do the same. The arts offer us time to process, reflect, and make decisions about what to do with what we learn. Let’s choreograph a process of making connections for our students and ourselves – our community and our world benefit when we do.


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