Embodiment: The depth of SEL in and through the Arts

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

Social-emotional learning (SEL) has been a focus of discussion for educators and families in the 2020-2021 academic year, particularly as COVID-19 forced schools to adapt quickly, and in the process, highlighted the need to better serve “the whole child.” Naturally, MAEIA has been a part of the discussion, exploring how SEL occurs in and through the arts.

As a dance/movement educator with a background in somatics and trauma resolution, I would like to offer a perspective not commonly accessed in the broader world of education—one of embodiment. Simply put, embodiment is how we inhabit our bodies. It includes how we receive signals of safety and non-safety, how we send such signals, as well as a deepening awareness of how we move through the world and interact with it.

Embodiment teaches us how we connect to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. Through our nervous systems, our bodies deliver to our brain 80% of how we perceive a situation. So the state of our bodies, of our nervous systems, shape how we engage, thus informing, how we learn. Our social engagement system, or the five cranial nerves that work together to control our facial expressions, head movements, eyes, ears, and voices, turns on when stimulated, simultaneously calming our defense responses of fight, flight, freeze, and appease.

And where do students develop their “eye,” their “ear,” the movement of their bodies—including the head, eyes, and facial expressions? Where are these functions a daily and highly valued—essential, really—aspect of curriculum? In arts classrooms.

As such, the arts classrooms are the true hub of social-emotional learning, at a deeper and more functional level than even the naming and processing of emotion. Before we can get to emotion, we have to access the information and knowledge cultivated by our bodies- the sensations we feel in the body. As my friend Jodi Wert says, “sensation is the language of the nervous system.”

Arts practices make regular use of noticing sensations in the body and then doing something with that information—singing higher or lower, articulating voice and body according to dialogue and character, using internal and external spatial awareness to improve dance technique, controlling breath as we play instruments or as we work with delicate, visual arts materials. All of these things bring into engagement our physiology which shapes how we see and relate to the world and the people in it.

When our nervous systems are dysregulated, when we are feeling disconnected and collapsed or visibly agitated and anxious, any experience we have will be colored by our physical state. Interactions may be perceived as more negative than they would when we are in a more social, upbeat state. But when we employ strategies like controlling our breath, specifically lengthening an exhale; or noticing our felt sense of how a movement gesture is experienced, making eye contact with a scene partner; or how the weight of clay feels in our hands, our nervous system adapts—it regulates. Our lenses get rosier. Our learning gets deeper. Our relationships thrive. Connections to people and ideas are made.

These actions, akin to holding a note in music, noticing the feeling of taking up space in dance and the residual sensation of vibratory action, or using our eyes to take in a still life and then controlling the breath as one draws the detail, regulate our nervous systems. Yet, in the arts disciplines, it is just “what we do.” No wonder arts kids are achieving academically and socially, leading and modeling examples of positive behavior. Our classes prime their nervous systems to succeed in all areas.

Once we realize that we have nervous systems that we can read and support by making informed decisions, we soon recognize that we are one in a sea of collective nervous systems. We can turn our attention to how another’s dysregulation impacts ours, and how we can lend another person our own regulated nervous system through co-regulation, and through our voices, our facial expressions, smiling with our eyes, and deeply listening not just to what is said but how. The arts classes are the fertile training ground for these skills. As babies, we need to first learn to co-regulate, and then we can self-regulate. All it takes is practice—just like an art form.

Indeed, as arts educators, we need to turn the implicit into explicit, and I am committed to helping arts educators better understand just how to do this. Consider how our practices support and start to reshape the nervous systems of our students most in need. We don’t have to know the trauma history; we simply need to read and support the body. Arts education is essential in efficiently teaching how we connect to ourselves, to others, and to the world around us. When we employ the knowledge of how the arts support our literal existence and our sense of safety and resilience—as well as all they do to develop a sense of self, voice, and vocation—the arts can no longer be viewed as a luxury. They clearly are a critical component of a whole education, supporting the whole child.

Heather Vaughan-Southard serves as the MAEIA Professional Learning Director. She formerly directed dance programs in K-12 and higher education and owner of HVS Movement Studies, where she coaches teachers, therapists, and professionals on somatic and embodied practice. 

Click here for a Printer friendly version of this article.

Leave a Reply