Shifting from Implicit to Explicit: Social Emotional Learning in the Arts Classroom

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

Editor’s Note: We see you, readers! We noticed that Heather’s February post titled Embodiment: The Depth of SEL In and Through the Arts was very popular and well received. So, we have decided to draw on Heather’s expertise to create a short series around Social Emotional Learning and the Arts to support you.

We encourage you to share this work, along with all of our blog posts, with those who may find them useful. Also, we encourage you to make comments in the section below this blog and to visit us on social media. Thanks and enjoy!

~ Joni Starr, MAEIA Blog Editor

In an age in which some districts may be purchasing pre-packaged social-emotional curricula, and others are looking at a systemic approach, the arts are valuable—and potentially overlooked—contribution to a district-wide issue.

Personally, I don’t see effective social-emotional learning (SEL) as a curriculum to be purchased and taught merely as a list of concepts. To me, it is experiential. I see it as a series of interactions to be coached and practiced much like directors in dance, music, and theatre are teaching content and skill, rehearsing students in collaborative and ensemble experiences, and leading the reflection process, all while contextualizing the work in the world’s landscape of time, place, and culture. I am not saying the arts are the only strategy that districts should employ; far from it. But let’s shine a light on where this work is already taught and by whom: arts educators, through exciting and engaging experiences that students value.

So while I don’t see it being the only strategy, I do see the arts as the front line of social-emotional learning because this work is so deeply embedded into the experiences of the arts, within artistic, creative, collaborative, and assessment processes. These are also disciplines, programs, and educators critical to school culture and development of student character, and in need of robust support, funding, and emphasis. I can’t help but wonder, where would our social-emotional learning needs be if the arts had been accessible to all students and well-funded all along?

All of that said, the arts are one part of a framework for social-emotional learning that needs to be systemic in its implementation. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), offers excellent resources to support this approach, which focuses on five competencies for students and adults: self-awareness, self-management, relationship skills, responsible decision-making, and social awareness.

When I think of how SEL appears in the arts, I note the opportunity for us, as arts educators, to translate what we do into the social-emotional terminology school communities are so familiar with, to illustrate how these concepts bridge between disciplines. I believe that unless one has been fully immersed in a sequential arts education, one is not fully aware of what the arts DO for us as people. This might be the case for many school decision-makers who are responsible for tough decisions.

It is highlighting that function of the arts, from physiology to communication and collaboration to personal and cultural expression that we are well-served to make more explicit. And while I recognize that some readers may feel that we shouldn’t need to do that translating, it doesn’t change the fact that we do. My intention with this blog series is to assist you with that.

I have created a four-part framework for how I talk about how SEL competencies show up in the structure of arts education, which we’ll explore through this unfolding blog series.

  1. Embodiment: how we inhabit our bodies helps us to connect to ourselves through selfawareness and self-management.
  2. Interaction Design: arts experiences are collaborative, reinforcing what it means to be a contributing member to a community; therefore choreographing connection to others and to big ideas helps us to build relationship skills and engage in responsible decisionmaking.
  3. Explicit Teaching of Processes: to help us contextualize the work we make as it relates to us individually, collectively, and with social awareness.
  4. Compassionate Assessment: performance assessment that helps students toggle between academic, artistic rigor and resilience-building through authentic arts experiences while we gather data on what they know and how they know it.

Performance assessment completes the learning process and actively requires students to demonstrate the five CASEL competencies through a culminating experience rooted in artistic and creative processes.

In this SEL in the Arts blog series, I will use this four-point framework to continue discussing how social-emotional learning happens within arts classrooms. My intention is to help you get better at talking about the good work already happening in your classrooms. My hope is that with this series you, too, can deepen your intentions through best practice, communicate more effectively how SEL appears in your teaching, and advocate for your programs and students with topical and relevant data points.

Point #1, Embodiment, was introduced to MAEIA readers in my last blog post, so watch next month for more about Interaction Design.

Heather Vaughan-Southard, MFA, serves as the MAEIA Professional Learning Director. As a dance/movement educator, she directed dance programs in K-12 and higher education and worked in private practice specializing in movement-based trauma mitigation, chronic pain, and movement recovery.  Heather is a polyvagal-informed embodiment/somatics coach for educators, therapists, and professionals.


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