Talking Process: Getting Clear on SEL in and through the Arts

By Heather Vaughan-Southard

Editor’s Note:

This is one of a series of articles on social-emotional learning in and through the arts.

Previous posts introduced:

Subsequent posts will explore:

  • coaching students to connect with themselves, others, and to big ideas.
  • how performance assessment is a compassionate choice for understanding what students know and how they know it. 


A well-rounded education prioritizes multiple modes of inquiry and expression. Within a single day we want students to engage with linear and non-linear ways of thinking in order to access information and understanding that exists within and beyond language. The arts play a key role in that approach to supporting the whole child, academically and social-emotionally.

The processes found in arts classrooms follow the strands of arts standards, which in the MAEIA work we have collapsed into three: 1) Perform/Present, 2) Create, and 3) Respond. These three strands of standards work together to create a personal transformation for the student, through the two primary processes found within them: the artistic process and the creative process, as well as the supporting processes of self-assessment/reflection, collaboration and how to give/receive feedback. All five of these processes demonstrate how we, as artists, engage with ourselves, others, and big ideas marking the social-emotional learning that takes place in arts education.

When we deconstruct these processes, it is easier for us, as arts educators, to see the connections of how the content taught in the arts directly supports behavioral goals valued throughout the school. It is easier to specify how/why so many of our arts students are on the honor roll and how less academically profiled students are consistently showing up to arts classrooms where they, and their contributions, are valued, supported, and celebrated. When we can notice and name the nuance of our work, we not only ensure we are reaching our teaching potential, but we also have a clearer message as to how the arts ARE education.

Ensuring Best Practice
The experiences provided to arts students within our studio classrooms needs to be examined to ensure an intentionally well-rounded arts education, if we are to truly produce the outcomes that we, as arts education ambassadors, commonly claim.

Examining the processes that fold into that well-rounded arts education, and the interdependent relationships between these processes, is pivotal to clearly communicating what the arts do for students and how districts can capitalize on the outcomes.  It is important that we ensure our curricula supports students as performers and creators, as practitioners and as innovators, in a fair and balanced approach to arts learning.

The Artistic Process
The artistic process prepares one to advance technical skill and presentation.  This is the work that drives most arts learning experiences in both K-12 and the private sector. The potential here is what the practice of developing artistry can do for a person in patterning the relationship of technical skill and reflection. This becomes an act of proving to one’s self that they are able to accomplish challenging tasks. In turn, this experience bolsters the student artists’ engagement and interest as it feeds and fuels the learning cycle.

The cycle of meeting rigor and building resilience deepens students’ self-awareness, self-management, and responsible decision-making.

In terms of curriculum decisions, many arts educators allocate much time to the artistic process, reinforcing the belief that being a proficient artist is the ultimate goal. That to be successful in the arts is dependent upon what one can “do” and once one can “do” well, one can be trusted to “create.” Does this choice of prioritizing performance best support the student or the curriculum?

Questions to consider as you examine how your curriculum reflects your priorities in teaching: Can arts students be trusted to create as they develop artistry? What might the value be? What do we fear would get lost? Is that fear accurate and appropriate or inherited from a perspective of teaching the discipline rather than teaching the student?

The Creative Process
The creative process is where we invite students to find out what it is that they think in addition to what they know. This experience shepherds a student artist through inquiry in a way that examines who they are, where they are in the process of understanding their medium, and how all of this relates to a larger landscape of social impact. When we talk about the value of a well-rounded arts education, this spectrum of experience must include the processes by which students gain agency, autonomy, and voice as they determine who they will be out in the world, what they stand for, and how to communicate effectively and persuasively. Engaging in the creative process: determining what you are making, how you are making it, developing the skills needed to make it effectively, and reflecting on its social statement supports the full cycle of social-emotional learning through the full five competencies. (As defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.)

Questions to consider as you balance the priority of teaching artistic and creative processes in a well-rounded arts curriculum: How might teaching the creative process more thoroughly inspire students to deepen their artistry? Was this included in your own arts education? How has that inclusion or absence shaped your teaching and your curriculum?

SEL Happens Most Comprehensively During the Supporting Processes
By collaborating in ensemble performances, learning to respectfully critique the creative work of their peers, and problem-solving the communication breakdowns that can occur during those activities, students not only become more seasoned performers, they become more attuned to how they present themselves and their ideas in relationship to and with others.

As arts educators, we can take the implicit social-emotional learning that happens when engaging in these processes and turn them into explicit teaching by calling awareness to the social dynamics of collaboration and feedback delivery.

The supporting processes, that together construct the larger categories of Artistic and Creative processes, foster students through the social- emotional competencies valued by educators beyond the arts classroom and can lead students through questions such as those below, related to the inner workings of the self-assessment, collaborative, and feedback processes.

How do I/we…

  • take care of my needs so that I can be a good contributor to a group?
  • develop my skills so that I can be valuable member of the ensemble?
  • co-create a system for listening and asserting ideas with respect and reasoning that is relevant to our project and our discipline?
  • resolve differences of opinion through the practice of flexibility and respectful dialogue rooted in technical and creative understanding?

How can I….

  • use the” eye and ear” developed through my artistic process to help my peers think more deeply about what they are creating, leaving my own opinions aside until they are requested?
  • develop effective ways to give, and also receive feedback, through the words and tone of voice I use?
  • ask for specific feedback based on the intention of my own work of art?
  • highlight and expand on the positives?
  • ask better questions that invite deeper thinking of myself and others?

The arts innately offer learning that benefits the whole child and continues to teach ways of being and relating that are not commonly explored in other content areas. This is the value of the arts within a well-rounded, general education. A well-rounded arts education, one that values both the creative process and the artistic process informs how to be in relationship with ourselves, others, and in the context of a larger community.

Next in the blog series, we will look at interaction design and how we can choreograph connection for students through content, context, and coaching.


As we see in the framework developed by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), best practice in the classroom is one part of a systemic approach to social-emotional learning.

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 through a polyvagal lens. 

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