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SEL Spotlight

3 Ways Arts Integration Enhances Social Emotional Learning

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Arts integration is defined as an approach to teaching that integrates the fine and performing arts as primary pathways to learning. When done well, this approach offers a meaningful way to deepen student engagement and understanding in core academic subject areas, including ELA and STEM (aka “STEAM”).

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts defines arts integration as “an approach to teaching in which students construct and demonstrate understanding through an art form. Students engage in a creative process which connects an art form and another subject and meets evolving objectives in both.”

Whether integrated with core academics or not, arts education has inherent value and helps students learn new skills, explore abstract thought, and develop creativity. Beyond that, a wide body of research confirms that quality arts education provides the following benefits:

  1. Increased self-confidence and self-understanding (intrapersonal SEL)
  2. Enhanced communication skills (interpersonal SEL)
  3. Improved cognition (cognitive SEL domain: responsible decision-making)

EduMotion has had the opportunity to partner with the Kennedy Center’s Turnaround Arts program to integrate SEL and the arts through dance. You can read more about the pilot partnership here.

SEL & Arts Integration: Beyond Magical Thinking

While the outcomes clearly indicate that Social Emotional Learning is in many ways an inherent part of arts education, recent research looking at the connection between SEL and the arts indicate there is more to it than that. Specifically, in a study by UChicago Consortium and Ingenuity, it was found that while arts education is a great tool for building Social and Emotional competence, it does not happen simply by magic. In fact, there are two key ingredients to ensuring the arts lead to positive SEL outcomes:

  • Safe and Supportive Environment
  • SEL integration through the arts is intentional and explicit

As far as creating safe and supportive environments, it’s important to note that this is foundational and not unique to arts learning or SEL. It is very difficult for any kind of authentic learning to take place without safe and supportive conditions in place. In a future blog, we’ll explore some ways that teachers can strive to create brave spaces that enable risk-taking through expressive arts.

In this post, we’ll focus on the concept of being intentional and explicit. Another way of saying this is that the arts are most effective as a tool for SEL when the principles of Arts Integration are applied. In other words, simply engaging in the arts is not enough to ensure SEL outcomes, but intentionally planning lessons that integrate and connect SEL concepts through arts activities creates an opportunity for significant SEL benefits for students.

Circling back to the 3 over-arching SEL benefits of arts education cited earlier, here are 3 ways arts integration can enhance SEL:

#1. Increase self-confidence and self-understanding (intrapersonal SEL)

Students engaged in the process of learning and practicing an art form have frequent opportunities to explore identity and express emotions. Integrating dance, music, or art-making into a Social Emotional Learning lesson (or vice versa) provides an opportunity for students to express things about themselves that they may have a hard time putting into words. Additionally, the opportunity to present work that results from a creative art-making process can transform the confidence level of a student, particularly when the work is shared in a safe and supportive environment.

#2. Enhance communication skills (interpersonal SEL)

Engaging in the arts provides many opportunities to develop essential interpersonal skills. Whether the task is to play music with an ensemble, perform a dramatic scene with peers, or execute dance steps with a partner, the arts are a great way for students to learn to work with diverse peers toward a common goal. Again, starting from the place of a safe and supportive environment is essential to this happening successfully.

Once trust is established, the arts offers opportunities for students to connect, bond and explore ideas in an active way. This approach also allows students to express themselves and communicate through the whole body, not just through words. Providing many opportunities for students to identify what SEL skills they are developing as they engage in the arts, and why those skills are important, can make a huge difference in their social and emotional growth as a result of the arts engagement.

#3. Improve cognition (cognitive SEL domain: responsible decision-making)

When it comes to the cognitive SEL domain of responsible decision-making, arts integration works its magic by inspiring creative thought. As a result, students have opportunities to anaylze situations, consider multiple solutions to problems, evaluate and reflect on their work, and explore concepts of ethical responsibility. In an article for Edutopia, Neil Swapp, Music Department Chair at New Mexico School for the Arts, writes, “By immersing students in arts education, you draw them into an incredibly complex and multifaceted endeavor that combines many subject matters (like mathematics, history, language, and science) while being uniquely tied to culture.”

Opening up pathways to explore the complexity of relationships between culture and core subject material is the essence of arts integration. Educators can take arts integration a step further by intentionally exploring the many SEL concepts that so naturally connect to learning through the arts. This approach opens the door to new definitions of student success and provides a meaningful strategy for educating the whole child.

Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen

Margot Toppen is a visionary educator who works at the intersection of SEL, arts, and physical education.

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