Social- Emotional Learning

Getting Intentional about
Social and Emotional Learning

Capitalizing on the Potency of Arts Education
to Improve Schools


Harlan Brownlee and Daniel S. Hellman

Missouri Alliance for Arts Education

An article first published in Missouri Association of Elementary School Principals Magazine - 2020

Getting Intentional about Social and Emotional Learning

Capitalizing on the Potency of Arts Education to Improve Schools

Harlan Brownlee and Daniel S. Hellman

Missouri Alliance for Arts Education

Harlan Brownlee is a Senior Affiliated Consultant with The Strategy Group, a consultant with Focus 5 Inc. and a Teaching Artist with Kansas City Young Audiences and the Kennedy Center

Daniel S. Hellman is Professor of Music Education and Coordinator of Music Education at Missouri State University.


The infusion of social emotional learning in schools has had a profound effect on shaping education over the last 25 years. However, the connection between social emotional learning and arts education has been both under recognized and under-utilized in schools. Prior to COVID-19, educators in the arts education disciplines began developing curriculum and teaching practices designed to make the natural social and emotional in arts education classrooms more explicit and more directly connected with broader school goals. Recently, this has been a valuable tool for many arts educators during the pandemic to help students connect, cope, create, perform and explore who they are and who they could be. Despite the numerous difficulties during the COVID 19 pandemic, many arts educators have been a valuable link for cultivating the social and emotional health of students and families in Missouri schools. The social and emotional learning benefits of arts education is an important resource for students in Missouri schools, but does require leadership, support and vision from school administrators who recognize the role that the arts play in social emotional learning and prioritize the arts as part of a well-rounded education.

Making Social Emotional Learning Intentional

The relevance of arts instruction for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) in schools is significant. The arts, when taught authentically and from a student-centered perspective, are about connecting, communicating emotion, imagining possibilities, making choices, evaluating options and building relationships.

These instructional strategies in the arts also support the development of SEL skills—managing emotion, setting goals, persisting through challenges, solving problems and developing relationships (Davis, 2008; Elias & Kress, 2020). This is supported by a wide array of research on arts instruction (Edgar & Elias, 2020).

Recently, Farrington and colleagues (2019) undertook an extensive study on the intersection of SEL and arts learning. Based on a review of 200 studies spanning six decades and fieldwork research in schools, they concluded that the opportunities for SEL were far more extensive and robust in arts classes than other subject areas. However, they also cautioned that while powerful, the outcomes could be either positive or negative. In their conclusions, they state, “The relevant question is not if an arts practice will affect a social-emotional competency, but how it will happen and what arts educators can do to improve the odds that impact is positive” (p. 18).

The implications are significant. SEL will be an outcome of instruction, but will students develop security or insecurity, confidence or avoidance, empowerment or disenfranchisement, that is the question? Classes in the arts disciplines that are taught with an intentional mindset focused on SEL, in sequential and systematic school curriculum, will likely lead to empowered learning and important life skills for students.

Arts classes are a powerful means of impacting youth development that can translate to significant change in schools. Administrators have a key role in helping arts educators to contribute to the learning of individual students in arts classes and thereby strengthening the social and learning climate of schools as a whole. The CASEL 5 as shown in Figure 1 are broad areas of competence that are used by schools to describe what students should know and be able to do for success in academics, civic engagement, healthy lives and career fulfillment (CASEL, 2020). The purpose of this framework is to coordinate youth development across communities, families, schools and classrooms in all subject areas. The intentional purpose of social emotional learning should be to foster student voice, student choice and student engagement in learning.

Using Social Emotional Learning in the Arts to Improve Schools

Purposefully addressing the social emotional needs of students in schools is now more important than ever. Students can’t learn without possessing the ability to persist in spite of challenges, and many students have been in fragile situations over the last few months that have compromised their resiliency. The arts have helped to sustain the emotional well-being of students during the pandemic. Despite an array of problems, many teachers have successfully engaged students in activities that involve drawing on their own interests in art, music, drama and dance. Some of these activities have resulted in a meaningful sharing of student creations with parents, teachers and peers. There is nothing more powerful than a goal that students take on for themselves. Self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, responsible decision-making are key skills that everyone needs to build the perseverance, resilience and autonomy needed for success in school and life. The use of the arts that students draw upon in their daily lives can be a powerful tool for stimulating academic achievement and learning as a whole.

For many of us, the pandemic has been an unprecedented time of disruption. Not only testing our resiliency, but also our creativity and adaptability. It has made apparent that social emotional learning must be at the forefront of our instructional efforts. In the near term, we may very well find that specifically and purposefully addressing the SEL needs of our students may be the most important aspect of their education even to the point of outweighing their academic progress. Why? Because arts are instrumental in providing a means and a way of developing healthy coping skills when confronting disruption and change.

There are consequences when students don’t develop social emotional competencies. Our schools have had increased needs for counselors and school psychologists, and this need has only increased as a result of the pandemic. Deliberately prioritizing social emotional learning won’t solve all challenges that students face, but it can help to strengthen the mental health of many students. Psychologist John Pelitteri (2006) makes a strong case for how the emotional stimulation, aesthetic experience, relaxation, imagery, self-expression, and group bonding provided through school arts classes enhances school counselors' clinical work in promoting social emotional learning with students.

A focus on prioritizing SEL can be an important asset to school wide functioning. An important part of supporting students is providing meaningful professional development for teachers that builds SEL competencies inherent in each discipline. The National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development (2019) says that schools should “intentionally teach specific skills and competencies in academic content and all aspects of the school setting.” (p. 33). An important part of this is facilitating collaboration among all teachers and school professionals. Given that teachers in the arts work with students across all grade levels, this can be a practical challenge, but administrators who find creative ways to facilitate collaboration time between arts teachers and their colleagues in other subject areas can provide meaningful opportunities for supporting student development. Arts classes are strong areas of SEL growth for students due to the emotionally powerful content of the arts due to the fact that arts teachers work with students across multiple years

Using Arts Standards to Enhance SEL

One way in which the arts contribute to SEL is that many of the standards that are explicit goals in arts instruction are SEL goals. The Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts (2019) focuses on the understandings and 21st century skills needed for students to independently create and perform work that express and communicates their own ideas and to be able to respond by analyzing and interpreting the artistic communications of others (DESE 2019). These standards are broken down into four process components--creating, performing, responding and connecting. These process components contain 11 big ideas that specify the decision making, revision, evaluation and refinement that are associated with different arts disciplines. A synthesis of the Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts is contained within this article.

SEL is not the sole focus of the Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts. There are some aspects of arts learning that involve exacting precision and repetitive practice. If not handled in an educationally sound way, students can come away with negative SEL outcomes, feeling exposed, ashamed, uncreative, lacking talent and possibly evading arts experiences as a result. The goals for arts classes should be to remain authentic for the disciplines taught but an SEL lens should be intentional and a priority. Activities in arts classes should enable students to develop the ability to create, present/perform, produce, respond and connect and develop positive and powerful SEL outcomes. The skills that students develop in arts classes should enable students to participate in the arts through life and do so in ways that are meaningful to them.

Older students may engage in creating works of art that demonstrate how they wish to make positive change in their communities and the broader world. For example, they may use their imaginations to present dances, plays, songs, paintings or drawings that raise awareness or activism on important issues. Involvement in the arts involves self-reflecting, revising one's work, and responding to the work of peers. Engagement in the arts entails both self-discovery and collaboration and is compatible with high-quality engagement in performance and arts-making and understanding. Through the arts, students can develop short- and long-term goals, utilize individual critique and respond with self-awareness, self-confidence and independence for advancing lifelong skills. An increased and deliberate focus on SEL in arts classes could make a meaningful difference in a student’s future.

Incorporating the Voice and Choice of Students into Instruction

One of the ways that we can purposefully address the needs of our students is to recognize the emerging framework of best practices in social and emotional learning and that includes the arts.

The arts and the process of creating art can and should play a central role in this framework as students gain competencies and proficiency in Self-Management, Self-awareness, Relationship Skills, Social Awareness, and Responsible decision-making ( The arts can draw upon students’ lived experiences to explore and learn these skills. Social Emotional Learning at its best empowers students to express both their internal and external emotions and feelings. Embedded within the process of creating art are opportunities for students to tell their personal stories and to enable them to be heard, recognized and acknowledged.

Through the arts, we can witness how students become deeply connected to the material they are learning, taking risks within safe boundaries, building self-esteem, and empowering them to use critical thinking skills. We can also observe when students do not. This is equally important as a reason for arts instruction. Davis (2008) argues that all children deserve the opportunity for failure and growth. Consequently, the arts provide "opportunities for making individual decisions that have immediate consequence" (p. 84) for being aware of and attending to feelings. For example, younger students can create, perform, and respond to short dances that demonstrate their understanding of healthy habits, from proper handwashing techniques to an awareness of how interconnected we are by simply the number items we touch and share in our own households.

The Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts (DESE, 2019) articulates and provides a guide that gives students important tools for understanding and expressing who they are in the world.

Engaging in the arts prompts children to observe, focus, collaborate, persevere, make decisions, and receive constructive feedback. This enables students to learn to evaluate their own work, their working process, and the work of others, in relation to a set of internal standards and standards provided by others. Our aim as a state should be to give students the capacity to create and respond to any environment that they may face. Their future will require broad access to multiple methods of communication, and strategies for creativity and collaboration.

The arts are naturally aligned and mutually reinforcing for the concepts and outcomes associated with SEL instruction. As a best practice, it is not necessary for teachers to “add on” the arts as a means of meeting their SEL standards and providing quality instruction to their students. Rather, social emotional learning should be the result of purposeful design choices in arts class instruction and logically connected to the Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts (DESE, 2019). Classroom and arts specialists should be cognizant and intentional about the SEL opportunities that are already embedded within artistic choices and processes as they engage students in expressing their thoughts, emotions, and relationships with others in the school and the greater community. An arts lesson can be designed to focus students on issues that are meaningful for students' lives, prompting them to consider their choices and the impact on themselves and others. A drama lesson can help students learn enduring understandings of perspective and empathy as they create a script and perform a story (real or fictional) of what happens when a student is bullied for being different. Students can reflect on what happens to this real or fictional student. They can problem solve as they ask and even come up with their own questions, “Is there a way to teach others to be accepting? What is the successful resolution to the problem?” These kinds of intentional experiences involving students predicting the eventual outcome, either positively or negatively, can have valuable consequences and application for life.

With SEL as a foundation, teachers can bring a project-based approach to lesson design and implementation by encouraging their students to set their own artistic goals and to devise solutions to shared problems. Working within an artistic discipline, all teachers can help students to navigate anxiety and develop emotional self-regulation. The challenge of both arts instruction and social emotional learning, is developing lessons and activities that are intentional and sustained over time. Just as we know that arts instruction that is episodic is not effective the same rings true for social emotional learning that is not continuous.

Arts teachers have the opportunity to get to know students well because they work with students over many years. The combination of working with students over a long period of time and the personal revelations that come out through arts experiences provide arts teachers with powerful insights into the development of their students. The planned impact could be robust in many instances with more time in the arts’ classrooms and with more extensive opportunities for collaboration among arts teachers, other teachers, working counselors, school psychologists and other school professionals (Pelletteri, 2006).

The Role of Building Administrators in Promoting SEL Through Arts Classes

The meaningful integration of SEL into schools will be best positioned through strong arts programs that build from an intentional foundation of social emotional learning. School administrators have a key role in providing the vision and leadership that is needed to foster support for arts learning and its potent contribution to SEL schoolwide. Administrators who recognize the crucial role that arts educators play in advancing SEL competencies can encourage arts educators in the utilization of the Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts and its purposeful implementation in local curriculum. This effort and can go a long way in advancing school curriculum and student growth and success. Over time, this can lead to more intentional SEL, stronger school collaborations and ultimately students who recognize their own creative and emotional capacities.

Schools are tasked with the job of preparing young people for a future that on many levels is not defined and has become increasingly complex and especially over the past few months, has had many uncertainties. As an action item, administrators can encourage arts teachers to adopt and implement the Missouri Learning Standards for Fine Arts and to be intentional about the SEL outcomes in their arts classes. Visible support by administrators for their art teachers can lead to students with resilient skills in the face of uncertainty. Numerous resources now exist such as the Arts Education Social and Emotional Learning Framework ( This resource provides an insightful overlay of social and emotional and artistic competencies sequenced developmentally. It also includes lesson planning ideas for all arts areas. Administrators pointing arts teachers to these types of resources can help them make the SEL in their classes more intentional and efficacious. Administrators can also purposefully create meaningful spaces for all teachers to collaborate as equal partners. Arts teachers have significant tools to share given the insights from their classrooms and working with the same teachers over multiple years. They also have a lot to gain from teachers in other subject areas who at the elementary level see students for longer periods of time than arts teachers. Such purposeful and intentional sharing, facilitated and encouraged by administrators, can lead to deep and meaningful collaboration that can build stronger schools and more empowered students for life.


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