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The Contribution of Arts Education to SEL (Social and Emotional Learning)

Any educator worth his or her salt wants their students to be successful in life.

So they work hard imparting to their students the knowledge and skills necessary to ensure this success.

Or, at least, success in college and the career world. And that’s the tricky part. Because that success is still largely determined by impressive and measurable academic outcomes.

In other words, good scores on STEM subjects.

But what about teaching students to reflect a broader set of concerns? About how to be kind, productive and contributing members of society? How do teachers provide the social and emotional learning (SEL) skills they’ll need to navigate life?

This is where the contribution of arts education to SEL is so important.

The Relationship of Arts Education to SEL

Competency in STEM subjects is easy to measure. When seeking a solution to an algebra equation or understanding a chemistry formula, there are definitive and correct answers.

But there’s no class offered on how to be a caring, productive, and helpful person. Or one that instructs on the best way to set goals and pursue dreams.

Yet, arts education does just that. It’s just in a much less quantifiable way. And it all starts with developmental experiences.

What Are Developmental Experiences?

Like almost every aspect of human development, social and emotional competency depends upon experiential opportunities.

Developmental experiences are these opportunities. They give students an opportunity first to gain exposure to and act in the world. Then the students can reflect on what they find.

It’s crucial that students observe their environment and interact with others. This allows them to make sense of their experiences and build a unique set of skills and knowledge. But they also gain an understanding of themselves.

From there, they develop patterns of behavior, thinking, and feeling in response to what they’ve perceived. The more often students have  these opportunities, the more it supports their social, emotional, AND academic development.

Arts education naturally lends itself to these opportunities. Creating art is a practice in communication. It not only affects the student, but the person viewing it too. And it gives students new ways to process meaning while sharing their experiences.

A Study on Relationship of Arts Education to SEL

The University of Chicago Corsortium on School Research conducted a study to look at the impact of arts education on SEL.

Information was culled from two large bodies of literature:

1.) Studies in neurobiology and epigenetics that describe how neural connections are created and neural pathways are strengthened in the brain during childhood and adolescence; and
2.) Studies across a variety of disciplines (education, philosophy, cognitive science, social psychology) that focus on how people learn and create meaning from experience.

In this extensive study, researchers identified 10 developmental experiences that were particularly powerful in the development of social-emotional competencies.

Action Experiences

Of the 10 developmental experiences, there were five action experiences:

  • Encountering
  • Tinkering
  • Choosing
  • Practicing
  • Contributing

These action experiences occur regularly in arts education.

For example, from music and dance to visual arts and theater, students have opportunities to encounter new roles, materials, ideas, concepts, and techniques.

They’re encouraged to tinker and experiment. They’re then given a choice in how they want to express themselves and with what materials.

This is of particular benefit to math and science students whose perfectionism has been reinforced by the STEM-competitive nature of high school. Art invites them to take risks. It asks them to test solutions. And it challenges them to play with the idea of more than just one correct answer.

Of course, practice is abundant in the arts. It’s essential, whether rehearsing a play, making sketches, or even just running up and down the scales on a musical instrument.

Finally, being involved in a collective effort such as a band or theater production allows students the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than themselves. Plus, it gives them a chance to express their views on important social issues.

Reflection Experiences

The other five are reflection experiences:

  • Describing
  • Evaluating
  • Connecting
  • Envisioning
  • Integrating

In an arts environment such as an arts academy high school, students must be able to describe their work. But they must also learn how to evaluate and critique the work of fellow students and peers.

Through art, students discover inner monologues and dialogues often drowned out by the busyness of life. Coming to the canvas, stage, or musical instrument gives them an invitation to slow down, settle, and figure things out.

Creating art is an opportunity to connect with emotions and experiences. It gives students the chance to envision the finished product. But it also enables them envision working as artists in the future.

They eventually integrate their artistic experiences and identities into a more complete vision of themselves.

Which when all is said and done, ain’t too shabby for a high school student.

Interested in What An Arts Academy High School Has to Offer?

The Consortium study is just one of many that delve into the important relationship of arts education to SEL.

If you’re curious to experience the expansiveness of considering multiple perspectives and imagining new possibilities, then an arts academy high school could be the right place for you.

Contact us today to set up a tour of our school.

And start learning through art the social and emotional skills that will help you on every path in your life.


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