DA op-ed: Arts integration and social-emotional learning: A partnership for success

How an arts integration approach can help schools meet their SEL goals
By: | June 25, 2019
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Rebecca Pinchevsky is the director of curriculum and instruction at the nonprofit Center for Creative Education in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Rebecca Pinchevsky is the director of curriculum and instruction at the nonprofit Center for Creative Education in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Arts integration is an exciting and engaging way for districts to meet their social-emotional learning goals. Today’s educators see their students thrive when given opportunities to express themselves in creative academic endeavors. Arts integration has been proven to be beneficial in improving students’ learning and thinking skills, while also providing increased access to arts education at a time when arts offerings in some schools are being scaled back. 

While this teaching approach has inherent benefits, it is also inextricably linked to SEL. According to Elizabeth Peterson of The Inspired Classroom, “The arts are really the best way, the most natural way, to develop those social-emotional skills.”

Why SEL?

SEL has recently emerged as a vital element of successful school systems and programs. Today, schools districts are increasingly concerned with meeting the needs of students from diverse social and economic backgrounds. With recent surges of children with complex needs as well as at-risk students, teachers and administrators have been seeking ways to promote positive social behaviors. Such changes, combined with a shift in what educators and child development experts view as essential skills that students need to be successful, have brought the construct of SEL to the forefront of our discourse on education. 

Many researchers now suggest that a child’s future success is not only determined by cognitive skills, as previously thought. Rather, their social and emotional skills as related to character, optimism and self-awareness are also considered to be important factors in their future success.

As a leading organization on the SEL front, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) explains that SEL involves the processes of developing social and emotional competencies in children. According to the CASEL 2013 Guide to Effective Social and Emotional Learning Programs, “SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships that make learning challenging, engaging, and meaningful; social and emotional skills are critical to being a good citizen and worker.” 

Arts integration can bridge the gap between meeting curricular demands and fostering a creative and engaging learning environment.

Arts integration is a natural fit with SEL, and it readily supports and augments school SEL efforts. CASEL has identified five core competencies that comprise SEL standards: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. As these skills are developed, an increased frequency of positive social behaviors, fewer conduct concerns, reduced emotional stress, and improved grades and test scores will reflect students’ social learning.

How do arts integration and SEL align?

Arts integration is a comprehensive approach in which the arts are utilized in the core curriculum classroom, where standards are taught and learned in and through the arts. This teaching approach has been identified as an effective means of promoting deeper learning and understanding, as well as reaching disengaged students, allowing them to access and connect with the curriculum. Arts integration can bridge the gap between meeting curricular demands and fostering a creative and engaging learning environment. 

As schools shift their focus to incorporate SEL strategies and culture, an arts integration approach is a natural fit to help reach their goals. In an arts integration environment, SEL skills are developed and fostered through students’ artistic responses and processes. Arts integration allows students to demonstrate and communicate their learning of both the arts and the core curriculum using their unique voices. The processes of choice-making and problem-solving are a natural fit in an academic setting that promotes social learning.  


Read: How arts-based lessons improve science performance


SEL opportunities abound within arts integration. Students can create projects that include their own experiences and perspectives. The invention and trials and tribulations that are an inherent part of the creative process help students learn to manage frustration. Teachers give students the freedom to cultivate self-efficacy and confidence. Arts integration has been linked to promoting a positive school climate and helping students feel that they belong and are heard. Students also develop self-awareness and relationship skills as well as teacher and peer communication skills as they discuss the decisions they made during the creative process.

What do arts integration and SEL look like in the classroom?

Arts integration and SEL can look like a teacher giving students freedom to interpret content through their own experiences and perspectives. Students might design posters or write and perform songs representing important figures in history who have had an impact on their lives. Students can assign a movement to each part of speech (noun, verb, adjective) and then create “movement sentences” about their feelings. In a lesson about animal adaptations and camouflage, students can connect to the topic by learning about physical signs of their own escalating emotions as a way of understanding self-regulation, and by applying color theory in their paintings of camouflaged animals.

At the district level, Sacramento City USD’s Art of Kindness challenge is an example of where the alignment of arts integration and SEL has been successful. In 2018, the district demonstrated its commitment to kindness, empathy and caring as well as its belief that the arts can play a vital role in fostering compassion. After a districtwide week of kindness activities and events, students were challenged to put those lessons into action. 

They documented their acts of kindness over the next few months and produced a final artistic project. The district then hosted an Art of Kindness SEL Summit Showcase, in which students displayed their work—including drawings, sculptures, musical and dramatic performances, and multimedia projects—to family, staff and community members. As Superintendent Jorge Aguilar points out, “Now more than ever, we have to use SEL to make sure that we advance the level of respect and dignity that every one of our students deserves.” 

What can district administrators do?

District administrators can promote and support arts integration in schools by communicating its many benefits, and its clear links, to SEL goals. The arts must be viewed as a means of learning and understanding, and not just as fluff or a subject that exists solely outside the core classroom. District administrators can establish clear arts integration goals that are aligned with the SEL goals for each school. A regular review of academic standards through an arts integration lens will allow natural connections between core subjects and the arts to emerge. 

It is also essential to provide supports across the district to help school leaders and teachers as they incorporate arts integration approaches into their classrooms. Strong professional development opportunities and time for collaborative planning are essential to enable a school to develop and implement effective arts integration strategies. Schools and districts should provide time and space for artwork to be displayed, shared and presented. School leaders can even explore arts integration as a school improvement strategy, with a focus on weaving the arts into the fabric of the school. 

Oklahoma A+ Schools provides PD, networking and research as a means of promoting sustainable arts integration for teachers. Art instructors and classroom teachers engage in hands-on, individualized PD in which they connect the arts to other disciplines. In Washington, the Principal Arts Leadership program was developed to help school leaders understand the importance of their role in arts integration and to provide them with the tools they need for implementation and sustainability. These large-scale efforts to promote arts integration will have a powerful effect on SEL in schools as well.

With SEL, schools will make sure that they are meeting the needs of all of their students. Learning content through the arts allows students to develop the creative, cognitive and foundational social skills that they will need for success in school and in life. 


Rebecca Pinchevsky is the director of curriculum and instruction at the nonprofit Center for Creative Education in West Palm Beach, Florida. She can be reached at RebeccaP@cceflorida.org.