Want to improve students’ development of social and emotional learning? Focus on art education


Art lessons can become a vehicle for teaching and developing soft skills.

Photo: Bigstock

A study by the University of Chicago and Ingenuity, a nonprofit organization, studied the relationship between Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and art education and its impact on the integral development of students. 

For years, schools have played a critical role in making their students good members of society by teaching them the skills they’ll need to succeed in the future. In that aspect, including arts in the curriculum can enhance such skills and knowledge while helping students with their social-emotional learning.

The study indicates that the arts are fundamental for social-emotional learning. For example, learning a new brushstroke technique can help develop skills such as self-control and concentration; learning a new dance routine can build discipline in a student; theater plays can develop patience by rehearsing the same scene several times, and empathy, trying to understand what the character is feeling. These examples illustrate that each artistic practice is part of a more extensive creative process.

The researchers identified ten development experiences that were particularly powerful for the learning and development of young people, including the development of social-emotional skills. These ten development experiences include: five experiences of action (encounter, improvement, choice, practice and contribution) and five experiences of reflection (description, evaluation, connection, vision and integration).

Art has different disciplines, such as music, dance, theater and visual arts, which allows students the opportunity to encounter, improve and experiment with new roles, materials, media and concepts to express themselves. They also offer many opportunities to choose how and when they want to express themselves. The opportunities to practice are also abundant, whether practicing a musical piece, rehearsing a play or a dance routine. Finally, art education offers students countless opportunities to contribute to society — either through a band concert or a theater production that address critical social issues.

Also, it brings students multiple opportunities to participate in reflection experiences. For example, when they have to describe their work, motivations, or creation process or when evaluating and criticizing the work of others. Through diverse art forms, children and young people can connect with their emotions through works of art. They can envision their finished piece of art beforehand, and integrate artistic experiences and identities in a broader view of themselves.

In the same way that artistic education needs artistic practices to develop, social-emotional learning needs, in turn, social-emotional components that happen in artistic practices because they reinforce each other.

Photo: Bigstock

Photo: Bigstock

Social-emotional skills

The three most prevalent social-emotional skills, according to the study, are self-management and discipline (intrapersonal), social and relationship skills (interpersonal) and self-expression and identity. These three domains can make students know themselves and others better while being more goal-oriented.

These skills go hand in hand with art education because they help students better understand their emotional development. Also, art education offers goal-oriented activities that make students more prepared for "the adult world." An example is acting: If a student participates in a play, he or she can practice empathy, teamwork and responsibility, essential work skills.

In addition, a great advantage of art education is that it helps students develop a better internal compass thanks to social-emotional skills such as self-expression and identity. The personal and emotional connection that an artistic activity provides can motivate students to take risks and explore different cultural identities, providing a more integral sense of themselves.

The teacher’s role in SEL

Although art education allows students to develop many of the skills necessary for the future of work, it can also have a negative effect on a student's learning experience.

Arts have the potential to improve the positivity of social-emotional development in students or their negativity; It all depends on the student's experience. Therefore, it is necessary to take into account that each artistic process, in its different forms, has a social-emotional component that affects the student's experience. For example, a student who has had a bad experience in a play may develop anxiety when communicating in public.

In this aspect, teachers play a critical role as they can influence how the student experiences each activity. Teachers also help create a learning environment and shape the way a student decides to participate in different activities. That is why art courses must adapt to the diverse interests, abilities and personalities of students; differentiating and recognizing the shortages and skills of each student is essential. The study notes that "the way an instructor teaches is often more important than what he teaches."

A holistic learning experience through art education

Arts are an excellent vehicle for developing students' social and emotional growth due to the wide range of individual holistic experiences that can be grown thanks to them.

Since art education has evolved over the years, new emerging research has arisen that studies the connection of art education with the cognitive, emotional and social-relational aspects of students. These studies agree that their contribution to young people's learning results in better social-emotional learning, providing the skills they will need in their adult lives.


Farrington, C. A., Maurer, J. R., McBride, M. U., Nagaoka, J., Puller, J., Shewfelt, S., Wright, L. (n.d.). ARTS EDUCATION AND SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING OUTCOMES AMONG K–12 STUDENTS: DEVELOPING A THEORY OF ACTION. Retrieved from https://consortium.uchicago.edu/sites/default/files/2019-05/Arts Education and Social-Emotional-June2019-Consortium and Ingenuity.pdf

Jones, S. M., & Kahn, J. (2017). The Evidence Base for How We Learn: Supporting Students Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. Consensus Statements of Evidence from the Council of Distinguished Scientists. Place of publication not identified: Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse.

Allensworth, E. M., Farrington, C. A., Gordon, M. F., Johnson, D. W., Klein, K., McDaniel, B., & Nagaoka, J. (2018). Supporting social, emotional, & academic development: Research implications for educators. Chicago, IL: the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

Berman, S., Chaffee, S., & Sarmiento, J. (2018). The practice base for how we learn: Supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development. Washington, DC: National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

Foster, E. M., & Marcus Jenkins, J. V. (2017). Does participation in music and performing arts influence child development? American Educational Research Journal, 54(3), 399–443.