Article: Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) in the Art Classroom

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process by which individuals develop personal relationships and self-awareness. Crucial in shaping identity, SEL can positively impact how a person feels about themselves, relates to others and perceives the world. In classrooms, SEL fosters vulnerability between students and teachers, setting the foundation for strong learning outcomes.

“Insofar as arts education has the potential to awaken self-awareness and deepen our capacity to pay attention, it offers what Bronson and Gangadean (2010) term “cultural medicine” (p. 149)—an introspective and metacognitive space natural to artistic experience (Eisner, 2002). We are fierce advocates for the centrality of artistic and creative experiences for the health of the human spirit. As full-time faculty members in a school of education, we are also passionate proponents for providing artistic experiences for future teachers, regardless of subject matter or grade level.”¹ᵃ

Teachers who have studied SEL principles can build self-sufficiency among their students and ignite a lifelong passion for learning. Such teachers also report higher job satisfaction and less burnout, according to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

SEL can improve outcomes in your classes, foster greater connections with your students and help you excel as an art educator. Keep reading to uncover five strategies to help you use this learning mode in your arts classrooms. Throughout the article, you will see quotes from The Swing of the Pendulum: The Urgency of Arts Education for Healing, Learning and Wholeness, coedited by Diane Caracciolo and Courtney Lee Weida, both of Adelphi University’s Ruth S. Ammon School of Education.

An online Master of Arts in Art Education can help you learn to develop confident, well-adjusted students. Adelphi’s robust curriculum provides art teachers with the theoretical knowledge and practical experience needed to instill new generations with strong social-emotional skills. One course in particular – Exploring the Arts: Handcraft and Healing– allows students to reflect on their unique craft history and consider the educational applications. Our MA students can employ their SEL knowledge during 100 hours of fieldwork, which can be completed at museums, galleries, art classrooms or in similar settings, ensuring they graduate with extensive job-relevant experience.

SEL’s Importance for Arts Education

French painter Paul Cezanne once remarked that, “An art which isn’t based on feeling isn’t an art at all.” It is a quote that speaks to the importance of social-emotional learning for arts classrooms. Students deserve to engage with art on a deeper level than simply learning art history or practicing different techniques. To reap all the benefits that art can bring, students must have the opportunity to connect to the emotions that serve as the wellspring from which art flows. By modeling and helping young learners explore social and emotional skills, you help students connect with themselves and translate their experiences into art.

Adelphi MA in Art Education alumna and full-time middle school art teacher Jae Won Shim sees this as a guiding philosophy. “My role is to help students learn artistic behaviors that develop the skills to help them in school and in life — such as the ability to visualize end goals, stay on task, think creatively, come up with solutions, try different methods and approaches, be patient with themselves, and identify strengths and challenges.”

SEL-driven classrooms develop skills that students can take with them after they set down the paintbrush. “I want to help them learn to empower themselves so that they are in control of the results they produce and are able to apply this control in all aspects of their academic and home lives,” Shim said of her goals in the classroom.

“In Exploring the Arts courses, we and our colleagues, other practicing artists, have aimed to bridge the divide between education courses that may lack deep artistry and arts courses that may neglect deeper inquiry into the art of teaching. Disciplinary boundaries between the arts and other areas of education need not separate us. Instead, they can yield to collaborations, so that connections can be made between practitioners as they build curricula and programs inspired by arts institutions, performances, and creative practice. These courses embrace the model of arts-based instruction, defined by Davis (2005) as a celebratory approach to the arts in education, utilizing art as both a central subject and an overarching framework for other learning. We believe this approach serves the whole student, the whole teacher, and the whole curriculum in symphony.”¹ᵇ

5 SEL Practices for the Arts Classroom

  1. Set the Stage

    While interpersonal connections are fundamental for promoting SEL, teachers can lay the groundwork for learning well before they meet their students. Environment is important, and arts teachers should pay attention to the message their physical classroom conveys. For instance, a classroom with well-organized materials and orderly seating provides a sense of stability that encourages trust and self-expression.

    You can make your classrooms more conducive to SEL with decorations that encourage social-emotional behaviors. Posters with friendly characters sharing their feelings and building relationships, for example, model the behaviors that you want to see in your kids. You can also experiment with seating arrangements to determine which ones facilitate peer relationships without disrupting instruction. A graduate education program gives you opportunities to explore advanced pedagogical principles like these.

  2. Build Connections

    Relationships are at the heart of social-emotional learning, and arts teachers who want the best for their students take the time to build trusting connections. Small acts, like using a child’s first name or performing a well-being check at the beginning of class, let kids know you care about them. Daily feelings check-ins also facilitate social-emotional learning by modeling the vulnerability on which SEL thrives.

    Mutual respect between teachers and children helps the latter understand expectations and meet learning benchmarks. Students can use these classroom relationships to build teamwork and conflict resolution skills, too. While personal differences can make it challenging to foster connections, well-trained teachers can adapt to each student’s needs. Adelphi’s ETH 513 graduate seminar helps teachers build the patience and understanding to work with children with special needs, disabilities, giftedness and other unique learning styles.

  3. Encourage Self-Sufficiency

    Building strong relationships takes a strong sense of self, and SEL-committed teachers can make a tremendous impact in this area. Modeling confidence and kindness are fundamental when encouraging good behavior, while guiding students to take responsibility builds autonomy and critical thinking. No matter what age level the students, assigning them tasks and gently but consistently reviewing their progress teaches the value of a job well done.

  4. p>Making art is an incredibly personal experience, so having a strong sense of self is essential. Self-awareness familiarizes children with their inner drive and personal struggles, which can fuel their work. Self-sufficiency teaches kids to take charge of their craft and provides the fortitude to take risks, color outside the proverbial lines and feel proud of themselves when doing so.

  5. Honor Students’ Identities

    As diversity, equity and inclusion become increasingly prominent in the cultural conversation, arts teachers can do their part by creating a welcoming space for all identities. Differences in nation of origin, gender, religion, economic class or other attributes provide kids with unique perspectives. You can make students feel valued by encouraging them to talk about their views and experiences and validating what they’ve shared.

    Developing students’ awareness of other cultures promotes empathy and encourages children to build relationships with people who look, think and act differently than themselves. The arts classroom can act as a microcosm of a larger community and a place to foster cooperation skills, which will serve students throughout life. While there’s no controlling the demographics of your classrooms, your diversity efforts are important modeling for the behavior you wish to see in your students. The multicultural environment of graduate school can be vital preparation for honoring diversity as a teacher.

  6. Practice Mindfulness

    Since much of SEL relies on maintaining awareness of one’s feelings and other acts of attention, mindfulness can be an invaluable practice for the classroom. The simple act of noticing external phenomena or body sensations without reacting teaches acceptance and patience, and research shows it can reduce anxiety and depression.

    Depending on the age of the students and their ability to sit still, teachers can either conduct formal meditation or try a variety of exercises more accessible to younger kids, like nature walks or journaling. These activities may strike students as odd or mysterious, but a patient, determined teacher can reassure them and help them channel their feelings into compelling art.

Besides practical strategies, effective SEL relies a great deal on intuition. In an advanced degree program for arts education, you can develop self-awareness and interpersonal skills along with the theoretical understanding of what methods reach kids best. Adelphi’s graduates enter the job market equipped to foster the next generations of socially and emotionally intelligent children.

“Healing and holism through artistic practice is often characterized by an indirect and somewhat more mysterious process of increased receptivity to oneself, the subconscious, and even spirituality.”¹ᶜ

About Adelphi’s Online Master of Arts in Art Education

Adelphi University’s online Master of Arts in Art Education program is suitable for recent college graduates, current teachers or career changers. By the time you graduate this two-year program, you’ll be ready to complete the requirements of New York State Visual Arts Pre-K–12 teaching certification.


  1. 1Diane Caracciolo and Courtney Lee Weida, eds., The Swing of the Pendulum: The Urgency of Arts Education for Healing, Learning, and Wholeness, Boston: Sense Publishers, 2017.

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