K-12 Education

Social and Emotional Learning Starts With the Arts

October 22, 2020  • Christopher Maximos, Rising Sophomore at Stanford University & Education and Society Program

Throughout high school, I was colloquially known as the “speech kid,” a tribute to my commitment to speech & debate. The nickname was accurate: I spent nearly every day after school in our team’s classroom, committing hundreds of hours to speech-writing and practice. I saw speech & debate as a second home, a space where I could detach myself from any academic stress and immerse myself in the creative process. No matter what my day looked like prior to practice, I would leave feeling re-energized and purposeful.

Since graduation, I’ve realized that the emotional recharge that speech & debate provided me wasn’t coincidental. In fact, researchers from The University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research concluded that the environment of arts classrooms was especially conducive to social and emotional learning, the process through which students understand and manage their emotions, social relationships, and decisions. In the researchers’ estimation, the large-scale art education process, such as producing a visual art portfolio or directing a musical, includes a number of smaller learning opportunities that also focus on emotion, expression, and social relationships. For example, a young violinist is assessed on their musicality, or understanding of the emotions that the notes aim to evoke, in addition to their bowing and fingering techniques. This added emotional dimension is unique to the arts. After all, no math teacher would grade a student’s attitude while recalling answers in addition to the answers’ correctness.

I see almost uncanny parallels between my learning experiences in speech & debate and the core SEL competencies. To effectively occupy a stage or lectern for my speeches, I closely analyzed my posture and gestures, ultimately improving my self-awareness. I would develop preparation schedules and competitive goals prior to my tournaments, a skill central to self-management. My extensive research about current events for my speeches compelled me to be more socially-aware about the injustices facing others. I spent nearly every weekend traveling with my teammates, which developed our relationships. Finally, the analytical nature of speech & debate made me a responsible decision-maker, primed with the ability to identify problems and offer effective policy solutions. Interestingly, nearly every arts student that I’ve spoken to can offer similar linkages between their chosen medium and these competencies. Even though our teachers never explicitly named social and emotional learning, we were all aware that our social and emotional development was inextricably linked to our artistic development.

Given the inordinate stress of remote learning and the pandemic, we need strong opportunities for social and emotional learning now more than ever. This begins with explicitly aligning all arts education to SEL competencies. Earlier this year, fine arts supervisors in Maryland’s public schools developed the following document, identifying the linkages between each artistic elective and the desired SEL learning outcomes for each grade level. After all, as the aforementioned University of Chicago report cautioned, the arts offer an effective vehicle for social and emotional learning, but educators can individually model good or bad SEL practices. Such specific curricular alignments will ensure that arts educators are integrating positive SEL values into their lesson plans and classroom culture.

Most fundamentally, though, we can harness the power of SEL in the arts by ensuring that the arts are fully-funded and fully accessible to students. This year, as recognition for SEL has flourished, the arts have floundered. Districts across the country are cutting their arts budgets to address the tax deficit brought on by the economic shutdown. New York City, for example, plans to eliminate $15 million from the Department of Education’s arts education services. Moreover, some school districts have severely reduced their remote offerings of arts classes, stating that the remote format will not offer a proper arts experience. It’s clear that districts have to make tough choices to remain financially solvent, but these cuts seem especially misguided in the current moment. To whatever degree possible, school districts should leverage remote learning to offer the most arts education opportunities to the most students, including asynchronous programs. Instead of synthetically integrating SEL into core subjects, administrators should turn to the arts where social and emotional development is already a core component. 

From my speech & debate classroom to the thousands of dance studios and orchestral halls across the country, the arts have provided millions of students nationwide with uniquely symbiotic creative and emotional development. Now, as schools seek to expand their commitment to SEL, there’s no need to design new programs and initiatives. Their greatest asset, the arts, has been there all along.