How Arts Teachers Are Strengthening Students' Social-Emotional Muscles

Sixth graders at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Chicago created this piece in a lesson on graffiti art. Their teacher, Jonathan Neumann, wove development of social-emotional skills into his instruction.
Sixth graders at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School in Chicago created this piece in a lesson on graffiti art. Their teacher, Jonathan Neumann, wove development of social-emotional skills into his instruction.
—Courtesy of Jonathan Neumann
| Corrected: June 27, 2019
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Guiding students through the bold colors and statements of graffiti art. Teaching them how to blend their voices in song. Arts experiences like these can open students to new ways of thinking. But they can also offer teachers powerful opportunities to develop students’ social and emotional skills.

The trick to maximizing that potential, according to a new report, is careful thought and planning. If arts teachers recognize that each “arts practice”—or component of arts instruction—draws on specific social or emotional skills, they can design their teaching to facilitate students’ growth in those skills.

What does that look like in the classroom? Two Chicago teachers helped answer that question.

Jonathan Neumann teaches visual arts at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School. He used a lesson on graffiti art to build his 6th grade students’ social-emotional vocabularies.

He walked students through the intellectual stuff: the history and meaning of graffiti in cultures around the world, the question of when it constitutes vandalism, its artistic value. But as he moved students into creating their own graffiti art, Neumann was as focused on their social-emotional skills as he was on their artistic expression.

Planning for the Social-Emotional Parts

He recognized that the graffiti assignment was going to challenge his students in specific social-emotional ways. They’d have to use discipline and time-management skills to get their projects done on time, a growth area that most teachers recognize and plan for. But they’d also have to confront powerful thoughts and feelings.

So Neumann did something teachers may overlook, according to the new report: He structured the assignment to include space for the development of social and emotional skills. Partway into the project, students had to work in groups of eight to discuss what they were trying to say with their graffiti creations, and how they could boil those messages down to a few, powerful words that filled the page.

They also had to talk about how to manage the feelings they were expressing in their art.

Neumann’s school population is predominantly low-income and Hispanic. Many of his students’ families include undocumented immigrants, and fears about deportation—fueled by national political rhetoric—had seeped into his classroom. In that environment, he said, students faced a key challenge: How to “talk about current issues in an appropriate way.”

“They had to figure out how to have the discipline to get their point across, to know how to tone themselves down, not to be vulgar, if they’re talking about an extreme issue,” Neumann said.

Some students opted for a political tone in their graffiti pieces, with phrases like “Don’t Build the Wall.” Others took a different route, saying, “Be Kind,” or, simply, “Love.”

Katie Colby (seated), a choir teacher at Chicago's Jones College Prep High School, also incorporates social-emotional learning into her teaching.
Katie Colby (seated), a choir teacher at Chicago's Jones College Prep High School, also incorporates social-emotional learning into her teaching.
—Courtesy of Katie Colby

The assignment sparked classroom discussions that gave students a forum to express feelings they hadn’t expressed before, such as the fear of deportation, Neumann said.

“I think the whole process helped students feel comfortable expressing their ideas and their feelings, and they saw they could do this in acceptable ways,” Neumann said.

The authors of the new study, by the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research and Ingenuity, argue that if teachers recognize the hidden social-emotional potential in arts instruction—or any instruction—they can unlock powerful learning by carefully planning that instruction to support and develop those skills. Instead of just teaching music theory and piano technique to an anxious student, for instance, a teacher could work deliberately to incorporate breathing and mindfulness practices, and discussion of strategies for managing anxiety, the report says.

Deliberately attending to social-emotional skills like those helps build broader competencies such as emotional self-regulation, responsibility, and confidence expressing complex ideas linked to personal thoughts and feelings, according to the report.

More Than a Song

In her room at Jones College Prep High School 10 miles away from Neumann's, Katie Colby thinks about her students’ social-emotional skills as she plans her instruction, but in different ways.

She recognizes that the pieces of her music instruction—learning to sing in unison and in harmony, refining vocal technique, working with rhythm, following the conductor—each offer distinct opportunities for social-emotional development.

As she works on vocal technique, she teaches students to balance the sound of the choir with their own individual sound. That choice reflects good musical practice, but also helps students build important social-emotional muscles.

“There’s development of ‘I am an individual,’ and perseverance to improve technique,” Colby said. “But there’s also the idea that you have to be conscious of what’s going on around you, that you can’t be lost in your own world all the time.”

When the chorus is learning a new piece, Colby deliberately lets them struggle and find their way a little at first. For a minute or two, she lets the singers “mess around with it, try to figure it out,” she said.

More graffiti art from the 6th graders at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School.
More graffiti art from the 6th graders at Richard Henry Lee Elementary School.
—Courtesy of Jonathan Neumann

“I think ‘tinkering’ is a really important idea here,” she said. “To know it won’t be good the first time, but we’re trying to figure it out.”

Colby creates space in her instruction for students’ discomfort, she said. Learning anything new involves risk, and she engages students in conversation about it to help them recognize and accept it.

“In my beginning choir, in the first few weeks, there’s a lot of discomfort,” she said. “There’s a lot of laughter. And I tell them, ‘You’re laughing at each other, and yourself, not because it’s funny, but because it’s scary, and that’s uncomfortable.’”

The authors of the new study didn’t detail how teachers of academic subjects can weave social-emotional skills into their instruction. But they encourage them to explore the possibility.

“Educators at large can and should draw inspiration from the pedagogical and relational strategies used by arts educators,” the study said.

“Who is to say that science or math could not be taught in highly differentiated, relationship-driven ways that recognize the social aspects of teamwork or the emotional aspects of public performance?”

The study arrives amid ongoing conversation among policymakers and educators about the role of the arts in education, and how to integrate arts with academic subjects.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, also, has created new funding opportunities for arts integration, said Jane Best, the executive director of the Arts Education Partnership. The partnership has created an online tool, “Mapping Opportunities for the Arts,” that tracks how states are incorporating arts education into their education plans.

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Correction: 
A previous version of the photo captions misidentified the name of Richard Henry Lee Elementary School.

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