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SEL Is Important, But How Does Arts Education Fit It In?

By Cory Wilkerson, Education Director for the Educational Theatre Association.

Social and Emotional Learning, or SEL, has become a topic of intense conversations of late, as teachers and students return to the classroom carrying with them the trauma of the pandemic and its impact. Many agree that now, more than ever, it is vital to offer students SEL strategies and that the arts provide a natural home for this type of instruction. But what exactly does this look like? Let’s start with a clear definition of social and emotional learning.

An excellent definition of SEL may be found on the website of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL). CASEL, with its rich array of resources and professional development, has been the leader in promoting the value of SEL since 1994, helping educators across all subject areas understand how to make social and emotional learning a part of a high-quality education.

CASEL explains SEL as “a process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

Interesting parallels to this definition are found in the 2014 National Core Arts Standards, through the philosophical foundations and lifelong goals created by the standards writers. They declared the foundation of arts instruction as a pathway to:

  • communication

  • creative personal realization

  • culture, history, and connectors

  • a sense of wellbeing

  • community engagement

Placed side by side in this way, the alignment between social and emotional learning and learning and the theatre arts becomes evident. It is clear that SEL is baked into theatre instruction. That does not mean that simply by teaching theatre arts we are providing SEL instruction. Dr. Scott Edgar, Director of Practice and Research for the Center for Arts Education and Social Emotional Learning, tells us that for SEL to be effective it must be intentional, embedded, and sustained.