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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. So, we all agree that SEL is important, but how do we fit it all in? You can get some answers to this fundamental question from Dr. Edgar and his colleague Bob Morrison, director of the center, in their Arts ARE Education Podcast in which they talk about their work and the Center.)

To answer this question for myself, this past summer on behalf of the Educational Theatre Association, I recruited a cohort of theatre educators from diverse classrooms across the nation to explore SEL embedded instruction. The teams were introduced to the CASEL SEL framework as a guide for creating their lessons. This easy-to-understand tool identifies five core social and emotional competencies which strengthen student skills, including self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, responsible decision making, and relationship skills. Inspired by the framework, the teachers in the SEL lesson plan cohort were asked to identify explicit instruction which offered students an opportunity to apply these skills as a part of a theatre lesson.

The group was given SEL-based professional development and received one-on-one coaching from experts in standards-based instruction and SEL. What the educators in this project discovered was that, rather than “fitting in” social and emotional learning, the focus of the lessons became about making explicit the SEL moments that were already happening and helping students transfer this learning into life skills.

Three practices for effective SEL teaching emerged from the cohorts’ work:

1. Identify the SEL in your content

It became apparent that it was important for the teachers to closely review their theatre curriculum to determine what social and/or emotional skills were required to be successful in an individual theatre task. A good example of this can be found in a lesson plan on set design written by EdTA cohort member Joselyn Ludtke. In her lesson plan, The One-Pager: Visual Analysis of a Setting, Joselyn points out how collaborating on a design builds relationships skills, specifically the ability to seek or offer help when needed and to collaboratively problem solve. In the instructional activities portion of the lesson, she writes:

“Teacher should state: “As a class, as technicians, we collaborate together: we seek and offer help when needed.” (Or ask students, “Why do technicians collaborate? And how can we model that in our class?) Either format could be used to establish a norm for collaboration and feedback in your classroom.”

It is easy to see how this applies to other teaching circumstances in a theatre classroom, where small group collaboration is a common teaching strategy. Joselyn’s lesson plan also segues nicely into the next practice:

2. Make the SEL explicit

In cohort member Sean Elias’s lesson plan “Exploring Your Three Selves: An Introduction to Uta Hagen”, he describes his technique for making SEL explicit at the beginning of a lesson on master acting teacher Uta Hagen’s techniques. He writes:

Begin by facilitating a conversation with the entire group. First, ask for volunteers to share their definitions of self (SEL: Self-Awareness). Be sure to ask questions that will encourage students to reveal how they express their understanding of self vocally and physically. Then ask them if these vocal and physical expressions of self ever change and under what circumstances.”

This technique of facilitated conversation would also work well for small group instruction, character analysis work, and other theatre instruction.

Finally, for embedded SEL to be most effective, it is important to help the student place the learning in the context of a real-life situation. The last of the three practices reflects this:

3. Connect the SEL to life skills

Joselyn Ludtke requires her high school students to use planners and provides instruction in how to use them effectively by linking the SEL skill of self-management to planning and organization. Erin Moughon-Smith, another EdTA cohort, demonstrates connecting SEL skills in theatre class to life outside the classroom with her “Turn and Talk” strategy as a part of her lesson plan for 7th grade students, “Radio Gaga: How to Use Your Voice in Acting”. She notes:

“Turn and Talk: a. Have students turn and talk with a partner about how it felt placing their voices in different resonators and how the vocal choices showed what the characters were feeling. b. Bring them back to the whole class. Have volunteers share what their partner said. Spend time connecting voice choices with emotions and feelings. c. If time (and they are not too anxious to get started with the activity), ask students to give an example when their voice changes due to emotion. Note: SEL Social Awareness by sharing what their partner said (listening and sharing what their partner said)”

This technique even works with very young actors, as cohort Elizabeth Bowman demonstrates in her lesson plan for 1st graders, “Courageous Characters”. She writes:

“SEL Teaching Moment - Self-Management: Ask students to help solve challenges of physical safety that come up with the full class blizzard. You might say: “I need your help with something. When I think of a blizzard and using our whole bodies, I think of lots of swirling wind all over the room. I know that sometimes when actors are experimenting with movement, they might not remember that there are other actors nearby. I don’t like it when other actors bump into me or when I bump others. How can we experiment with big movements but also make sure all actors feel safe and comfortable?” Have students help problem solve and review the importance of personal actor space. Ask 3 volunteers to come into the circle to demonstrate using the body to create wind and snow while managing their space.”

These examples are just a sampling of the model SEL lesson plans available for free from the Educational Theatre Association. As a service to the field, EdTA offers detailed resources for learning about SEL as well as an SEL lesson library on our Social and Emotional Learning page that is part of our educator professional development website, Theatre Educator Pro. Members have access to a full library of SEL-embedded lessons. Currently, there are over 100 of these lessons posted, and more being added in the next few weeks.

Along with the resources on the EdTA Social and Emotional Learning page, you will find a blueprint for action that points the way to “how to fit it all in.”

So how do you fit it all in? You don’t. SEL is not something you fit in at the beginning or end of class as an add on, rather it is a mind shift in your method of teaching throughout your entire class time that commits to bringing the underlying social and emotional skill-building into the spotlight. By clearly identifying the SEL inherent in theatre instruction, making it explicit through intentional practice, and connecting it to life skills, you can provide impactful social and emotional supports and skill-building using the typical tasks and learning activities that happen every day in theatre classrooms everywhere.


Cory Wilkerson is the Education Director for the Educational Theatre Association.


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