Art & SEL: How (and why) this pair really works

Viewing social-emotional learning through an artistic lens isn’t necessarily a new phenomenon. In fact, according to a recent Edutopia article, a strong belief that SEL is easier to apply in art, simply by nature, already exists among educators. And, since art focuses on key SEL principles, like observing, analyzing, and understanding, many art teachers have already been incorporating SEL in their lessons long before the topic entered the spotlight.

Effective SEL begins by understanding issues students are facing.

Putting students first

For educators like Heather McCutcheon, an art teacher at Herkimer High School and candidate for New York’s 2021 Teacher of the Year, the new focus on SEL is welcoming news. However, as an art teacher and a strong advocate for SEL, McCutcheon believes effective SEL has less to do with the subject itself, and everything to do with recognizing and understanding issues students are facing. 

“Every lesson I do with students always goes back to building relationships,” McCutcheon explains. “Community is super important (in SEL) because you always need that buy-in with whatever you’re doing to help students. One of the biggest things I did when I first started teaching 14 years ago was to drive around the community and see where students live … seeing where they go to play, and what they do in their free time—this is so important in being able to help them.”

Heather McCutcheon is an art teacher at Herkimer High School in New York as well as a candidate for New York’s 2021 Teacher of the Year

SEL = Successful futures

Even before the pandemic, agencies like The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, better known as CASEL, have been studying the long-term effects of trauma and stress on children. Their work has shown time and time again that effective social-emotional learning helps students develop a better understanding of their emotions, which leads to increased empathy and a better learning environment where students have a higher chance of achieving academic success. As a result, students are more likely to lead successful lives beyond the classroom and help build better, stronger, and safer communities. This is why McCutcheon, and other educators like her, are so passionate about what they do.

To effectively marry subjects like art to SEL, however, McCutcheon feels educators need to help students understand self worth, and they also need to really care about who their students are. “That’s something that good teachers do without even realizing it,” she adds. “It’s also something good people do.”

To effectively marry subjects like art to SEL educators need to help students understand self worth.

Art + SEL projects that make a difference

In her work at Herkimer High School, McCutcheon begins each year by asking students to consider an important question about themselves—”Who am I?” 

“Really posing that question and having students think about it is mind blowing,” she adds. 

To gain student trust and help them flourish, McCutcheon allows them freedom of choice. “Students feel more empowered, and they enjoy lessons more when they have a choice,” she explains. “Sometimes it’s simple with materials, other times they have more choices to lead themselves into what they’re creating. This goes back to understanding identity and understanding themselves and understanding their emotions.”

To explore their identity, she incorporates activities, projects and lessons that fully encapsulate the “Who am I?” question. Though some projects seem simple in the beginning, she reiterates that it’s the take-away that really shapes student growth. 

Examples of McCutcheon’s projects include:

  • Creating and decorating a planter – Once the creation/decoration of the planter is completed, students add a living plant. They then place this plant in an area or classroom where they spend a lot of time, and care for it throughout the year (and beyond). 
  • Treasure boxes – This project includes any type of box or container that holds something of personal value to students on the inside. On the outside the box is decorated with something students would like the world to see or know about them. 
  • Passion projects – These projects are really anything students are passionate about and feel strongly enough to pursue.
  • Museum projects – This project helps students explore personal identity by having them create their own personal emblems.
  • Neurographic lessons – An exercise in “letting the neurons fire” and creating something amazing from it. (See the lesson plan below to learn more.)
  • Intuitive painting – Used as an effective SEL technique, McCutcheon asks students to start with a blank canvas while thinking of a word to describe how they are feeling. She then asks them to begin painting with simple movements and lines that become a unique piece of art.
  • Journal making – Using a sketchbook, students can draw or explore their emotions through the conscious realm of writing.

“It’s just so powerful when you can stop, be in the moment, and breathe,” McCutcheon says of these projects. “Incorporating mindfulness and really allowing students to explore their own thoughts really helps creativity in so many ways.”

To learn more about Heather McCutcheon, and to see how she incorporates SEL through projects like those mentioned above, watch her full interview with Nasco Education’s Kris Bakke, now. 

For more art-inspired SEL lessons, download these free activities:

Art & SEL

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