SEL Is Important & How Arts Education Fits In

SEL teaching theatre
Photo credit Pexels Andrea Piacquadio

By Cory Wilkerson

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), or in some districts, life skills, 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 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 SEL. An excellent definition may be found on the website of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a leading organization in providing SEL resources. 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.” Viewed through this lens the alignment between SEL and theatre arts becomes evident. That does not mean that simply by teaching theatre arts we are providing SEL instruction. Experts tell 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?

To answer this question for myself, this past summer we here at Educational Theatre Association (EdTA) 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. 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
Closely review your theatre curriculum to determine what social and/or emotional skills are required to be successful in an individual theatre task.

2. Make the SEL explicit
Start each class with a check in to help students practice self-awareness. Create classroom rules together through a facilitated conversation which pulls together skills of social awareness and responsible decision making.

3. Connect the SEL to real-life situations
Are your students reviewing each other’s work in your performance class? Make that an opportunity to talk about empathy when critiquing others. Are your tech students working collaboratively on projects? Make this an opportunity to talk about social and group skills in the work place. Working with younger actors? A creative dramatics exercise for younger students might begin with a simple statement such as: “How can we experiment with big movements but also make sure all actors feel safe and comfortable?”*

Small shifts and natural connections.
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. SEL involves a mind shift in your method of teaching throughout your entire class time that commits to bringing the underlying 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 emotional supports and skill-building using the typical tasks and learning activities that happen every day in theatre classrooms everywhere.

*EdTA an SEL lesson library on our Social and Emotional Learning page that is part of our educator Learning Center. EdTA Members have access to a full library of more than 150 SEL-embedded lessons for all age groups.  ♦

Cory Wilkerson is a former theatre educator from the Hershey, PA area, and currently Education Director at EdTA.

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