Social and Emotional Learning and the Arts: An Interdisciplinary Practitioner’s Approach to Helping Students Build Emotional Intelligence and Make Better Choices

By Adina Bloom Lewkowicz L.I.S.W.

As educators, we continue to positively impact lives despite very challenging times.  We inspire students to become great learners who are educated and empowered to be the best they can be.  My life’s work has focused on finding ways to help children start on the road to becoming successful, deep-thinking, caring adults.

My goal as therapist, arts educator, and social and emotional learning specialist has been to find the most effective path to this end.  I have searched for the best way to empower students with the skills, knowledge, and abilities to make informed, effective, positive choices.  I would love to share what that search has led to, in the hope that it may support your important work with your students.

This search began in earnest with my studies in the field of psychology.  There I learned that the origins of our choices lie in the assumptions we hold that inform them.   I understood that we had a wider range of better choices available to us if we edited our assumptions before they informed our thoughts, led to our feelings, and motivated our behaviors.

SEL through Expressive Arts 

It became clear that the earlier we based our choices on more logical beliefs, the better the quality of our choices and our lives would likely be.  My work as a drama teacher helped me recognize the power of the expressive arts to effectively relay content in a way that was deeply learned and retained.  These two realizations ultimately led to the development of an approach and a book entitled “Teaching Emotional Intelligence” (Skyhorse, 2016).

This approach helps teachers use drama and other experiential methods to help students examine and edit their assumptions.  Students learn about what assumptions are; some basic errors in logic that lead to them; how to change the assumptions to more logical beliefs, and then manage their thoughts, feelings, and actions accordingly.  Using drama, music, visual arts, and writing, students are taught to apply this process across many situations.  Assumptions are explored and new beliefs and skills are rehearsed in areas such as effectively dealing with a variety of emotions, building self-acceptance, self-confidence, and healthy relationships.

SEL at work in Ohio

This approach has been used effectively in a number of different schools, and agencies such as the Cuyahoga County Public Library.  It has been shared with educators in a variety of professional development contexts, and with students of all ages in group and camp settings.

Using this approach, students have changed their worse case scenario predictions, eliminating stress-induced headaches that previously wouldn’t go away.

Other students learned that they could feel good about themselves without making others feel badly about themselves and stopped putting classmates down.

SEL and Vocal Music: A Harmonious Partnership

One successful collaboration has been with the vocal arts teacher in an Ohio middle school and high school. We have worked to adapt my approach to build social and emotional intelligence in conjunction with developing vocal music abilities.  Our first goal was to expand her understanding of social-emotional learning, along with her connections with her students.

We started by helping her look at her students through an SEL lens.  This allowed her to understand that their sometimes unhelpful behaviors were often misguided attempts to meet their needs, based on unchecked assumptions.  She was encouraged to offer an empathic ear as a doorway to redirect them to better choices.  This was applied when a student refused to move over on the risers.  When he was asked why he didn’t want to move, he shared that he did not think that he was short.  When it was explained that he was asked to move so that there was no blank space between students, he complied.  He was asked to explain himself in the future rather than simply refuse a request.

Co-constructing Shared Agreements and Building a Supportive Classroom Culture

Our next focus was to create a classroom climate where students felt understood, part of a team, and a place where the best choices were supported.  Among our activities was having the class brainstorm and choose rules (sometimes called shared agreements), that would make the class more successful and enjoyable.  Students took ownership of rules they had co-created and helped each other follow them.  Less time was spent on redirecting behaviors, leaving more time for vocal skill-building.

Another activity was having the students collectively create a cheer that represented their particular class.  This helped the students support each other, working with the teacher to achieve at their highest level.  Knowing that they were operating as a team and weren’t going to be made fun of, allowed the students to open up and sing with more volume and confidence.  This also supported students’ abilities to sing better together, crucial for an effective vocal ensemble.

Better Choices though Challenging False Assumptions 

Our next area of focus was helping students more deeply understand what choices and assumptions were, and some basic errors in logic that led to them.  These concepts were introduced through a series of video journal prompts.

Each video started with an assumption, such as “No choices I make will ever change anything”, followed by open-ended questions, such as “Which young people do you know about that have made an impact?”

After journaling in response to these questions, students listened to songs that furthered the exploration of the topic.  For example, they examined the impact of our choices by contemplating the lyrics to “Be the Light” – “In a world full of hate, be a light, when you do something wrong, make it right, Oh, don’t hide in the dark, you were born to shine, In a world full of hate, be a light”.

They went on to examine a variety of assumptions and using videos, stories, songs, drawing, role-playing, writing, and technological tools, students explored how to change these assumptions to more logical beliefs, and then let those new beliefs inform their thoughts, feelings, and, ultimately, their actions.

For example, students wrestled with the illogic in the assumption that “every little thing that doesn’t go our way is reason to become angry” through discussions. We also used songs such as “Let it Go,” coupled with a guided imagery activity where they let go of imagined situations as though they were in a balloon, watching them float away as they practiced a slow-breathing technique. The activity helped students understand that there are some things that may not be important enough to get angry about, that we can let go of them.

Student Work Reflects Shifts in Unhelpful Beliefs

Students were also encouraged to create original cheers, raps, and songs to reinforce their more logical beliefs.  The following is an example of a rap that supported an eighth-grade student’s new beliefs about stress.

OVERTHINKING

I’ve always worried if things don’t go as planned

I always think about what’s going to go bad beforehand

When I’m taking a test, I always think I’m gonna fail

I never feel like I’m ever going on the right trail

 

People always tell me to stop overthinking

They say to stop worrying it just the beginning

They don’t always get that it’s not the easy

They think it will always go away just so briefly

 

But I need to remember not everything’s gonna go wrong

It turns out I was just overthinking all along

Something bad might happen but something good can happen too

So I won’t let the assumption make me feel blue

 

Not being stressed makes me feel good

I realize I just misunderstood

If I take a deep breath I’ll feel refreshed

I got to make sure I’m at my best.

The vocal arts teacher has best summed up the power of our work together.  “Students learn to pay attention to their choices, recognize that choices don’t just happen, and realize the power they each have within to guide his or her own life”.  Darlene Haight

 

Adina Bloom Lewkowicz L.I.S.W is founder of the Transformational Learning Collaborative (https://www.tlcsocialemotionallearning.com/), and author of “Teaching Emotional Intelligence: Strategies and Activities for Helping Students Make Effective Choices” (Skyhorse, 2016).