Art as a Pathway to SEL in School Counseling
Introducing creative expression into lessons can help students process their emotions and strengthen relationships in the classroom.
School counselors have a knack for being creative and finding new and innovative ways to support students’ social and emotional growth and well-being. Arts integration, the practice of integrating visual art, dance, drama, and music into academic content areas, can also be an impactful way for counselors to support students’ social skills, emotive connections, and creative expression in core curriculum, small-group, and individual settings.
While all of the following lessons and supportive strategies can be used interchangeably, they’re most supported in the medium listed below due to the level of engagement, students’ emotive reflection (especially in crisis), and their willingness to share private feelings.
Core Curriculum Lesson Benefits and Activities
Students can work on social skills in creative ways: Cooperation and communication are some of my favorite social and emotional (SEL) skills to support with the arts. When students have an opportunity to create, they become more invested in the process. This sometimes causes disagreements, emotional shutdowns, and frustrations because of their enthusiasm with the project they’re working on.
Observing the conflict in real time allows me to have authentic conversations on cooperation and communication with students, thus helping them with strategies to be more effective at cooperating and communicating with their peers.
Sometimes students need help with taking deep breaths, empathic listening, compromising, or cooperating. It's an opportunity for growth because assisting students with these skills allows them to complete projects while learning about their communication and cooperation strengths.
It helps your relationships with teachers: Since using arts integration, I’ve found ways to use SEL and art standards to support some grade-level standards. Teachers are impressed when I do a whole-group lesson that not only focuses on my ASCA mindsets and behaviors and art but also reinforces a standard they’re working on.
In one fourth-grade lesson, teachers had just introduced the Revolutionary War, and students had a general understanding of the main historical figures involved. During a school counseling lesson, I shared three paintings depicting events that occurred during the war. Students selected one painting that they found interesting and completed a “see, think, wonder” written reflection about it.
Then I placed students into groups by the painting they selected. During this activity, students practiced active listening and perspective taking while discussing their thoughts and feelings about the painting. I monitored the groups and gave feedback during their conversations.
Teachers also use arts integration in math and science content areas. This can be done in school counseling as well, especially with collaborative science or math projects. However, I’ve found that social studies and English language arts (ELA) are the easiest content areas to connect to SEL and arts integration because there are more standards we can cover that focus on human characteristics such as empathy, kindness, perseverance, and resilience, as well as cooperative skills.
It allows you to be creative: It’s easy to get stuck in the story and worksheet lessons in school counseling. While there are many amazing SEL children’s books to choose from, using a worksheet to reinforce a concept isn’t exciting for anyone. I get to have fun, be creative, and think of ways to use visual arts, drama, dance, and music in my lessons.
Feelings and songs: Analyze the lyrics of songs by reading them to students, allow students to hear the instrumental version, and then allow them to listen to the version with words. During each listening segment, have students draw how they are feeling. They should draw a total of three times. After they’ve finished drawing, have students reflect and share how different parts of the song made them feel and how that impacted their drawings.
Music cooperation and science: Using palm pipes, have students create a song together by exploring palm pipes and figuring out how to use them. Once they realize that each palm pipe creates a different note, they can practice different songs (provided with the purchase of palm pipes). After they’ve practiced a few times, have them work together to create their own song and perform it for the class. Students love this lesson.
Small-Group Benefits and Activities
Insight: When students create something, especially with visual art, I’m able to gain insight into them that I may not have gotten playing a game or just talking. I may learn more about their feelings or social and personal interactions based on what they’ve created.
Creative freedom: With so much emphasis on standards and standardized testing, sometimes it’s fun to just be able to make something without expectations.
Fluid conversation: It’s much easier to have candid conversations while we’re engaging in creative expression either together or side-by-side. Students are generally more open to share their experiences and feelings while engaging in the creative process.
Self-portrait/self-awareness: Have students create a self-portrait of their past, present, and future selves, reflecting on regrets and accomplishments in their past, how they’re doing in the present, and goals and dreams for the future. Students can share their work with the group.
Feelings puzzle: Using a puzzle template (or blank wooden puzzle), cut out the pieces individually and distribute them to each member of the group until all of them are passed out. Allow students to draw the feeling of (insert feeling) on their piece(s) of the puzzle. Create the puzzle together once all students have finished their art.
Individual Benefits and Activities
Emotional regulation: Art is a helpful way to process feelings of anger, frustration, or sadness. Sometimes, children struggle with verbalizing or even understanding their emotions. Art can help them explore themselves.
Sharing vulnerabilities: Students who are afraid to share their fears or self-doubts verbally can use art to share private thoughts or feelings without having to verbally divulge them. This allows openness to happen gradually and helps students to feel more comfortable.
Processing trauma: With trauma, it’s often difficult for children to process any of their emotions at first. Making art allows them to navigate through the grief or anger process within their own space of comfort.
Molding clay: Sometimes students are not ready to share their feelings of grief. My relationship with them may be new, or they may not know how to process difficult feelings. Using clay or play dough is a way for students to process feelings of sorrow, sadness, and sometimes anger without having to talk. I usually keep it open-ended, allowing them to create symbols of their loved one, reflect on feelings, or sometimes just squish it. If they want to talk, I listen. If they want to sit in silence, I sit with them. I make decisions of support based on many factors: body language, verbal responses, tone, and facial expressions.
Paper toss: It’s important for children to release their anger, but the school setting isn’t always a realistic place to process extreme feelings. This is why I allow students to physically express anger in a safe space. For each thing that makes them angry, I have them draw it on a piece of paper (sometimes they have a lot of drawings). Once they finish their drawings, I let them crumple the paper up and throw it all over my room. It’s quite cathartic for them.
After they’ve finished and self-regulated a bit more, we talk about how to use that strategy in class: “No, you can’t throw paper all over the classroom, but you can draw something, crumple it up, and throw it away in the trash can.”
I also tell them that if they need some more angry time, they can come to my office to throw some paper.