The Possibilities of Art in Socio-Emotional Learning: Curating Young Learners’ Well Being

UNESCO MGIEP
Nov 3, 2020 · 7 min read

In 2019, Muskan, a young poet involved with Slam Out Loud (SOL) while performing at the TEDxGatewaySalon Platform shared how she was often told by her parents and teachers that “the Arts are for people who are not hardworking.”

Much like Muskan, most of us, are no stranger to the narrative that art has no ‘real’ value and should at best, be indulged in as a hobby. Both research and recent shifts in pedagogical techniques however, argue otherwise. Through brain imaging technologies, neuroscientists across the globe are now able to show the physical changes that occur in the brain when one contemplates over or indulges in art. For instance, did you know that a creatively inspired brain depicts lower levels of cortisol which is the biological indicator for stress?! Educators too, have noticed radical changes in student behaviour and performance on integrating art and Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) for children. The Economic Development Quarterly offers an insight that children who received art education showed an 80% increase in creativity and levels of social skills. The ‘National Endowment for the Arts’ observed that students partaking in arts courses had higher grade point averages and were five times more likely to graduate compared to their peers.

For students studying in low-income schools, art-based SEL is crucial in how it allows space to foster expression. This, in turn, is essential to ensure that children are empowered to break their cycle of negative outcomes. The perspective that art-based SEL is especially climacteric for low-income students is supported by intensive research. For instance, in a study led by the ‘Kennedy Center’s Changing Education Through the Arts (CETA) Program’, it was found that integrating the arts had a profound impact on closing achievement gaps, particularly for students from low-income families.

But how do Art and SEL communicate with each other? How does art amplify the benefits of SEL? Why is this especially crucial for students from disadvantaged communities? And how do we begin to employ these methods in the backdrop of a COVID stricken world and its myriad challenges?

In the wake of the Covid pandemic, 1.5 Billion children across the world are unable to access classrooms. From the uncertainty of completing the academic year to larger systemic issues like the digital divide- students have been struggling to learn. Learner’s loneliness has steadily been rising, translating into high levels of anxiety and an inability to focus on information and retain it. With an internal chaos brewing within children, how can we inspire them to continue learning from home until we first cater to their individual well-being?

As educators keeping intact our commitment for children everywhere to find their voice, we at Slam Out Loud, created our solution based on the principles of Human Centred Design. Keeping our ears close to the ground, we decided to pause, listen to our students and then approach the problem with compassion and creativity. Here’s what transpired next.

Towards fostering well-being, creative outcomes and mental resilience in students, we decided to leverage the power of arts and low tech platforms through Arts for All. AFA is an initiative that offers localised, need-sensitive, multilingual and engaging at-home audio, video, text, and print resources for young learners who have limited internet access. These include Booklets with Art Activities for student well-being, SEL focused Youtube courses on Storytelling, Theatre, Visual Art and Poetry and also some byte sized art based learning audio podcasts that deliver activities over an IVRS system.

A good example to gauge the impact of this approach comes from our recent partnership with the Government of Patiala, which showed us some heartwarming data (two words one would rarely usually in the same breath!) Over the course of an eight-week long pilot project that disseminated SEL focused art activities to over 1.4 Lakh children daily, we observed a significant increase in students’ Creative Confidence from the beginning of the program as compared to the end. Using high-frequency oral diagnostics to assess engagement and growth on Creative Confidence aspects in children along with Qualitative surveys of stakeholders to monitor growth in our Art-proficiency rubric, by the end of our evaluation process, the profound impact that art had created for our students in Punjab was crystal clear.

The two graphs below depict a significant increase in SEL skills in children. Across the 4 skills of Communication, Creativity, Critical Thinking and Self Esteem — we observed a notable increase in the number of students falling in the ‘excellent’ category. In other words, students falling in the low, amateur and medium category across each skill, gained proficiency in their skill sets. We observed maximum improvement in the aspects of Self-Esteem and Communication. Other than creating a positive and cohesive learning environment, engaging with art also translated into improved social skills and peer collaboration for our children in Punjab. The question is, how and why does this happen?

Our work has taught us that the addition of art into education has a profound effect on children’s learning because art never tells them they are wrong. Instead, it provides them with a space where their ideas, feelings and identity is accepted without iteration. And that is exactly what a space for fostering wellness looks like.

Across 23 Indian states and 19 countries globally, ~4.7 Million children are participating in Slam Out Loud’s art-based activities for fostering wellness and SEL. Working with our students has shown us how engaging in artistically creative acts develops a better sense of self and wellness. Broadly, the power of Art in SEL translated into three interrelated changes that we have observed in students who have consistently been exposed to artistic opportunities and experiences:

  1. Learning to Grow and Stretch as Artists, which relates to how students gain a sense of competence through the arts
  2. Building Supportive and Meaningful Connections, which concerns the supportive and meaningful relationships that they build with their peers and mentors when participating in art activities and,
  3. Letting go of the Inner Critic and Discovering the Authentic Voice, which is connected with how the arts provide students with opportunities to garner a sense of autonomy, let go of their self judgement, and adopt an open attitude.

All three themes were found to be mediated by a sense of Mindfulness that enabled the students to remain open to informational feedback, to become less defensive and more able to connect with others and more likely to choose paths for themselves that they found to be truly engaging. The addition of art to the equation of SEL, vivifies children’s experience of recognizing and understanding themselves and the world. It is art that allows a shy girl like Muskan to step on a platform like TEDx Gateway and share her story. It is art that allows a child like Anjali, another student poet with SOL to re-think the norms she was taught using poetry and ask questions like “What about boys who love pink?”

And much like Muskan and Anjali, each of the ~4.7 Million children who access our activities everyday are interacting with modalities that foster their wellness and help them find their voice. At SOL we believe that instead of focusing on the ‘input’ that is, the fixed curriculum followed in a school, we must foster safe spaces for children that allow them to unfurl and bloom in their own way. If every individual (or child) is different and unique, how can we expect them all to learn in the same way?

[1] https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258134674_Arts_and_Crafts_Critical_to_Economic_Innovation

[2] https://all4ed.org/access-to-arts-education-an-overlooked-tool-for-social-emotional-learning-and-positive-school-climate/

[3] https://all4ed.org/access-to-arts-education-an-overlooked-tool-for-social-emotional-learning-and-positive-school-climate/

[4] As per the World Bank report (April 2020)

[5] Hilburn-Arnold, Margaret. Turning to Creativity: A Grounded Theory Approach Towards Understanding the Relationship Between Wellness and the Arts for Adolescents. Diss. The University of Texas at San Antonio, 2020.

AUTHOR:

Aastha Singh Raghuvanshi is a spoken word poet and artist who believes in good stories, authenticity and fostering voices. Currently, she works on Communications and Advocacy at Slam Out Loud.