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How to Bring Social Justice, Trauma-Informed Teaching, and SEL Into the Art Room

The following article is written from one art educator’s experiential lens. We recognize that it may not be safe or permissible to engage in these discussions at your school. We encourage you to keep your safety, your students’ safety, your district regulations, and the parents in your community in mind at all times.

Many of us experienced trauma during the global pandemic throughout the past 18 months. We may have been isolated from loved ones and snatched from routine comfort, which greatly affected our mental health. Many of us had friends and family who contracted the virus, or we became sick ourselves. On top of COVID-19, we have seen spikes in anti-Asian, anti-Black, and anti-trans+ attacks. We saw an uprising following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These events were traumatic to witness, even more so if you are part of an affected community.

Many of our students experienced trauma, too. Students can better learn new information and skills when they are in a stress-free environment or have a passion for a topic or content area. In the art room, we have the unique opportunity to provide a place for our students to process and learn how to cope with these traumas safely. Art is, at its core, self-expression. This school year is an important time to infuse social-emotional learning into our curriculums. Our goal as art teachers is to teach the whole student.

together we will change the world chalk on pavement

Let’s take a moment to examine a few concepts before we dive into classroom application.

Trauma, according to the American Psychological Association, is an emotional response to a terrible event. Trauma-informed teaching is acknowledging that what happens outside of the classroom affects students throughout their day. It is not “extra curriculum” to add to everything you are already doing. Instead, it is a lens to reflect on your students and your teaching. Trauma-informed teaching might look like building in opportunities for reflection, understanding that student behavior is not personal to you, and employing coping and self-regulation strategies. As art teachers, we are trained in creating and implementing the curriculum. We are not licensed therapists. However, we can take what we know about trauma and trauma-informed teaching and apply it to create art classrooms where students feel safe and are receptive to learning the curriculum.

For more specific information on trauma-informed teaching, check out the following resources (listed alphabetically):

Trauma-informed teaching is tied to social-emotional learning (SEL). SEL centers around promoting self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. SEL is applicable in all classrooms and across all disciplines.

For more specific information on SEL, visit the following resources (listed alphabetically):

Social justice is another term that has received much attention because of the discrepancy in some of its principles, namely the use and implications of the terms equity versus equality. According to the National Education Association, “Social justice is about distributing resources fairly and treating all students equitably so that they feel safe and secure—physically and psychologically.” Curriculums from your district or state may or may not have a social justice lens. If your school supports a social justice curriculum, we provide practical art classroom applications for various grade levels below.

Regardless of our beliefs about trauma-informed teaching, SEL, and social justice, as art educators, it is our job to teach our content area—art. We must foster an art classroom where all our students feel safe voicing their opinions and perspectives and nurture a love and appreciation for the arts.

Students cannot learn when they are stressed or surrounded by threats and negativity. This means we must create a safe and calm environment conducive to learning for every student. We do not want to support one student or group at the expense of another. If our curriculum allows for topics that can create uncomfortable or challenging conversations, we need to ensure our classroom does not encourage a “spiral of silence.” This theory describes a phenomenon that occurs when a student or group of students isolate or exclude another student or group of students because of conflicting opinions. The fear of isolation and not being seen as popular can push a student or group of students to avoid sharing their differing thoughts. Their silence can distort perceptions of how widely accepted a viewpoint is in your classroom. It may foster an unsafe and unsupportive environment perpetuating the same marginalized behavior we are trying to stop.

If you need more resources on how to cultivate a safe classroom climate, check out the links below:

flower buds

How can I bring a social justice curriculum and trauma-informed teaching together?

It is important to pair our social justice curriculum with trauma-informed teaching. With social justice learning in the art room, students can develop their own voices. They can also become empowered to stand up for themselves and others. Trauma-informed teaching acknowledges what happens outside of the classroom to students and how outside events affect their ability to engage with content. Perhaps students have personal experiences similar to what is being discussed or find something difficult to learn or process. Either way, students may shut down when learning about a difficult topic.

Both social justice learning and trauma-informed teaching require a lot of self-reflection. Many trauma-informed teaching and SEL goals guide a self-reflective process. By pairing these concepts together, students practice valuable coping and analytical skills while also learning to advocate for those around them.

Social-emotional learning goals and standards vary from state to state and sometimes from district to district. Are you wondering what they are where you teach? Here is a list with links to the twenty-nine states that have adopted statewide SEL standards so far.

Read on to learn some general grade-related goals and how to apply them to social justice learning in the art room.

These SEL goals are based on CASEL’s CSI Resources. It may not be permissible to engage in discussions of racial equity at your school. Keep your district regulations, community, and state laws in mind as you craft your lessons and incorporate resources. Be sure to review all resources and preview all artists before sharing them with your students. 

hands with paint

Grades K–3

A goal for grades K–3 is to recognize how their bodies feel when they become stressed or anxious.

  1. Ask students to think about where they keep feelings in their bodies. What do they physically feel when they are happy? Sad? Scared? Silly?
  2. Students draw self-portrait body maps.
  3. Use different colors and patterns to represent where students feel different emotions.

Grades 3–6

A goal for grades 3–6 can be to demonstrate respect for members of various ethnic and religious groups.

  1. Share age-appropriate autobiographical stories of refugees with your students. A great place to find some is the UN Refugee Agency website for educators.
  2. Students read at least two stories and choose one person to create a piece of artwork about.
  3. Students choose one part of the refugee’s story to illustrate.
  4. Students share the refugee’s story and why they chose it with their peers.

breathe pink lights

Grades 6–9

A goal for grades 6–9 can be to practice self-calming techniques to manage stress. Some common self-calming techniques are deep breathing, self-talk, progressive relaxation, and guided meditation. While art teachers are not licensed therapists, we can incorporate mindfulness techniques. (If you are looking for more resources on art therapy, check out this PRO Pack. For mindfulness, check out this article or this PRO Pack.)

  1. Lead the class through a few mindfulness exercises.
  2. Students reflect on which exercise was the most effective for them.
  3. Introduce zines. For a great zine lesson template, check out this article.
  4. Students design a zine illustrating an effective self-calming technique.
  5. Take this to the next level by making copies of the zines and distributing them via your school’s counseling office.

Grades 9–12

A goal for grades 9–12 can be to practice opposing intolerance and stereotypes.

  1. As a class, study artists who create art combating stereotypes. Some strong examples are Melanie Yazzie, Alanna Airitam, Dr. Fahamu Pecou, Kara Walker, Sonia Lazo, and Kim Leutwyler.
  2. Analyze how different artists use compositional techniques and historical references to support their intent.
  3. Students reflect on times they have seen or experienced harmful stereotypes.
  4. Students brainstorm ways to celebrate a person affected by a stereotype visually.
  5. Research different compositions and historical motifs.
  6. Students create a celebratory portrait of their subject.
  7. Compose a class gallery of all the portraits.
  8. Include a short student-generated written reflection where students explain why they chose their subject. Students can also expand on artistic choices that promote positivity and celebration.

hands skin colors

Focusing on trauma-informed teaching, SEL, and social justice takes time and self-reflection. While it may go above the standard job description of an art educator, this focus can allow you to cultivate a supportive and challenging artmaking environment for students. You can equip students to empower themselves, and those around them through the activities curated activities. Students can use their art to advocate for change for themselves and others and regulate their emotions. We hope you take time to reflect on the role these principles and practices may have in your art classroom this year.

What are some ways you are already applying trauma-informed teaching in your classroom? 

How will you incorporate SEL into your next unit? 

If you already integrate these principles into your classroom, how have you seen these benefit your students and school? 

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.

Jennie Drummond is a high school art and yearbook teacher in California’s Bay Area. Her favorite part about teaching is facilitating an environment where students collaborate, help one another succeed, and celebrate diversity, individuality, and community.

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