Curriculum Approaches

The Art of SEL, Episode 1: SEL and the Role of Art

In the first episode of The Art of SEL, Jonathan explores the importance of social and emotional learning for both students and teachers. He also investigates why art can play such a crucial role in our learning and understanding of SEL. Later in the episode, Jonathan talks to Matt Beres about how SEL should not be “one more thing” and discusses with Catherine Davis Hayes the ways in which we can make SEL part of our daily routines in the art room. Full Episode Transcript Below.

Resources and Links


Jonathan Juravich:
Anyone that has spent time with elementary-aged kids is probably going to have an experience with puppets. My first year of teaching, I wanted to engage my kindergarteners with the artwork of Vincent van Gogh. So I got out the papier-mâché and sewing machine, and I created a puppet of this master artist. With students I used Mr. Van Gogh, to introduce his life and his art, I didn’t share about that ear thing, but about his life experiences. The students hung on every word. I wanted them to care about his artwork, but what I learned is that the students cared more deeply about this puppet’s emotions and experiences than the art itself, or rather they cared about his artwork because they cared about him. This is social-emotional learning.

Hi, I’m Jonathan Juravich, an elementary art educator and your host for The Art of SEL. As a young teacher, I learned very quickly that I wanted students to draw from their experiences and emotions while creating their own art. But at the time I didn’t have the terminology to engage in conversations with other teachers about my focus for art education. We had character education, which wasn’t exactly what I was doing, but then the umbrella term of social-emotional learning or SEL began to be widely used. I was able to collaborate and learn from other exceptional educators. And that’s what we’re going to do in this podcast. We’re going to talk with art educators from diverse contexts and teaching levels, as well as experts in the field of SEL about what drives them, inspires them and connects them to this work. Each episode will be based in one of the core competencies of SEL, self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. And there’ll be practical applications for art educators and their students.

It is essential that we recognize that these competencies don’t just function in isolation though. So of course, there’ll be a lot of crossover as we begin to explore them more deeply. One of the foundations of SEL is in awareness of our emotions, and what life experiences may be driving our current feelings. I typically asked my students how they’re doing in the moment, and I do not accept, “Good” or, “Fine,” as answers. I say, “Give me a descriptive word to tell me how you’re feeling right now.” And that is what I do for each of our guests during this podcast. For your listening context, though, our conversations were recorded in the spring of 2021 in the midst of a global pandemic. Though the pandemic is not a primary discussion topic for us. This event is very much a part of how individual educators answered the question, how are you doing?

But what is social and emotional learning exactly? To explore what SEL is and how it can broadly apply to art education, I talked with Matt Beres, a director of SEL and Catherine Davis Hayes, an elementary art educator. Matt Beres is a former elementary teacher who now oversees SEL for the Triway Local School District in Wooster, Ohio. He shares a broad view of what SEL can and should be. Hey Matt. So how are you doing at this moment? Can you give me a descriptive word to explain how you’re feeling?

Matt: Yeah. I think it’s been about a year since the pandemic started and schools started their pivoting and since then we’ve been pivoting. It seems like every week, there’s something a little different. And so I’ll say I am really tired, but I’m also optimistic and hopeful because I do think there’s a light at the end of the tunnel right now. I think what’s been encouraging is seeing the resilience of students and teachers, that has been an encouraging thing this year, but there’s also a lot of fatigue that’s come with that. And so, I’m tired and hopeful at the same time.

Jonathan: Right? And talking about feelings and our emotions and you brought up experiences, that’s a huge part of what social-emotional learning is, but what is it exactly, as you’ve come to understand it?

Matt: Yeah. Everybody has a little different lens when they talk about SEL or social-emotional learning, that means different things to different people. And so you can find a clinical definition for sure. You just log into Google and find your own clinical definition. But for me, what that is, especially as an administrator in a school district, social-emotional learning is providing a framework and an environment to process and coach around emotions and acquiring those strategies to build resilience in kids. So it’s like providing teachers and students with the framework and also the environment to actually do it.

Jonathan: Yeah. In presentations and stuff, I always give that big clinical definition. And then I see blank stares and I’m like, “Ah, simplified it’s learning how to be a human.” But that’s so huge.

Matt: Right.

Jonathan: So if it’s all those things, what isn’t social-emotional learning. Right?

Matt: Yeah. And I think the hard part is social-emotional learning really butts up against the mental health world. So it’s kind of like where education and mental health meet. And so educators can look at that and go, “Whoa, hands-off, I am not a counselor. I didn’t go to school to be a counselor.” And so I think that’s one of the misconceptions is that you have to be a psychologist or you have to be a clinical counselor or a therapist, or even a social worker. But really social-emotional learning is really just providing context for kids to process and engage with their emotions. And honestly, when you start breaking down what it does look like, most teachers are doing something. So you might not be doing all the things and you might be learning a new strategy for how to incorporate SEL, but I can guarantee that every teacher who’s worth their weight in salt is doing something under the umbrella of social-emotional learning, guaranteed.

Jonathan: Well, and I’ve said that to teachers, right? I’ve actually said that like, “You’re doing it.” But then, even teachers that I love, that I respect, that I value them as teachers. They’ve come back at me saying, “This is just one more thing.” So what do you say to a teacher that honestly comes to you with that idea that is one more thing.

Matt: Yeah. And I think there’s two parts of that. I would say social-emotional learning isn’t one more thing. It is the thing. I think it’s the thing. And I think if you miss social-emotional learning, you have lost your students. Not to get super collegiate on us educators, we’ve been out of college for a while, probably a lot of us, but it kind of goes back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Right? So social-emotional learning is the base of everything else that we do, because if a kid comes to school, tired, hungry, clothes, food, emotionally unregulated, bouncing off the walls, fill in the blank, you know that you’re not going to get anywhere that day. And so if you don’t approach your classroom and everything you do with even just a lens of social-emotional learning, or helping students regulate, I think you’re going to miss everything else. I think your time in the classroom that day, you’re not going to maximize your time and you’re really not going to maximize your students’ potential, if you don’t incorporate some level of social-emotional learning.

Jonathan: Well, and you have this very unique role, right? So as the director [crosstalk 00:08:21] of social-emotional learning for a district, like how do you support teachers as they navigate their core content areas? So like visual art and social-emotional learning?

Matt: Right. Absolutely. Yeah. This is a brand new role. And to be honest, we haven’t even maximized the potential in what we can do with this role in our district. So when I think about social-emotional learning, there’s two veins. There is the, “This is a framework that we are going to explicitly teach.” And the way that looks like in our district is, there are times, if you’re incorporating our morning meetings, or if you have school counselors who are willing to come in and do explicit instruction around social-emotional learning, that is great. And that’s a great support for teachers.

But not everybody has that. And not everyone has, I’ll say the luxury of having extra support like that. And then a lot of places, your administrator will probably come to you and say, “Hey, we need to incorporate social-emotional learning.” And you’re going to go, “What?” And so what that looks like to me, it looks very different for different age levels, for different groups of kids. So I know for me, what that looked like when I was in the classroom is incorporating read alouds that have a social-emotional lens. And the easiest way I found to bridge that gap was really marrying language-arts standards with social-emotional standards. So if you need a structure around incorporating social-emotional learning, that is a great place to start, is how do you blend ELA standards, even art and music? How do you take your standards that are more aligned with your emotions that speak easily to your emotions and incorporate those?

Jonathan: Well, and I think about what you just said about the standards, and we have all of these standards that we are teaching, that we’re engaging students with. But if we’re looking for those ways to incorporate SEL, look to the ones that like immediately talk about emotions, that check out emotions and feelings or working alongside other people. Like they’re in there, right?

Matt: Absolutely. One of my favorite books when I’ve talked about SEL that incorporates ELA standards with SEL… Sometimes I get really bogged down by all the educational RTI SEL.

Jonathan: Right.

Matt: If you don’t know what that is, social-emotional learning. How does that incorporate with English and language arts standards? There’s a book I love, it’s called The Invisible Boy. And I use this book as one of our first grade standards was using picture clues to help you understand the story better. And so I won’t give away the whole book, but basically the premise is there’s a boy named Brian, who he has drawn in the book as just a line drawing with no color and he’s lonely and he doesn’t have friends and he feels like he’s left out. And as Brian makes friends in the story, he starts turning colored, like his colors on his clothes start to come out and his skin becomes flush.

And it was a great way for my kids to one, use picture clues, like in an ELA standard, but also to have the discussion of how does it make you feel? We can see on Brian’s clothes and his skin when people are being his friend and reaching out to him that it makes him come alive. How does that make you feel?

And so was that an SEL lesson in and of itself? Not necessarily, but how can we use things like that as a jumping for incorporating social-emotional learning on a regular basis. And I’ll say this, it’s kind of like riding a bike. So at first it feels like this is weird to take something and infuse it with all this feelings talk. But I will say once you start doing it, you start seeing it more. So if you go into it with that mindset, I think when you look for books, especially in ELA or you look for projects regarding history, how do students reflect on history and how would that make them feel? Like empathy is huge in history and social studies. So how do you incorporate those? It really does become easy once you start doing it with purpose.

Jonathan: Well, and even just talking to other educators. So you brought up The Invisible Boy. I completely forgot that years ago, I worked with our music teacher and she wrote a little musical based off of The Invisible Boy. And the students in here made puppets, they made sets.

Matt: Wow.

Jonathan: The kid changed from the line drawing to being filled with color. I completely forgot about that. But our conversations with that group of students were incredible, based off of this simple picture book that seems so simple. Yeah. Right?

Matt: Right. That’s such a good example because it’s such an easy way to start without, like you said, just another thing. We never want SEL to become another thing, because I think it’s the main thing.

Jonathan: Catherine Davis Hayes sat down to talk with me after a busy day of online instruction. She’s the art teacher at Oakland Beach Elementary School in Warwick, Rhode Island, working with students in kindergarten through 5th grade. She also serves as the manager for the Young Artists Program at RISD, the Rhode Island School of Design. She offers up her perspective on how SEL can be a part of daily routines with our art students. Well Catherine, can you give me a descriptive word to tell me about how you’re feeling? Right. You’re like “Ha ha ha.”

Catherine: I’m feeling challenged. I think is a good word for it. I think every day it’s challenging to make sure that we’re doing what we’re doing to the best that we can do it in the circumstances that we’ve been dealt. But I don’t think that is a negative. I think it’s challenging in a good way.

Jonathan: Yeah. There’s so many ways to look at the word challenging, right?

Catherine: Right.

Jonathan: And some of us really enjoy a good challenge. And like, “Bring it on and let’s see how we can work with it.”

Catherine: Exactly. And I think I shared with you briefly some of challenges that I’m facing, not being in my classroom, having to teach art on a CART, I’ve been fortunate to never in my career have to do elementary art on a CART, even though I know it exists out there. I’ve been fortunate. And to teach both in-person and distance learners at the same time and try to do it under the very strict safety precautions that we’re working under, which means modifying my supplies and the lessons accordingly. So it’s challenging.

Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah. It’s challenging.

Catherine: But it’s problem-solving and it’s good stuff.

Jonathan: It’s problem-solving at its finest.

Catherine: Yes.

Jonathan: Like real time.

Catherine: Yes. On your feet constantly.

Jonathan: As an art educator, what is social-emotional learning to you? What does that mean?

Catherine: So I think this year has really helped me define it because I almost feel like I just explained, I’m almost living it with the students. So I think it means taking into account the whole person when you are teaching and not just teaching your content. And I feel like more so this year than ever before, I’ve thought about my students and what their needs are and what I would like them to feel while art making. And I think that the art room has often been a place where you can explore social-emotional learning, but it’s also a place where you have to be aware of where your students are coming from, because art is something that does not always feel comfortable to every child. It means that they’re putting themselves out there in a new way. They’re taking risks. I think for you and I, we grew up loving the art room. It was our favorite place and it was our-

Jonathan: We never left it.

Catherine: We never left it. Exactly. But not every student feels the same way. And I think that for me, it’s been becoming more and more aware of all of the students who come to that place and wanting to make sure that they all feel happy and safe and excited to be there.

Jonathan: I know that for me, there’s times where I feel myself so focused on procedure and clean up and passing things out and making sure everyone knows where they’re supposed to be. That there’s been moments where I take a breath and I was like, “Whoa, remember these are kids. These are humans. Let’s take a beat and focus on how we’re handling this.” Right?

Catherine: Yes. Exactly.

Jonathan: It hits you.

Catherine: Very much. And I think at the elementary level, I just finished working with a student teacher and that experience brought it home again, that one of the biggest challenges in the elementary art room is our relentless schedule and that the kids, they come, they go, they come, they go, there’s never enough time in between to make sure that you’re perfectly prepared and no matter how much time you think you need for clean up and set up, it’s never enough. And so you don’t want the kids to feel that stress or that anxiety or that rushed pace. And I feel like that is another one of those art room challenges is to… And then you’ve got to get it done. I don’t know how much time you have to… I have 45 minutes with my students once a week typically. And so it’s like, “Got to go, got to go, come on, sit down. Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go. I got so much for us to do.” And for me it’s exciting and fun, but you want to make sure that you’re not pushing that frenetic energy to a point where you’re stressing kids out.

Jonathan: Yeah. And a lot of that comes back to our own awareness of our emotions, which is a huge part of social-emotional learning, our own awareness of what’s going on around us and how we’re handling it. Because it’s not just about the kids, it’s also about us. And as you said, like what we’re projecting. And I think that comes back to like, how is our classroom culture, this art room, impacted whenever we focus on social-emotional learning, what does that look like for the classroom culture?

Catherine: Yeah. So the way that I’ve tried is that I try to establish routine that stays constant. And I work with my youngest students, their first experiences in the art room, laying out methods and structures for them to be as independent as possible, like where to get the materials, where do we store our work? How do we share responsibility with each other? So that hopefully, and of course that gets reinforced every year. So that by the time, probably like even my 2nd graders come into my room and they feel like it’s home. And certainly my 3rd graders can be very, very, very independent in the space.

And I think that’s helpful because of course, every year, most of the students are going to go through this transition where they have a new teacher and they have a new collection of classmates. And I think one of the things that makes my room special is that they’re coming home. They’ve been here before. They’ve been here since they were little. And so that even though their classmates and their homeroom teacher have changed, I haven’t changed and my space doesn’t change too much. And so that culture is one of familiarity and hopefully that they come in and they feel at ease.

Jonathan: And it’s beautiful. It is. It’s absolutely beautiful when you think about that, because again, we get wrapped up in the day-to-day, but to take that moment to realize, as you said, this feels like home to so many kids because, and in elementary program for six years, they may be in this room with you and you’re a constant in their lives and that’s responsibility on our part.

Catherine: Yeah. It is. Yes. Yeah.

Jonathan: It’s powerful.

Catherine: It is. And I hope that I can do it justice because over time I do know these kids and I might be able to see if something’s not quite right, perhaps before a classroom teacher can. If something is off or if something shifts or changes, it might come on my radar, especially if I’m trying to create an environment where the kids can be themselves and they feel like they can be open enough to just chat. Not even I’m not looking for confiding. I’m hoping that when they come, they’re just being them. And then if that confidant status fits and I’m there to be there, then that’s a bonus.

Jonathan: Well, I think about how I’ve often heard it said for many teachers that we’ve got our standards, we’ve got, like you said, procedures and clean up and the schedule and all of this stuff that is a part of being an art teacher that people don’t realize outside of our world. They think it’s fun and creative, which it is.

Catherine: It is.

Jonathan: It’s like, “Don’t tell anyone. It’s amazing.” But I think about all of that stuff. And then we started talking about social-emotional learning, and there’s been people that are like, “Oh, I can’t do one more thing.” So I’m wondering like how can art teachers thoughtfully integrate social-emotional learning into their classroom practices? You already talked about procedures and independence, but can you share any other ideas that they can begin integrating SEL into their work?

Catherine: I try to… And this is actually a more recent development when SEL has become something that everyone is talking about. And the question has been asked, “Well, what can you do?” And so one of the things that I’ve done is to try not to just launch into that, I do take more time when they’re entering in and when I’m greeting them outside of the class or when they come in. I make it a point to have a little bit of a back and forth conversation. One of the things that I also, in a part of the procedures, I’ve instituted little games and one of them is called, it’s like, at the end of class, we play The Line Up Game, lineup games. But so one of the ways we played The Line Up Game is I would just start calling out anyone who is wearing stripes, or if we’re learning about color, anyone who has a primary color on.

Well, one thing led to another and the students were like, “Can we call the game?” And, “Yes, of course.” And so after we’ve established the routine, these kids live for the moment where they can be the one to call The Line Up Game. And so again, sharing responsibility like that, especially sharing responsibility that they perceive as maybe being the grownups responsibility. And so they’re given, they think, “Ooh, I’m so mature, I get to call The Line Up Game.”

Jonathan: And honestly, once those routines are in place, you’re able to focus on other things.

Catherine: Of course. You are.

Jonathan: Yes, if the next class is already lined up, ready to come in, instead of projecting that anxiousness or the, “Whoa, am I prepared for this next group?” Not only you are empowering these young students to take the lead and for responsible decision-making, but it’s also helping you as well.

Catherine: Exactly.

Jonathan: Wow. Who knew there was so much in The Line Up Game?

Catherine: No kidding.

Jonathan: I know. The one day I said to a group of second graders, I said, “All right, I want to know more about you. So when I point at you, tell me your favorite color and your favorite animal.” And I was like, “Okay, okay.” And I’m trying to remember these. The next time they came in they were like, “What’s my favorite color?” I was like, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” I was like, “I tried, I really tried, but next time I’m going to get it.” Right? “Green rhino.” “Got it.” But I think we’re trying, and they see that too.

Catherine: Right. Yeah. Trying to create moments where you can be more interactive. We had a theater artist in residence at our school for many years, and I am not a performance-based artist at all. I was always happy to have the art on the wall and that was it. But I learned a lot of her theater warmup games are some things that I’ve used in my art room, either at the beginning of the year, to icebreaker, get to know each other, or sometimes at the end of class, if we miraculously are cleaned up even way too early for the cleanup game. There are things that you can do again, to stimulate that kind of fun and interaction and again, that home base kind of, “You’re in my art room. I want you to be happy here” kind of vibe.

Jonathan: Well, there’s all of these successes that come out of integrating social-emotional learning, but there’s also challenges. So from your perspective, what are some challenges that might come up as art teachers consider social-emotional learning for their spaces?

Catherine: I think it’s that it still has to be a safe place. It is a place Where we’re making a mess, hopefully a lovely mess. So still, there has to be structure. And I think the challenge is trying to find ways that fit you and your style and your space and your routines. It needs to be organic and authentic. It should not seem like it’s, “Okay, boys and girls, we’re going to stop in our tracks. And we are now going to do this thing called social-emotional learning.” I think you need to find, there’s all these resources and you can learn and read and try to embody it, but it will only work if it’s natural and authentic. And not this other thing. Like the perception that you said before that teachers feel, “There’s too much on my plate. I can’t possibly add one more thing.”

And I think the secret in this is not to have it become one other thing, but have it blend in and realize that you’re probably just this… I’m holding my fingers up for the radio people, a little minuscule pinch, you might be this far away from it being natural, but in your head, it’s a mile away, that you think that, “I have to incorporate these new practices.” So I think that’s the challenges, is the perception of it and perceiving that you’re probably already doing it and you just need to bring it more to the forefront and to not have it be an add on. If that makes sense.

Jonathan: I think about what you said earlier about just having a student teacher within your space, and anytime I’ve worked with student teachers or college students, I’ve always had to explain to them that a lot of what I’m sharing with you is what I do. Right? Like you’re watching me and what feels comfortable to me. And I’ll never forget the student teacher that saw me use a puppet and she’s like, “Oh, I want to use the puppet too.” So she put it on and started talking to a group of kindergarteners and halfway through it was like, “Oh no, no, this doesn’t feel right. I don’t know how to make any funny voices. So it’s just my voice in a puppet.” She’s like, “I can’t do this.” And I was like, “Okay, cool. Find what works for you.” Right? And I just like this, feeling uncomfortable is not a bad thing. However, if it doesn’t feel authentic and it’s forced, then who’s winning?

Catherine: Exactly.

Jonathan: An important note is that both Matt and Catherine reflect on how SEL is not just about students, but it’s also about adults, the educators in the room. There’s been probably no greater time than now, where teachers have felt the need for support. And that looks so different for everybody. In our district this year, really, one of my jobs with my school counselors was this. And so we brought food trucks in, teachers love food, right?

Matt: Oh yeah. Food, if we can give teachers food and time and we can figure out ways to do food and time, they’re happy people. And so we even figured out ways to adjust schedules and buildings so that teachers could have a little more planning and collaborative time this year, we couldn’t make it happen every day or every week, but we through some events and class coverage to give teachers a little extra time. And our superintendent even said, “If you need to close your door and just be quiet, that’s fine.”

So what now, what do you do with this information? Well, here are three things to consider. One, SEL doesn’t have to be something extra, something additional, but take a moment to consider what is your current capacity for bringing SEL into your art education context. Two, who can serve as an accomplice to you in this work, supporting and encouraging your efforts. Three, what are you already doing really well, that is SEL-based or can be ever so slightly tweaked to engage students in their discussions about feelings, awareness, and relationships?

And how am I feeling right now? Well, it might sound super cheesy, but I’m enthusiastic. I’m enthusiastic about the episodes ahead. And I hope you’ll join me next time, as we explore self-awareness.

This has been The Art of SEL. Part of the Art of Education University podcast network. Tim Bogatz is our producer and Amanda Heyn is our executive producer, and all of our episodes are engineered by the very efficient Amy Juravich. Thank you so much for listening. If you like what you hear, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. If you want more information on art and social-emotional learning or anything else, art education related, please check out

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.