Art for Social and Emotional Learning

January 21, 2020
By Beth Herrild

Art is the perfect subject to enhance social emotional learning. Whether you homeschool or are just a purposeful parent or grandparent, I’m sure that social emotional learning is a big part of why you spend time doing learning activities like art! You may not specifically label it as social emotional learning (SEL), but we all want our children to develop self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and self-control. These skills are more important now than ever! According to The Committee for Children, social emotional learning benefits everyone, Children thrive. Schools win. Workplaces benefit. Society strengthens. All due to social-emotional learning.

There are many different ways to weave in SEL with art. The foundation of social emotional learning is helping children understand their own emotions and develop skills for managing them, while feeling and displaying empathy for others. Art is perfect for both of these.

Observe art with your child. This can be done in person at museums or anywhere art is displayed. Besides museums, art is often found at places like coffee shops, restaurants, public libraries, doctor’s offices or at home with a book or while looking at art on the Internet.

If you are with your child and see some interesting art, seize the moment and ask your child to really look at it. Ask her how it makes her feel? If she is unable to respond to such an open ended question, you might start sentences with “I wonder….” saying something like: “I wonder what the woman in the painting is thinking/feeling?” or “I wonder why she is sitting by herself, not smiling?” Then just stay quiet and let your child talk, even if there is some uncomfortable silence. If you want to read more about having these types of discussions while looking at images together, read my blog post on Cultivating Visual Literacy.


Mom at the Manor

This watercolor by Dean Mitchell is called Mom at the Manor. Given the title, we might surmise that his mother is in a nursing home and that her health is not good and she may be feeling sad or lonely. However, try not to volunteer these details at first. Another question might be, “What does this make you think of?” Perhaps your child will recall an experience with an elderly person. Not only can this discussion help your child identify and name her feelings; it can also help her develop empathy for people who are dealing with different life situations.

Even the colors used in a piece of art can convey emotion. According to the blog, Invaluable, while there has been research on the effects of different colors on our blood pressure and emotional well-being,

Human response to color is unique to each individual and is deeply rooted in personal and cultural experiences. For example, in the United States, yellow is often associated with the sun, and thus considered cheerful and bright. In France, however, yellow evokes emotions of jealousy and betrayal and was even painted on the homes of criminals in the 10th century.

That being said, my experience is that most children find bright colors to be “happy” colors unless the child dislikes a particular color. In our February Box, we expose kids to the art of Romero Britto. The New York Times has described his style as exuding “warmth, optimism, and love.” This is not only because of the bright, bold colors and patterns but also his frequent use of hearts.


The second major way to use art in SEL is to engage kids in the act of self-reflection during their art-making process. For children who are upper elementary and older, there are many ways to combine writing with art for self-reflection. Pinterest is full of ideas, but I would caution that it is easy to get sucked in to a pretty project with words that aren’t meaningful. We are in the process of redeveloping a self-portrait box that addresses how a child sees herself versus how she believes others see her.

Finally, if your child enjoys art, help her understand that art is a great activity to do when she is feeling strong feelings—as a way to manage those feelings. Even coloring in a coloring book or squishing clay can be incredibly calming activities. For suggestions on how to set out art supplies for your child and create a designated art area in your home, read my blog on How to Create Art Invitations for Your Child. Art is the perfect subject to enhance social emotional learning.