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Teaching Social and Emotional Skills Through Art

Teaching children social and emotional skills is getting new attention in the world of education. Some experts say doing arts and crafts at home and at school can help build those abilities.
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Marygrace Berberian is an art therapist and social worker who teaches at New York University. She says that because the creative process requires invention and trial-and-error, children can learn to manage frustration through art.

She says the creative process can also teach children to connect to the more emotional parts of themselves.

Calls for social and emotional skills are coming from many areas, says Jacqueline Jodl. She directs the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

“Families and parents are requesting help with social and emotional learning,” she says. “Teachers also are really starting to express demand for it.”

Jodl says the business community also continues to ask for students with a wider mix of skills than those traditionally taught at schools.

In addition, an increasing number of young people are facing emotional challenges, says Melissa Schlinger. She is a vice president of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL, which is based in Chicago. CASEL does research, policy and guidance work on social and emotional learning in schools.

Schlinger says, “Anxiety and depression are on the rise for young people.”

How to use art to help

Experts suggest four ways to more purposefully combine social and emotional learning with children’s art projects at home, school or anywhere.

1 - Think about the needs of the child when choosing materials.
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Art therapist Marygrace Berberian notes that a child seeking control might gain something from beading or pencil drawing, for example. But a child who needs more freedom might learn more from working with paints or clay.

2 - Give kids control over their projects.

For example, Chicago-based arts organization Marwen gave a printmaking class in which students created small prints on what was important to them. Christian Ortiz supervises the art programs at Marwen. He suggested giving students the freedom to “interpret a project” through their own experience and viewpoints.

Marygrace Berberian advises parents not to control how a child does an art project at home. Instead, she suggests, ask kids about their creations and the decisions they made and why.

3 - Create a lesson along with the project.

Melissa Mellor, who is with the Aspen Institute, remembers her young son doing an art project about learning from mistakes. The class read a book about a girl who turned a mistake into something beautiful. Then, each student received a piece of paper with marks already on it. Their job was to use a drawing tool to turn it into a piece of art. The project aimed to teach flexibility, problem solving, creativity and the ability to grow from mistakes.

And 4 - Make art together.

Marygrace Berberian says when people work together in the creative process, they are “mirroring each other and celebrating each other’s artistic practice.” In other words, it naturally builds understanding between them.

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