Social and Emotional Learning in the Performing Arts Classroom

Social and Emotional Learning in the Performing Arts Classroom

By NAfME member Wendy Hart Higdon


An important topic in education is Social and Emotional Learning (SEL), SEL encompasses the “soft skills” that students must learn and apply in order to successfully navigate school and life. For the past year and a half, Social and Emotional Learning has been a focus in my school district. As I have participated in professional development on the topic, I have discovered that the music classroom lends itself well to developing these skills, and in fact, is probably something that you are already doing! 


What is Social and Emotional Learning?

According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), “Social and emotional learning is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”


social leolintang


Why SEL?

As much as we would love for all of our students to come to us competent in the various skills of SEL, we all have young people in our classrooms who struggle in many of these areas. Their struggles directly impact their success at school and in life. As music teachers, we are often blessed to work with the same students over the course of several years and in a variety of situations. We pride ourselves on the fact that students in our ensembles learn “life skills” that help to transform them into more productive citizens. We often speak of the relationships and sense of family that students build as members of our ensembles. And we hope that our students are there for one another should misfortune strike a member of our group. As such, we, as directors of music ensembles, are already promoting healthy SEL. The next step is perhaps to be more intentional and deliberate in embedding Social and Emotional Learning in our instruction. 


The Five Competencies of SEL

The five competencies that make up SEL are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship management and responsible decision making. Self-awareness and self-management go hand in hand and deal with students recognizing, understanding, monitoring and managing their own emotions, including stress. Good social awareness means that students understand social cues, listen to and respect others and anticipate how others might react in certain situations. Competency in relationship management includes effective communication and leadership skills, as well as conflict resolution. The final competency, responsible decision making, while fairly self-explanatory, also includes the ability to negotiate and compromise.


emotional Radachynskyi


In the Classroom or Rehearsal Hall

Recently my beginning band students had their very first concert. As part of our preparation for this important event, we spent some time talking about the excitement or nervousness that students might feel on concert night. We talked about the physical reactions that often accompany those feelings, such as butterflies in the stomach, hyperactivity, or sweating. We talked about the rush of adrenaline that students might feel and discussed how once students get worked up it usually takes several minutes for those feelings to subside. And, we brainstormed strategies to calm ourselves down such as taking a deep breath, closing our eyes, focusing our thoughts and sitting still. Helping students to understand what to expect ahead of time can help them to manage those feelings which ultimately helps them to have a better performance. 

I have prepared my students for their first concert in this way for years. I thought it was just part of the job, but as I have learned, this is a wonderful example of being deliberate about social and emotional learning by embedding it as a part of my curriculum.

Let’s take a look some other ways that SEL might be embedded in the music classroom. 

  • Helping students to understand and manage stage fright.
  • Teaching our students ways to cope with feelings of disappointment when a performance doesn’t live up to expectations.
  • Guiding students toward behavior that is gracious and humble after a successful audition, especially when peers may be feeling disappointed about their own results.
  • Using the music that we perform as a vehicle to celebrate diversity, learn about other cultures and be accepting of those who may be different from us.
  • Getting to know our students on a more personal level so that they feel connected, supported and valued.
  • Working with students to develop leadership skills that they can then practice as part of your ensemble (drum majors, section leaders, etc.)

With a little thought, I bet each of us can come up with many ways that we are impacting our students’ social and emotional learning within our ensembles already. The next step for us is to be more intentional in our approach. Your students will benefit greatly!


About the author:

NAfME Member Wendy Higdon is the Director of Bands and Unified Arts Department Chair at Creekside Middle School in Carmel, IN. She began her career as Director of Bands at Lebanon Middle School (IN) in 1991 and came to Carmel Clay Schools in 1999 where she taught band at Carmel Middle School until the opening of Creekside in 2004. Under her leadership, the performing arts programs at Creekside have grown from 400 students in 2004 to nearly 900 students this year. 

To read more about Wendy, visit the About Me section on On and Off the Podium.

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Brendan McAloon, Marketing and Events Coordinator, January 25, 2017. © National Association for Music Education (