Story and header photo by Adrienne Poon, AmeriCorps member serving on the Staples, Inc. team with Rogers Middle School

Social emotional learning (SEL) is one of the most important areas that City Year focuses on developing with our students, yet it still remains one of the most complex to understand. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL “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.”* As part of the holistic Whole School, Whole Child model that City Year utilizes in schools, AmeriCorps members focus on coursework, attendance, and behavior--which ties in with SEL.  

SEL can be tricky to teach or coach because it can seem mysterious, developing differently in each student. Consequently, I believe that SEL requires extra creativity to foster - and what better way to get creative than to utilize art projects? Art is widely known to be an effective vehicle for self-expression and communication, so applying it to SEL is a perfect way to create engaging and impactful SEL lessons. In City Year’s We Are the Change Extended Day program at  Rogers Middle School, we have already experimented successfully with integrating SEL into arts-based lessons. Here are a few of my favorite artsy SEL lessons that we have done:

  1. Abstract Appreciation Cards: Students are prompted to create abstract cards that appreciate someone or something in their lives. This also prompts students to stretch their optimistic thinking and social awareness skills, and it combines creative expression with visual and verbal displays of gratitude. Additionally, this develops relationship skills if cards are given away or, in a brilliant twist I discovered when I ran this lesson with middle schoolers, of developing self-awareness if the student has decided to appreciate themselves!
  2. Community Puzzle: This activity asks students “What do YOU bring to our community?” Each student receives a puzzle piece on which to write their name and what they bring to their community, and decorate. All of the pieces will then be pieced together to create a larger community puzzle comprised of everyone’s unique contributions. The goal with this activity is to reinforce that every student has a unique and valuable role in the community, creating a sense and ownership of a community as well as a sense of belonging. In this way, this activity develops self-awareness, social awareness, personal responsibility, and optimistic thinking.
  3. Collaborative Junk Sculptures: A little known fact about many young students and professional abstract sculptors alike is that they can be thrilled by…junk. This activity not only develops social awareness, goal-directed behavior, relationship skills, and decision making, but it also teaches students about civic awareness and upcycling. All this activity requires are a bunch of junk (make sure it is clean and safe!) and glue dots to allow groups of students to connect the junk into sculptures together.






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