Post Pandemic Innovations: Closing the Gap in Children’s Social-Emotional Learning Through Creative Arts
Logan Lankford, Salisbury University
Abstract: Research shows that 3-6-year-old children post-pandemic are more likely to struggle with developmental challenges such as communication, expression, as well as emotional recognition and understanding (Kamei & Harriott, 2021; Maynard et al., 2022; Moazami-Goodarzi et al., 2021; Singh et al., 2020). Without social skills appropriate to their age group, children can face long-term effects like falling behind in school and difficulties functioning in society. New programs pertaining to post-pandemic challenges and geared toward child engagement need to be developed in order to combat these developmental setbacks in child social skills. Instead of traditional language- and math-centered programs, this paper argues that with the implementation of creative arts as social-emotional learning (SEL) programs, teachers and children will see social skill improvements and increased levels of engagement. Creative arts programs including instrumental instruction, group music, creative story writing, collaborative creative projects, and art therapies, can all be used as effective innovations in classrooms faced with post-pandemic SEL challenges. The use of creative arts as a pedagogical methodology will improve 3–6-year-old children’s ability to effectively communicate, understand both others and their own emotions, and improve interactions among students. This program has the potential to close the gap between where 3–6-year-old children’s social skills currently are and where they need to be in order to guarantee both social and academic success for students, and resiliency in our education systems post-pandemic.
In the U.S. alone, about 53.1 million students were enrolled in a Pre-k to 12th grade classroom for the 2019-2020 school year, meaning 53.1 million students were sent home in March of 2020 and consequently removed from the structured social interaction of the typical classroom (United States Census Bureau, 2019). According to Kamei and Harriott (2021), the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic “coincide with limited opportunities for social engagement and an increased potential for isolation,” which prevents the development of healthy social skills (p. 365). This is particularly true of children ages 3-6, who at the height of the pandemic were at a pivotal point in their social-emotional learning (SEL) development. Durlak et al. (2011) list social skills such as identifying emotions, understanding other perspectives, interpersonal problem solving, and communication as skills that were neglected and underdeveloped because of quarantine (p. 411). Kids isolated at home were unable to practice and develop these skills leading to an increase of struggles for students when they returned to a classroom setting. Such struggles take the form of aggressive behavior, bullying, repeat suspensions, and delinquent behavior; as early as kindergarten, such SEL setbacks can be used as indicators of whether a child will graduate high school on time, obtain a college degree, find steady employment, or be more prone to crime and substance abuse (Jones et al., 2015, p. 2283). A kindergartener’s SEL will provide the framework for the rest of their education, either setting them up or setting them back for the rest of their life. Consequently, SEL programs are a critical innovation to close the developmental gap left behind by the COVID-19 pandemic (Singh et al., 2020, p. 9). A program centered around the use of creative arts such as music therapy, creative storytelling, and arts therapy can be used to encourage creativity and student engagement while improving communication skills, emotional recognition and understanding, and interactions with peers. This program will outline how the implementation of instrumental instruction, attentive listening and comprehension of others performance, inclusive group song circles, creative story writing, collaborative story writing, performance, and art therapies can be used in school systems post-pandemic to remedy social-emotional learning setbacks.
Music therapy has proven to be an incredibly effective, fun, and engaging way to teach kids to solve interpersonal problems, communicate and express themselves, and evaluate their own emotions and the emotions of others. Goodman (1989) explains that their effectiveness can be accredited to their creation of a therapeutic environment that provides safe communication opportunities (p. 179). Music therapy can take the form of one-on-one instrumental lessons, observing other students' musical performance, “me too” group song activities, and separate part assignments in group songs. By creating a safe environment that kids feel they can be heard in, these types of social-emotional learning programs foster creativity and freedom of expression which increases young children's interest in learning communication and interpersonal skills. According to Moazami-Goodarzi et al. (2021) learning should be seen as “playful, insightful, and participatory,” to maximize the effectiveness of SEL programs; Music therapy’s holistic approach to teaching social skills engages such principles by adding an aspect of fun to the classroom (p. 4).
One way of utilizing music therapy as a social-emotional learning tool is with one-on-one instrumental instruction. Music education in terms of instrumental instruction engages multiple parts of the brain: visual, audio, and kinesthetic learning take place all at once, and for this reason it is thought that musicians can solve social and academic problems more effectively and creatively, (Collins, 2014). By giving children instrumental instruction, it engages multiple parts of the brain which increase cognitive function both academically and in terms of interpersonal problems with peers, all the while encouraging expression of self. Music is incredibly expressive and can convey a variety of emotions; through playing music, kids have a nonverbal method of communicating their thoughts and feelings. Where young children in classrooms post-pandemic often experience difficulties expressing themselves, music therapy has potential to be an effective pedagogical tool with SEL teaching potential. Yeaw (2001) states, “music therapy seems to be an appropriate intervention for the younger child who does not have the cognitive and language skill to express affect,” (p. 57). This could be applied to classrooms today –particularly young children ages 3-6– as we use music as an expressive outlet for speech-challenged students. By teaching children instruments, they can improve problem solving skills crucial to social interaction, encourage understanding and expression of their own emotions, and provide a nonverbal way to communicate thoughts and feelings.
Communication of need and expression of emotion are two challenges frequently faced by 3–6-year-old children in post pandemic classrooms. These affective problems inhibit student’s ability to make their needs known, leading to those needs not being met, and inhibiting students’ ability to learn at their full capacity. Yeaw (2001) states that these communication problems can be addressed through music listening with discussion, leading to the conclusion that a lesson designed around analyzing the emotional effects of music would be beneficial for young children’s social skills (p. 58). Active discussion about the emotional impact of music being played or performed in the classroom can increase student’s understanding of tone and emotion, as well as teach them to communicate this understanding to their teachers and peers.
Teaching kids to perform for an audience of peers it will work to build up the confidence of the individual performer as well as give them an outlet for their musical expression, this is backed by research that shows learning to play a musical instrument greatly increases self-esteem in young children versus those who have not received instrumental instruction (Murray, 2007, pp. 15-19). Self-esteem is an internal issue faced by many young children and is often a reason they demonstrate withdrawn or quiet behavior even when they have something to say. The audience members should provide positive feedback for both their classmates' self-esteem but also as an exercise in giving respectful feedback and treating each other with sensitivity (Camilleri, 2000, p. 186). Following the performance and feedback, the instructor should prompt discussion questions about both the lyrics and musicality of the song, to see how the kids interpreted it, and how it made them feel. This encourages self-reflection upon one's own emotions, providing kids with an understanding of how to assess what they are feeling, acknowledge what these feelings mean, and why they are feeling that way.
According to Durlak et al. (2011), poor SEL development is linked with aggressive behaviors and bullying as a result of children having pent up anger and no healthy way to release it. Such behaviors are incredibly harmful to the individual child’s learning, their peers’ learning, and the classroom environment (p. 411). Fortunately, the act of listening to music has proven to be incredibly therapeutic and to have positive effects on behavioral issues in the classroom (Hogenes, 2014, p. 1509). Playing music in a classroom introduces kids to a new method of calming themselves down, introduces self-regulation techniques, and prevents the desire to express emotions through violence. The application of music therapy can be as simple as turning on a soothing radio station while classwork is being done and “can improve the behavior and academic achievement of children with emotional and behavioral difficulties” (Hallam & Price, 1998, p. 90). Having children listen to calming music throughout the day can serve as an easy method of teaching kids to work through their emotions, express them in healthier manners, and feel more at ease in their environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic necessitated prolonged periods of isolation at an early age, because of that and a resulting lack of social interaction, one of the most common SEL problems addressed in classrooms today is withdrawn behavior. Yeaw (2001) claims that withdrawn behaviors can be combated through contingent music, known in elementary education as group music time (p. 50). Group music consists of students sitting in a circle and working together to create a piece of music, creating an inclusive environment and bolstering social interaction between peers while encouraging child expression (Camilleri, 2000, p. 185-186). One way of doing so is a musical variation of Kamei and Harriott’s (2021) “Me too” game in which a song prompts students to stand if… and a physical attribute, characteristic, or opinion follows, if the students relate to the statement they are encouraged to stand up and exclaim, “Me too!”. This exercise gives students time for self-reflection as they must stop and think about how they look and how they feel about themselves (p. 369). For example, they may reflect on whether they are artistic, or fast, or have brown eyes. The object of the activity is to let them come to terms with the conclusion they draw about themselves and allow them to express who they are and what they feel while being comforted in the knowledge that they will be celebrated for it no matter what. In addition to giving kids a safe space, it has potential to improve self-efficacy, and teach them to create an inclusive environment for their peers both in and out of the classroom.
Collaborative learning activities have numerous benefits and should be implemented in classrooms as much as possible (Kamei & Harriott, 2021, p. 369). Group music sessions have students work together to create one cohesive product, a song, and in doing so promote positive interactions to solve interpersonal problems. This can be accomplished by assigning students various parts, where certain groups of students play at different parts in the song than others. Through this exercise kids are forced to listen to and have respect for their peers, step back and understand what they are playing in order to form their response and make space in the song for those around them (Camilleri, 2000, p. 187). This activity simulates a conversation between multiple people and teaches students how to listen to others, respect their classmates, and know when it is their turn to talk. Knowing their place in the song promotes space-sharing awareness and acts as a parallel for learning societal roles.
Creative story-writing provides students with direction but not explicit guidelines, allowing them to develop an original story of their choosing. This exercise gives students the freedom to express themselves, state their beliefs, and work through suppressed feelings as they write their story. This is backed by Di Blas and Ferrari (2014) whose research shows that storytelling education programs have benefits such as improving communication and expression (p. 82). Story-writing is like music in the sense that it is incredibly expressive and allows for communication of thoughts or feelings without directly saying the situation it applies to. Such story writing programs have had success in the past, namely the Digital Storytelling program through the Berkley center which used technology as a tool for children to create stories and as a result, saw improvements in communication skills in an educational setting (Kim & Li, 2021, p. 20). In a post-pandemic world, an in-person approach to creative story writing could be implemented in the classroom, allowing kids to write what they feel using their imaginations as a pedagogical tool for learning expression. In children ages 3-6, physically writing down their story is above their skill set so to implement this program instead provide “‘objects’ that help making up the story, rather than writing a full script” which allows kids to go through the same process of storytelling but is a more practical application for this age group (Di Blas et al., 2012, p. 82). Such programs could allow students to create stories fitting of their academic skill set in order to improve their social and emotional skills.
Creative writing by itself is beneficial in teaching kids to express themselves more effectively while also engaging their imagination, encouraging individuality, and aiding them in self-discovery. Multiple other social skills can be taught simultaneously by adding another element to this lesson: collaboration. Di Blas (2022) identifies collaboration as a key component of creative story writing programs because it allows students to work through interpersonal problems, it forces them to communicate with one another, and it teaches them to share ideas and find inspiration in one another (p. 82). For young children who were developing social skills during isolation, conversation and compromise can be a foreign idea because as Maynard et al. (2022) point out, they have had little exposure to social settings (p. 3). For this reason, collaborative learning which submerges students in an environment that requires interaction in order to reach their end goal is potentially an essential tool for closing the developmental gap in children’s social skills. Collaborative creative storytelling is a fun and engaging way for young children to both learn to express themselves but also learn to communicate and compromise with others.
Branching out from creative writing, another method of teaching social skills is a form of drama therapy that has students act out their original stories. Drama therapy has been proven to improve the development of social skills, regulation of emotions, and enactment of self-expression (Moore et al., 2017, p. 133). By physically and verbally moving through their story, kids must think about the emotions they wish to convey and how to accomplish the desired effect. They also must watch their peers do the same and interpret both what the provided social cues mean and how to respond accordingly. Additionally, acting out their original work promotes creativity in terms of the work itself and works towards a higher self-esteem. Upon implementation of such a program, Gresham (2014) states that the students “began to see collaboration as something beyond working together and sought inspiration from each other,” indicating new skills being obtained from the exercise and them learning to create real connections with their peers (p. 52).
The creation of physical works of art is an activity commonly found in pre-k and kindergarten classrooms as a way of keeping students excited about and engaged in their learning. Art is also incredibly expressive, regarded as a safe way of expressing oneself, and therefore used as an outlet of nonverbal communication by young students (Klorer, 2000, p. 242). Young children attending classes in a post-pandemic world can face an abnormal number of challenges when verbalizing their thoughts and feelings. By introducing children to art creation, instructors can open another route their students may take to express themselves. Even in cases where students have the physical ability to speak but are unsure of what to say, Deboys et al. (2017) states that, “Art therapy with children can be an empowering and exhilarating experience leading to self-discovery,” promoting reflection of self and further understanding of one's own emotions, which is the first step towards better self-regulation (p. 118). When children become aware of their feelings and are taught healthy mechanisms of working through such feelings, it can decrease behavioral struggles in the classroom and children can develop the ability to monitor themselves. Art therapy encourages young children to reflect and learn about themselves, provides them with an expressive outlet, and gives them a safe and healthy way to voice strong emotions.
Art is a multifunctional tool to teach various social and emotional skills to young children, however, by adding another component it can also teach interpersonal problem-solving skills, conversational skills, and improve interactions with peers. This of course refers to collaboration between multiple students in order to form one coherent piece of artwork, because as Di Blas (2022) says, collaboration is a key component to social-emotional learning (p. 82). Collaborative artworks can take many shapes, such as the “Hand mural” project demonstrated by Sutherland et al., (2010) which prompts students to decorate an image of their hand in a way they feel expresses themselves. Each hand is then arranged into a collage that demonstrated unity and acceptance of oneself and others (p. 72). Using this basic idea, many other art projects have potential to emerge based around the principle of each student creating their own mini piece that represents themself and that then becoming a part of one large class artwork. Sutherland et al., (2010) says that in doing so children build relationships with peers, learn to non-verbally express themselves through art, and create a sense of confidence and belonging in the classroom (p. 71). Such lessons then work to improve classroom interactions, conversational skills, and respect for oneself and their peers.
The creation of artworks has potential not only for individual expression but also for increased engagement with peers, community, and family members. This principle is demonstrated through the research of Biag et al. (2015), whose “Art in Action” program provides an example of an art program that allows students to “be more visible to one another and the larger community” through their artwork (p. 3). Immersion within society is how young children develop the appropriate social skills needed to navigate through their world, therefore becoming more active in and seen by their community through their artwork can assist in the development of their social skills (Kamei & Harriott, 2021, p. 367). Displaying artwork acquaints young students with public self-expression, allowing them to nonverbally show a piece of themselves to their peers, teachers, and parents. Art is a safe way for students facing communication challenges to announce themselves to the world and help develop a sense of self. Kids should have a route of nonverbal expression when they lack the words to convey their thoughts and feelings, art can act as such a tool because “everyone can look at art and express what they see in a picture” (Biag et al., 2015, p. 28).
There are numerous higher education opportunities for those who wish to educate themselves specifically in creative arts therapies, which are extremely beneficial for an SEL program. Organization of in-depth approaches to creative arts therapies geared towards populations of students with more specific needs is better suited to educators with higher knowledge and experience. However, in a typical classroom setting, “SEL programs could be integrated into daily educational practices by a classroom teacher and do not require an outside professional in order to deliver it effectively,” making widespread SEL programs a more feasible goal even for low-income school systems (Kamei & Harriott, 2021, p. 367). With this said, the most effective programs are those accompanied by professional development training to raise comfort levels with this pedagogical approach because as Moazami-Goodarzi et al. (2021) says, teachers are the cornerstone to any SEL program (p. 2). Professional development sessions entail short after-hours workshop(s) to educate teachers on instruction techniques new to them so that they may be effectively implemented in classrooms throughout the school. These shorts seminars have the potential to both greatly improve execution of teaching strategies in the classroom and allow for widespread use of creative arts to teach SEL.
In school systems across the United States, educating students on language and math takes precedence over the arts, so why should an SEL program be centered around the use of creative arts? Robinson (2006) defines creativity as, “the process of having original ideas that have value” and claims this as an essential part of formulating original ideas. Originality is how society makes advances, by encouraging kids’ individuality and teaching them how to express it, educators prepare the next generation for progress. Mishra et al. (2013) claims the world is characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, and as such, it requires people with the capacity to think and solve problems in an effective and original way (p. 10). Di Blas (2022) goes so far as to claim that “to argue in favor of why creativity should be ‘taught’ at school is not necessary,” leading to the conclusion that creativity is a vital aspect of learning in preparation of a student's future (p. 80). Furthermore, intelligence is incredibly diverse and teaching every student in a single way will not be as effective for some as it is for others (Robinson, 2006). Creative arts therapies provide a degree of freedom for the student to shape their own learning experience, as necessary to maximize their academic potential.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused numerous developmental setbacks in 3-6-year-old students' social skills, accompanied by various struggles in the classroom such as poor behavior, aggression, and withdrawn behavior (Kamei & Harriott, 2021, p. 366; Durlak et al., 2011, p. 411). Classroom techniques that incorporate music therapy, creative storytelling, and arts therapy have potential to close developmental gaps in children’s social skills and will therefore both prevent and correct such classroom struggles. In a post-pandemic world, creative arts programs centered around social skills development can be greatly beneficial for students struggling with communication, emotional understanding, and interactions with peers. Additionally, creative arts provide a holistic approach to learning as they increase student engagement and promote individuality. The potential for creative arts program development and their benefits is “seemingly endless,” and there is a clear need for more research on the subject to better unlock its capabilities in the classroom (Yeaw, 2001, p. 60). With further research on the various practical applications of creative arts in a pedagogical setting, such programs can become a widespread method of teaching social skills in school systems, reviving post-pandemic classrooms.
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