As our school communities begin to rebound from the effects of covid and the mitigation efforts, it will be tremendously helpful to create opportunities for students to experience the arts. There is strong evidence that doing more art and focusing on mindfulness can dramatically improve skills for emotional resilience. Make no mistake, these last couple of years have been traumatic – for students and teachers alike. We need to clearly acknowledge these wounds and make changes, even radical changes, to allow for healing. The mental health epidemic demands no less.
Any type of artistic experience can quite literally change the brain though increases in dopamine and serotonin, focused periods of deep work and self-acceptance. Students become better able to handle intense emotions, better able to participate in the life of the school and become academically more successful as their functional IQ increases. These experiences directly help regulate the nervous system, allowing students to be present for learning.
While it’s tempting to start the new year with a focus on content and competencies, building a supportive foundation for emotional learning is critical, particularly after such a long period of being distanced. In fact, the only way we can address the “covid learning loss” is to use a restorative, trauma informed approach. The arts are a vital part of this process.
Here are 10 ways teachers and administrators can weave more arts into the school experience.
1. Look through the curriculum with a critical eye and see if there are required classes that you might be able to replace with an arts class, even if temporarily. Courses on ACT prep, for example are useful, but might be considered optional electives to allow students to explore a new art form instead. Are there modules within classes that you can replace with art-based work?
2. Open the art and music facilities throughout the day, after school on the weekends. Ask upper-class students and parent volunteers to help work with younger students during these “open hours”. Brainstorm how you might invite students to the ceramics lab, the art studio, the stage, the music room or the kitchen. Are there gardens or green spaces around your school where students could spend time appreciating the artistic qualities of nature while they collaborate with their classmates?
3. Build art-based activities into existing classes. Rather than traditional assessments or written reading summaries, can students demonstrate their understanding using pictures, music, a skit or poetry? Could they share videos or spoken word instead of written narratives? Also consider ways of incorporating experiential art as part of the pedagogy or extra credit by asking students to visit a museum, take pictures of their neighborhood, attend a concert or stage performance and share those experiences. Consider starting class with a five-minute meditation using an app like Ten Percent, Headspace or Healthy Minds.
4. Utilize new and existing service projects for art-based work. Students could bake for a homeless shelter, design cards for military service members overseas, put on a talent show as a fundraiser. Student clubs can visit a senior center to work on crafts together or help younger kids in aftercare programs.
5. Create a room or a nook in your school or even an outdoor area for a quiet space where students can go during a lunch period or a study hall to get a break from the stimulations of the day. You might put out puzzles, art supplies, building materials or yoga mats and make it a “technology-free zone”. Much has been written about the increased use of technology over the pandemic but suffice it to say that students constantly connected to laptops and phones become accustomed to using technology to escape rather than building skills for mindfulness and radical self-acceptance.
6. Engage students in helping with school upkeep, library displays, food preparation and grounds maintenance or helping to decorate for the holidays. There is a pride and sense of community and ownership that comes with chipping in and an artistry that comes from gussying up their school. Work of this kind also allows students to relax their minds and process their emotional response to the day’s events.
7. Replace detention with experiences in the arts. Rather than spending time in a Saturday morning detention, can students watercolor or paint in the art room as part of a self-reflection? Given increased levels of dysregulation in the classroom, integrating these restorative practices into the life of the school, particularly restorative discipline, is particularly important. Be curious about why a child is “misbehaving”– what unmet needs do they have? What are they struggling with? Is there a trusted someone who can co-regulate with the student by working on a project together? Providing teachers and administrators with additional training around these practices will be critical.
8. Introduce improvisational theater or games from applied improv throughout the school day. Improvisation has been shown to help students with distressed tolerance, divergent thinking, collaboration and creating community; even short activities or workshops with applied improv can have significant effects.
9. Incorporate more music into school assemblies or gathering periods. Singing, chanting and cheering not only allow for self-expression but promote deep breathing and enjoin students together in a common melody or cadence. Positive mental effects have been shown when students connect with drumming and other rhythmic activities that produce endorphins and brain-boosting hormones. Music also stimulates the vagus nerve, which helps strengthen our ability to calm ourselves when we sense a threat. You might ask students to put together soothing playlists and share them with each other or do some call and response activities during class.
10. Incorporate dancing and movement into physical education programs. Supplement traditional classes (e.g., weightlifting, lifeguarding, CPR) with dance and yoga. Like other ensemble experiences, dancing allows us to become physically in sync with others. This promotes feelings of “safety within my tribe”, which signals the brains to produce a rush of happy hormones.
Increasing our focus on the arts will have a healing and lasting effect in our schools. Administrators and teachers should not think of the arts as a luxury, but as an important tool for healing from the disruptions of the past two years. Students must feel safe and reconnected in their classrooms and schools. Only then will they really begin to learn.
Reference for further reading
U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic. https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2021/12/07/us-surgeon-general-issues-advisory-on-youth-mental-health-crisis-further-exposed-by-covid-19-pandemic.html
Rewiring Our Perceptions of Discipline-2021 Trauma Informed School Conference®, Lori Desautels, available from https://revelationsineducation.com.
Restorative Practices: Fostering Healthy Relationships & Promoting Positive Discipline in Schools. A Guide for Educators. http://schottfoundation.org/sites/default/files/restorative-practices-guide.pdf
Amplify: Unleash your Potential Through the Power of Music. by Frank Fitzpatrick, 2021.
Felsman P, Seifert CM, Himle JA. The use of improvisational theater training to reduce social anxiety in adolescents. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 63 (2019) 111–117.
DeMichele, M., & Kuenneke, S. (2021). Short-form, comedy improv affects the functional connectivity in the brain of adolescents with complex developmental trauma as measured by qEEG: A single group pilot study. NeuroRegulation, 8(1), 2–13.
Fancourt, D. et al. Effects of Group Drumming Interventions on Anxiety, Depression, Social Resilience and Inflammatory Immune Response among Mental Health Service Users. PLOS ONE 11, e0151136 (2016).
Brooke H. DeBettignies Thalia R. Goldstein, Improvisational Theater Classes Improve Self-Concept. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, American Psychological Association 2020, Vol. 14, No. 4, 451–461.
Rossing J and K Hoffman (2016) Improv(ing) the Academy: Applied Improvisation as a Strategy for Educational Development. To Improve the Academy. 35(2), 303-325.
Krueger KR, Murphy JW and AB Bink. Thera-prov: a pilot study of improv used to treat anxiety and depression. J Ment Health, 2019; 28(6): 621–626
New Research Highlights the Brain-Boosting Benefits of Improv. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/play-your-way-sane/202103/new-research-highlights-the-brain-boosting-benefits-improv?fbclid=IwAR2GEhND_n-YOfLnS7uO8GWJamv0kHhalpOHof0kWRE1AkB3g5hxL3y7Ink
Music and the Vagus Nerve: How Music Affects the Nervous System and Mental Health. https://www.musichealth.ai/blog/music-and-the-vagus-nerve
Bungay, H. (2018) How prescription creativity can improve mental and physical health’, Medical Xpress, 5 April [Online]. Available at: https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-04-prescription-creativity-mental-ph...