Why Drama Class and Arts Education is Vital for SEL

I’d always heart how important arts education is in social-emotional learning. But it wasn’t until I was in the classroom as a drama teacher that I experienced it firsthand. Then I saw how powerful arts SEL really is. 

Articles like this one from the New Jersey Board of Education support this by saying, “One of the most important avenues for (social and emotional learning) to take place is in the visual and performing arts.” They call it a potential superpower for schools who embrace it, and I definitely know this to be true. Skills like decision making, relationship building, and being both self-aware and socially aware are all important when it comes to creating art. And one of the best ways this can happen is with drama class. It can work wonders for middle and high school students. 

Drama class helps us explore our true selves. 

Drama is all about being a different character than oneself, right? This is true in a lot of ways, but at the same time, playing someone different often helps students tap into truths about themselves. It can help them portray a range of emotions that may not be “allowed” either by their own self-restriction, their family, or even society as a whole. When they can explore other emotions through a character, it can help students access their own emotions, learn empathy, and practice resilience. 

I’ve had many students in my classes who lose themselves and find themselves through character work. Many kids who don’t “fit in” anywhere else can be who they are in the theater. Since we can try on different personas on stage, kids who are questioning or unsure can often feel safe figuring out their identities in a theater space. This is where arts SEL can really help students come out of their shells. 

Drama helps us connect to one another. 

Social skills are one of the main teaching targets in my drama classes, no matter the age. Even when I work with high schoolers or adults, this is an important focus. I always tell my drama classes or casts that drama is a team sport. We have to work together in order to achieve our goals.

Social awareness, how you relate to others, and how your actions impact others can all be challenging concepts to learn. Drama exercises can really help students understand this and get better with practice. I’ve had many students who struggle socially, either because of neurodivergence or a lack of practice, and they can practice this in a drama class setting.  

It can also help with those uncomfortable situations. For instance, people will get their feelings hurt in drama class, but we work through this. We talk a lot about consent and physical and emotional space. Friendships and sometimes romances (or as they’re called, “showmances”) are made and broken. We practice the full range of human relationships both on and off-stage. 

It makes a big difference, too. I really want my students to feel like they have a home in my class, and I see it happening as the school year goes on. One of the greatest compliments I ever got as a drama teacher was someone passing along that a student of mine told his family that he didn’t have any friends until he joined the school play. 

Drama class helps students with decision-making. 

The cliche of “the show must go on” is always true because things always go wrong in live theater. For instance, an actor gets sick, a set-piece falls down, or we have to rush to get a costume ready for opening night—these are all stressful, real scenarios that my students have to deal with regularly. Decisions need to be made and they need to be made on a very strict deadline. Year after year, I see my students step up to the challenge, and I’m so proud of the way they tackle the challenges.

These important teenage skills get used in other classes, too. I’ve seen my students grow and mature, putting the things they learn in drama class into math, science, and humanities classes. They are better problem solvers, speech givers, and group project participants, all became of drama.

Arts SEL is a great introduction to real life. 

One of the ways I’ve seen drama apply to real life is an overall disappointment. Casting can be heartbreaking, but it’s inevitable. When students don’t get a certain part, it helps them learn how to cope and adjust. These are such important skills that will help them for years to come.

Probably my favorite skill students learn is collaborative problem-solving. Students really have to learn how to work well with others, and they can transfer this skill into so many other parts of their life. This is true for both now and the future. This is another one that will be with them for years. 

It’s been true for myself. I’ve learned to be a great improviser over years, both in the classroom. It helped me deal with irate customers in my first retail job. It helped me make people laugh on first dates. And it has even helped me parent my own children at home.  

Many drama students go on to do non-theatre jobs and use their skills to great success. Law schools apparently love theatre majors. I also know many project managers who used to be great stage managers. And yes, many theatre kids become educators because teaching uses all sorts of important SEL skills. 

SEL skills and drama go hand in hand.

In this write-up for American Theatre, Stephan Sachs writes, “Rehearsing a play teaches young people teamwork, collaboration, tolerance, the importance of listening to and following direction. They learn about problem-solving, discipline, goal-setting, and time management. And they discover that getting something significant accomplished can also be fun.” All of these are SEL skills. Plus let’s not forget that the activist kids who spoke out after the Parkland shooting were the drama kids.

While I love to be a patron of the arts and I enjoy teaching drama for the sake of the art itself, it’s the arts SEL skills that bring me the real, life’s-work-worthy joy. Having kids feel safe and loved in my auditorium is more important than a kid feeling like a star. Plus having a student be able to use their voice to express their true thoughts or stand up for what’s right is more important than whether or not they can sing on-key. And having a group work together and feel like they achieved a goal is better than a production being flawless.

I love the theatre and I love working with drama students because they are social, they are emotional, and we are all learning to be most fully human.