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Disney Movies are Social-Emotional Learning & Trauma-Informed

By Dr. Nicole Westwood-Robinette

Creating and supporting a trauma-informed classroom requires that the students feel safe, supported, and ready to learn. That learning comes in various styles requiring teachers and staff to be able to think on their toes and the ability to try nontraditional methods of educating a classroom. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (2022), by the age of 16, two thirds of children in the United States have experienced a potentially traumatic event such as physical or sexual abuse, natural disaster/terrorism, sudden or violent loss of a loved one, war experiences, serious accidents or life-threatening illness, or military-related stress. While the educational systems must maintain focus on academic achievement and educator competency, districts should also acknowledge emotional and mental health concerns and how these concerns converge and overlap with educational achievement. One way we have seen success with student achievement and mental health/well-being is by using movies to help students navigate their emotions more effectively and to better understand how trauma affects their everyday life.

Disney movies are an awesome example to use in a classroom setting or even at home with one's own family to help discuss difficult topics. Using Disney movies as an educational tool is a great way to not only entertain students but to teach social/emotional skills, emotions, grief and loss, empathy, friendship, family dynamics, adversity, standing up for oneself or for others, guilt, healthy relationships and boundaries, helping those with disabilities, fears, kindness, and how to love and acceptance. According to Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-informed Schools: A System Framework (2021), trauma and stress reactions can disrupt the school routine and the process related to teaching and learning. Learning in a typical school setting requires the ability to read, the ability to pay attention, to trust, to engage, and to process thoughts quickly. However, these are all things most students who have had a traumatic past struggle with. Why not meet the students where they are at? Incorporating a movie as a visual learning tool and lesson to help students discover and navigate life lessons will encourage those students who struggle with a means of an open dialogue of a character's experience with something they are familiar with. A study conducted by the University of Houston (2018) stated that “Disney movies can be helpful for parents and teachers in how they communicate with children about tough issues.”

Utilizing Disney movies as a tool to encourage dialogue about tough issues or socio-emotional development is just another instrument teachers and districts can use when creating and sustaining a trauma-informed classroom. These movies can also be used at home to help parents build better relationships with their children and to reflect on the social and emotional aspects of everyday life. Some movies to consider using to help students come to terms with past traumatic issues or current areas of concern are:

  • Inside Out: This movie addresses feelings, emotions, growing up, metacognition, and the earlier you teach children these things, the more they will be able to self-regulate.

  • Tangled: This movie sees the main character openly dealing with manipulation and how healthy relationships and setting boundaries are essential to personal growth.

  • Encanto: Within this movie themes that are addressed range from family dynamics, traditions, believing in oneself, to how traumatic war experiences have generational impacts on family.

  • Coco: Grief and loss and major themes expressed throughout this movie, along with forgiveness and how to choose friends wisely.

  • Finding Nemo/ Finding Dory: Both of these movies address family dynamics, loss, adversity, learning to love and live with disabilities, and celebrating our differences.

  • Lion King: Throughout this movie there are themes of grief and loss, forgiveness/forgiving oneself, guilt, and how to trust wisely in choosing friends or family members who have your best interest at heart.

Disney movies are not just whimsical fairy tales or folklore, there are real-life and difficult issues presented throughout the movies that many of our students are often faced with. Learning how to process emotions and difficult situations has always been critical in the social and emotional development of our students; however, post-pandemic is even more critical. As adults, we know that it can be scary sharing our emotions or being vulnerable so what better way to reach children than to use what they are familiar and comfortable with...Disney movies.


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