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Expressive Arts in the Classroom

How Drama, Art, and Dance Can Help Promote a Socially and Emotionally Healthy Classroom


By Trynaty Thompson, LSW


As teachers, we routinely interact with students who experience a multitude of issues. Some look at school as the safest, most predictable place they can go. Others hate coming to school, dreading what they will encounter that day. Still others fear for their younger siblings at home while they are gone. And, for some, socialization is an intimidating work-in-progress, both with other children and adults. No matter what our students bring into the classroom, however, it is safe to assume that they all benefit from social-emotional learning and building a healthy community with their classmates.


The expressive arts are a great way to add social-emotional learning into our daily schedule, to foster healthy minds and create safe and supportive communities. While many of these activities are short and simple, they still can have profound effects on our classrooms. Drama, dance, and other expressive arts allow children and teens to be imaginative and playful, critical contributors to quality of life. Additionally, the arts allow students to think creatively and abstractly beyond the limits of the classroom. Leaving our routine and daily life for a short time can unlock new possibilities, and serves as a launchpad for making our hopes and dreams come true. Conversely, when we are stuck focusing solely on our past or present circumstances, we fail to imagine and experience a loss of mental flexibility. Thus, the activities we do in the classroom can play a pivotal role in teaching self-regulation skills, allowing students to bond and form community, and beginning to repair traumas they may have experienced or are experiencing.


Of course, tuning into your students’ needs, abilities, and personalities, as well as your own, will be invaluable in developing activities that uniquely fit your classroom. Remember, you know yourself and your students better than most! That being said, below are some suggested strategies you can utilize as a starting point to integrate expressive arts into your own classroom routines.


Morning Meetings

If you have a morning meeting with your students, use a greeting that provides opportunities to connect physically and verbally. This serves as a bonding experience for students and can be as simple as a high five or a fist bump. To take it one step further, have your students greet each other in specifically identified, creative ways. For example, you can say, “For today’s greeting, we will pretend to be aliens. When you say ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’, do it in your best alien voice!”. Simple changes like this allow them to be silly and imaginative, while they simultaneously practice perspective-taking and relational connection skills.


Midline Motion

Another great way to add expression and movement is to have students do repetitive motions while completing simple tasks. For instance, you can have students do jumping jacks, squats, clap, or stomp their feet while they count the days on the calendar. In particular, this is best done with motions that cross the body’s midline, or the invisible line that divides the body into right and left halves. Crossing the midline is important in exercise because it uses both hemispheres of the brain. Further, this type of activity can improve emotional balance and functioning by providing regulation skills. Additionally, midline motive expression activities can improve enhance daily tasks such as reading, writing, or tying shoes (for the younger classrooms).


Brain Breaks

Over the last few years, brain breaks, or momentary pauses in teaching specific academic content to allow students to process and refocus, have become a regularly utilized practice in classrooms from kindergarten onward. Maybe you turn on a video for students to follow along and get up and moving, or have a quiet time with calming music and Play-Doh. Perhaps, your brain break simply looks like unrestricted free time. Any of these are great activities and contribute to students relaxing and returning to their baselines throughout the school day.


One brain break activity that employs movement and creative thinking is performative drama. For example, after choosing a story to read to the class, you assign roles to the students based on the characters in the story. If need be, you have students share roles, or have any extra students be your audience. As you read the story aloud, your students act out the story in front of their audience. This gives the students a chance to be silly and theatrical, while simultaneously teaching self-control, respect, and perspective-taking, both for the performers and the audience. Further, activities like this, which use movement and expressive art-based strategies, supplement the same self-regulatory skills you are promoting during academic lessons.


In conclusion, if you use these strategies already, I would encourage you to continue to do so! Additionally, I would highly recommend you actively participate in these activities with your students. When they see their teacher participating in a regulation strategy, students are encouraged and motivated to employee the same strategy for themselves. In this way, the teacher and students co-regulate their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in the classroom. Further, the joint activity allows for students to feel understood and connected to their teacher, called attunement. Thus, you will be helping your students to grow, gain perspective, creatively express themselves, and you might just have a little fun while you are at it!


Further Reading

Want more ideas? Check out these books and articles to help build your classroom structure to involve expressive arts activities:

1. Take a Bow! Lesson Plans for Preschool Drama - Nina Czitrom

2. Creative Drama for Emotional Support- Penny McFarlane

3. On crossing the body’s midline and associated benefits: https://therapiesforkids.com.au/importance-of-crossing-the-midline/

4. An overview of expressive-art therapy:

https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/expressive-art-therapy