Deep Dives

How Does Creativity Connect to Social and Emotional Skills for Greater Well-Being in School?

October 28, 2022
Ross C. Anderson, PhD
Creative Engagement Lab
How Does Creativity Connect to Social and Emotional Skills for Greater Well-Being in School?

According to researcher Dr. Zorana Ivcevic, our creativity in both work and school settings is closely connected to our emotional intelligence and well-being. For instance, when we need to think creatively, it is important for us to set conditions that cultivate calmness and openness, helping us be patient and focused to find new divergent possibilities. When we are trying a new creative skill or endeavor, we should expect mistakes and failure and use them to gain new insights. Being aware of the potentially hard emotions we may feel in the face of that failure, such as fear and anxiety, can prepare us to persevere. If we are in a leadership, management, or teaching role, it may be key to reinforce this kind of emotional awareness and self-regulation with our colleagues and students through intentional activities, such as opening and closing rituals (see CASEL’s SEL 3 Signature Practices for great examples).

These connections between creativity and emotions may be vital to teacher and student health right now. Student well-being, especially during adolescence, is on the front burner of our attention nationally, and recent key findings from developmental science suggests that autonomy and belonging may be two of the strongest levers that secondary schools can target to support the healthy, holistic development of their students. So, how can these connections between creativity and social-emotional well-being support students and teachers?

One response to this question has come from our research and design work at Creative Engagement Lab (CEL). CEL has worked alongside hundreds of teachers and thousands of students across the past nine years to develop innovations and research in SEL, creativity, and education. That work produced a new model to understanding creativity—Creative Resourcesreframing our idea of creative potential from the self-limiting question of “how creative am I?” to the self-expanding question of “how am I creative?” The makeSPACE program has supported teachers to take this reframing into their own creative lives and their creative work with students. Our research builds on decades of work by others to understand how teachers’ and students’ creative resources fuel their resilience, agency, and adaptability to flourish in deeply uncertain times. For instance, when teachers felt confidence in their unique creative resources, learned and used strategies for creative teaching and learning, and engaged in creative practice on their own, they felt greater joy, resilience, and empathy for their students and less stress in their teaching.

Making space in school for shared creative experience can develop personal and collective resources that are key to our creative and social-emotional well-being. These creative experiences can begin with brief, repeated routines. Creative opportunities can fill students with a sense of freedom for personal expression and from the tyranny of perfectionism. They feel close and connected to others, knowing that others will put effort into understanding how they see the world, just as they will reciprocate with the same effort. Students develop strength and self-assurance to take creative risks and become more tolerant for ambiguously open-ended challenges. In fact, our research illustrates how students’ creative skill development across the middle school years plays a distinct role in their academic, creative, and agentic preparation for high school.

In the past few years, five key creative resources have emerged in our research that bridge a multidimensional framework for creativity to the CASEL framework for social-emotional skills. These resources are empathy, humor, gratitude, curiosity, and tolerance for ambiguity—each an important human tool for enhancing our emotional awareness, shifting our perspective, reframing challenging emotions, and deepening our understanding and connection to one another. With generous support from the MillsDavis Foundation, CEL has produced a free, adaptable, and interactive curriculum—Creative Engagement for Health—centered on these five resources using creative expression as a path toward well-being, autonomy, and belonging. We invite educators to consider how they make space for creative experience in their lives and their work with students and explore opportunities offered in this new curriculum. The important starting place is to first ask yourself today—How am I creative? How can my creativity bring me (and others) joy and hope?

The views in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of CASEL.

Ross C. Anderson is a CASEL Weissberg Scholar and holds a Ph.D. in Education Leadership from the University of Oregon. He is a Principal Researcher at Inflexion, Associate Scientist at Oregon Research Institute, and Co-Founder of Creative Engagement Lab, LLC. 

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