Learning By Doing: Using the Arts to Enhance Reading and Stop Bullying

This is a guest post by Kathy Wade, CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art. Her organization has developed five free resources to help caring parents, teachers, and community leaders bring the story of Chrysanthemum to their own learners.

Cincinnati Children's Representative Reading To South Avondale Class .png

At each mention of bullying, students folded their paper hearts until there was nothing left but a tiny, crumpled paper ball in their hands. They’d been instructed to fold in one section at a time, at each mention of bullying, during the read-aloud of Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes, a book in which the eponymous character is endlessly mocked by her peers for her unique name. At the end of the exercise they were asked to uncrumple the paper hearts and smooth them back out, but the evidence was clear: the damage remained. Students learned that the effects of bullying are lasting and irreversible. It’s hard to heal a broken heart.

This interactive exercise was a part of a 90-minute program designed to help kids recognize bullying, understand how their words and actions affect others, and coping strategies and resilience. We developed the program as part of a larger effort to bring performing arts literacy programs to under-resourced schools in Cincinnati to help students and their families learn and grow together.

As many as one in three students have been bullied at school according to StopBullying.gov. But research shows that caring adults and supportive school environments play a critical role in helping children identify, understand, and manage their emotions—an important first step in preventing bullying behaviors.

The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning

While bullying takes many shapes and forms, one identified cause stems from a lack of understanding of other people’s experiences. Social-emotional learning (SEL) can help equip students with the ability to manage their own emotions and experiences and learn from shared experiences with others.

Research supports incorporating social-emotional learning in schools through explicit instruction and across all academic subjects. One study investigated the long-term success of teaching SEL to all students, including those from low-income families, and concluded that effective SEL policies are key to reducing the education gap.

School leaders and educators are increasingly aware that providing a strong social-emotional learning program can foster students’ success. In fact, comprehensive SEL programs have been identified as the foundation for developing a positive school environment and helping to address some of the most challenging issues educators face today, including behavior issues and emotional distress.

Here are a few relevant articles that add helpful insights on these key topics:

Indeed, students begin to develop their foundational social-emotional competencies at a young age. There is no time to waste in helping each child develop healthy behaviors and learn to exercise empathy.

Intersection of SEL, Arts Education, and Academic Achievement

Leaders in SEL recommend that educators across all grades and academic subjects incorporate teaching social-emotional competencies—defined by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as self-awareness, self-management, social responsibility, relationship skills, and responsible decision making—into their classroom strategies. This is equally evident in ASCD’s whole child approach, with the goals of ensuring each child is healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. Addressing SEL and academics are not independent aims: they are each part of a comprehensive education. Studies have shown that students who establish core social-emotional skills experience significant gains in academic achievements.

Just as a whole-child education extends beyond mere academics, it includes much more than just “core” subjects on the academic side. The arts are a powerful vehicle for increasing students’ engagement with academic and SEL content. The creativity present in arts education unlocks learners’ personalities, makes them feel connected to their social-emotional competencies, and helps them develop important success skills for life.

To that end, my organization, Learning Through Art, teamed up with experts from Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Medical Center and The Children’s Theater of Cincinnati to develop an anti-bullying program combining performing arts, reading, and drama to teach kids an important lesson about caring and resilience. Specifically, we knew that by integrating the arts into the lesson and giving kids the chance to create, perform and interact with one another, we could foster an active learning experience for children, so the lessons they learned would stick.

Here are three reasons to combine arts education with SEL:

  • Kids learn more by doing: When students are able to actively engage with learning materials and their peers, they are better equipped to take what they’ve learned at school and apply it to their experiences outside the classroom. Young children may have difficulty listening quietly and staying still throughout a read-aloud, but by tying experiential learning to curricular goals, students are able to make real-world connections at school.
  • Collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking: In practice, SEL combined with arts education fosters the 4Cs of 21st century learning. For example, after learning about the different types of bullying behavior, the students were asked to work together to re-enact Chrysanthemum’s experiences (creativity and collaboration) in order to identify examples of bullying and facilitate meaningful dialogue (communication and critical thinking) between children and caring adults.
  • Self-expression is amplified: Both SEL and arts education help equip students with the skill set to express their own thoughts, ideas, and emotions. Promoting avenues for self-expression is key to guiding students through a multitude of experiences in a healthy way. This is not only good for social-emotional development, but career development, as well: speaking skills, the very embodiment of effective self-expression, are desired by employers, but are not always taught in schools.

Final Thoughts

The growing emphases on SEL and the arts have come at a time when education is moving away from a traditional “one-size-fits-all” model or a focus only on academics, and embracing the need to support the whole child. By providing students with a platform to express themselves through a variety of arts-related activities and reflect on how their actions affect themselves and others, students are equipped with skills that will serve them well beyond the classroom.

About Kathy Wade


Kathy Wade is the CEO and co-founder of Learning Through Art, Inc. (LTA), the non-profit organization whose programs have impacted over one million participants by increasing opportunities for collaboration, arts education, artistic growth, community engagement, and economic development for the past 26 years. Kathy recently contributed a chapter to the book, Building People: Social-Emotional Learning for Kids, Families, Schools, and Communities. Follow Kathy and Learning Through Art on Twitter: @LTACincy 

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

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