By the time children reach the age of three, they have established relationships with families, peers, and others outside their home and school environments. By the time they are four or five, they are capable of expressing and labeling a wide range of emotions. Teachers who are concerned about the social and emotional growth of their children must be aware of the contributions of the psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson. His comprehensive work provides us with a solid theoretical framework that underlines the importance of facilitating the emotional and social development of the children in our classrooms.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Development

Erikson (1963) presents a series of psychological conflicts or crises that human beings must resolve in the development of personality. The outcomes of these conflicts can have positive or negative effects on ego development. The resolution of each conflict is dependent on relationships with others in our environment, and the positive outcome of these conflicts during a lifetime is important in the building of a positive self-esteem and positive feelings about ourselves and others. As with Piaget’s theory of intellectual development, Erikson’s stages are age related and, again, teachers must use caution in thinking that children may be in only one stage of development. 

During the first year, a child learns that the world is a trustworthy place and that she can trust those around her for sustenance, protection, and affection, or she develops feelings that she cannot trust those around her because her needs are not met. During the toddler stage, she begins to assert her choice and will as she develops some degree of independence. If she is too restricted by the external, overcontrol of her caregivers, she learns to doubt her abilities. This results in a loss of self-esteem. By the time she reaches age three, and until around her sixth year, her motor and intellectual abilities are increasing, and she begins assuming more responsibility for initiating and carrying out her ideas. When her attempts at initiative are not accepted by those around her, she develops feelings of guilt because of her misbehavior.

Older children, ages six through twelve, develop feelings of self-worth through mastery and achievement of their accomplishments and interactions with others, or they come to feel inferior in relation to others. The realization of possible failure leads to guilt and fear of punishment.

The Arts and Social/Emotional Development

For all young children, the arts provide a social arena in which they can communicate ideas and feelings to others. Very often young children cannot pinpoint a feeling, much less sort through all of the confusing vocabulary associated with emotional or affective stages to put that feeling into words or behavior. They can, however, express and represent feelings through drawing, painting, pounding clay, or acting out a part during improvisation. When children make art, they are going about the serious business of learning about themselves and others in their world. They are in tune with their inner world and the external environment of things, people, and happenings. Children involved in the process of creating and discovering the creative arts are probably closer to touching both of these worlds than at any other time. Every art encounter requires that children use intellectual, social, and emotional skills, concepts, and knowledge throughout the creative process.  Consider an example of five-year-old Lien swimming with dolphins. First she needs to remember what she knows about dolphins, sailboats, and large bodies of water. She conveys her understanding of sailboats and things that float on water. Then she has to coordinate the movements of her body with the rhythm of the music while imitating the movements that most closely resemble those of a swimming dolphin. Next, she organizes what she knows about how dolphins swim alongside sailboats and the social interaction that takes place as she flips her fins to splash water on the people aboard. Finally, after what may have been less than five minutes in the planning, she presents a beautifully orchestrated water dance. What a sophisticated representation of her ability to integrate her perceptions and ways of communicating with her world—a truly magnificent event!

Emotional and Social Opportunities Through the Arts

When children are engaged in the creative arts process, they have opportunities to

  • work as individuals and as members of an interacting and cooperative group
  • take turns and share materials, equipment, and space
  • respect others' rights, opinions, and feelings
  • develop group leadership and followership qualities
  • discuss, explore, and inquire about different experiences in the arts
  • respect themselves through their accomplishments
  • share personal conerns, feelings, and positive regard for one another
  • plan, problem solve, and maintain an environment of positive support for self and others
  • use participatory methods for decision making
  • feel influential and of value to the group process
  • build self-esteem
  • support social development by sharing and asking questions
  • express deeply personal thoughts and feelings that may be otherwise unacceptable
  • identify fears and learn to manage them
  • excel in a particular area and feel recoginized
  • gain a sense of acceptance in a group
  • feel that their efforts are worthwhile
  • feel valued by others
  • develop communication skills

Perhaps Robert Alexander’s very powerful and poetic description best summarizes the value of arts education for all children:

As children journey amid the creative splendor of the mind-heart-soul, their imaginations are constantly opening new doors and windows, showing new avenues of approach and hinting at mysteries which lie beyond what they can see. . . . In the act of creation, children are closer to their truth than at any other time. . . . Thoughts and feelings are experienced with magnificent clarity, crystal sharpness and control. All of life’s bewildering chaos is transformed into harmony and truth. In the art of creation children are truly free. (1985, p. 5)

The work of Vygotsky (1978) and Erikson (1963) focus on the aspect of education that provides children with experiences that are in their zone of proximal development (where children can master some skills and are challenged to move to a higher level) and to building a positive self-esteem and positive feelings about ourselves and others (Edwards, 2002).