Making Connections Through Art and Music in Refugee Education

Investigating the value of arts-based education through action research with Sudanese refugee children. Link to document is accessed through the button to the left.

As we look to the future and begin to reimagine our educational environments, arts education has a valuable position to take. Social-emotional learning conversations are ever present in the wake of trauma and creative arts offers a vehicle for self expression, human connection, hope and peace. Through the arts we can explore the deeper emotional needs of children who have experienced trauma.  Through arts therapy in classrooms, refugee camps, and community based programs , the arts can play a critical role in fostering safe spaces for expression and healing. 

I am so excited that iNSPiRE the CHiLD is now an affiliate member of the Arts Education Partnership. Sharing and expanding the vision that creative approaches in education blending arts, literacies, and learning serves the whole child. 


Identity formation and positive youth development are central to working with all children and, not exclusive to, but vital when working with children that have experienced trauma. Research in this area supports Positive Youth Development practices and the metatheoretical perspectives surrounding  “relational developmental systems theory."( Lerner, 2012) Considering youth as "resources to be developed", the creative arts curriculum can offer the identity building and developmentally encouraging environment that is central to PYD perspectives.

Central to positive  SEL outcomes:

Through this lens, we can look at creative arts curriculum as ways to empower youth, affect positive SEL environments and understand how negative outcomes can arise if the curriculum is not implemented well. 

Farrington (2019) looks deeper at the idea of using “art practices” and “art competencies”, as building blocks for their counterparts; “social-emotional practices” and “social-emotional competencies” . The research presented looks at how “art education fosters social-emotional development”  and how that can be implemented in all areas of arts education

Seeking a “breadth of opportunity” (Farrington, 2019) to help youth cultivate identity includes developing learning experiences within the arts, music, theater, and dance.  identifies art practices such as, “creating, presenting, and responding and establishes positive connections to social-emotional components of self-management, self-discipline, interpersonal and relationship skills, and self-expression and identity.” Keeping in mind the idea that when poorly implemented, these practices can be detrimental to PYD and social-emotional development, emphasizing the fact that using effective strategies is core to the creative arts curriculum's ability to affect positive learning outcomes. 

Considering cultural beliefs, arts education often implies a more generous space for creative expressions that live outside of a formalized academic curriculum. Many parents and educators consider creative art spaces as safe places to explore cultural identity, encourage diversity, and social justice.  Because of this hidden autonomy and freedom, art educators can form trusting relationships with their students and are positioned well to help students “work through challenging situations.” (Farrington, 2019)

A recent youth study indicated that art therapy increases resilience, and SEL diminishes potential future psychological disorders (Wilson & Tredinnick 2020). Gaining social awareness within educators allows the school to create programs that promote positive outcomes for youth within their behavioral, social, and emotional outcomes. Wilson & Tredinnick's 2020 study concluded that SEL presented through the arts led students to gains in social and emotional competencies, namely social awareness, empathy, and perspective-taking. Maintaining supportive relationships while navigating with material presents the students with opportunities to challenge how their belief sets interact with their social experience.

Due to systemic racism, educators and interpersonal relationships serve as a protective factor to child development. Lerner (2018) describes positive youth development research as a focus on ways of enhancing and promoting good things within someone's life while diminishing the negative regardless of the participant's age.  Key features of an effective youth development program are a sustainable relationship between the student and an adult for at least a year, life-building skills and activities, leadership opportunities of value (Lerner 2018). Presenting students with a supportive learning environment promotes a sense of belonging, purpose, and active engagement with their community.


As we in education find ourselves looking at the whole child, with emphasis on social-emotional learning and global perspectives, we find the children of trauma and seek to respond. In attempting to do so, we can look to the arts with hope and promise for a pathway to positive social-emotional learning and growth. Research shows that arts-based education and art therapies:

Investigating the idea of hope, Yohani (2008) defines hope as a “powerful emotion emerging from within a person and acts as a fuel that drives interactions between people and their environment.” Hope, in other words, is a catalyst for coping with stress, dealing with hardship, and moving forward through life. Using arts intervention to encourage an outlook of hope finds its basis in "human ecological theory and hope theory" illustrating how hope applies in light of human ecological theory." Feelings are identified as “forces” (Bronfenbrenner and Morris, 1998 as cited in contributing significantly to human development. Looking at proximal processes and reciprocal relationships, the perspective of hope is defined. The suggestion here is that hope is “contextualized and embedded in personal experience”, and therefore a vital component to overcoming adversity. Similarly, hope studies point to the “significance of attending to people’s environments and personal interpretations to better understand their experiences.”

Using a hope- focused creative arts- based approach, interventions have proven to establish connections and provide an effective response to children in trauma.

“The Hope Project”, an arts-based series of workshops for youth, seeks to “orient them to the concept of hope.” Yohani (2008) suggests that this arts-based approach is “particularly relevant” based on the idea that “hope is associated with the creative process.”

One of the projects involved creating a “Hope Quilt” (Yohani, 2008), made up of images created by the children that illustrate hope in the context of their lives. Once the quilt was completed, it was shared in an exhibit which further facilitates hope in others and validates the artist's experiences..This is just one of the examples discusses using arts-based projects to facilitate hope and create relationships. This, and other, art-based projects demonstrate how the creative arts can be used to


Farrington, C. A., Maurer, J., McBride, M. R. A., Nagaoka, J., Puller, J. S., Shewfelt, S., Weiss, E.M., & Wright, L. (2019). Arts education and social-emotional learning outcomes among K–12 students: Developing a theory of action. Chicago, IL: Ingenuity and the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research

Lerner, R. M., Tirrell, J. M., Dowling, E. M., Geldhof, G. J., Gestsdóttir, S., Lerner, J. V., King, P. E., Williams, K., Iraheta, G., & Sim, A. T. (2018). The End of the Beginning: Evidence and Absences Studying Positive Youth Development in a Global Context. Adolescent Research Review, 4(1), 1–14.

Lerner, J. V., Bowers, E. P., Minor, K., Boyd, M. J., Mueller, M. K., Schmid, K. L., & Lerner, R. M. (2012). Positive youth development: Processes, philosophies, and programs (Chapter 15). Handbook of Psychology, Second Edition, 6.

Yohani, S. C. (2008). Creating an Ecology of Hope: Arts-based Interventions with Refugee Children. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 25(4), 309-323. doi:10.1007/s10560-008-0129-x