30 May 2018 Blogs

Healing Through Music and Arts in the Classroom

Helping Students Cope with Tragedy

An all too familiar scene

The country is dealing with yet another school massacre. The latest shooting incident happened on Friday, May 18, 2018, at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas. It claimed the lives of 10 and injured at least 13. And while we are seeing families mourn, the communities are coming together to start the healing process. School shootings and other violence are not the only situations that can cause psychological trauma. There are so many students coping with a range of trauma in their lives, whether it be collectively or individually, that educators need to be prepared for with more than just lessons. Issues such as homelessness, bullying, natural disasters, and divorce can also cause trauma.

Students are finding creative ways to express themselves after experiencing trauma

Learning can be a struggle for students coping with trauma, and art is one way to address the struggles and stress so that students can learn better. A Drexel University study found that making art can significantly lower stress-related cortisol levels in the body. After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the students became empowered by protesting, but they also found comfort in music and the arts. From recording a music video and painting Stars of Hope to performing dance and pouring their feelings into poetry, art has become an outlet, and schools, libraries, and even Second Lady Karen Pence are getting involved. Vice President Mike Pence's wife, Karen Pence, has embraced art therapy.  She launched her art therapy initiative Healing with the HeART in October 2017 and is committed to raising public awareness for the cause.

Healing with dance

Dance is one of the most ancient methods of healing. And it’s just another art form that students are using to express themselves. After Parkland, the DANL Dance Center in Margate, Florida, teamed up with Leave a Legacy Foundation of South Florida for a benefit performance to support the community. The dance troupes of victims Jamie Guttenberg and Cara Loughran were among the cast. The 500 dancers at the performance raised $38,000 for the Douglas High School victim’s fund. Specialty dance studios, local community centers, and after-school programs are just some examples for getting students involved.

Five Tips for Educators

“Because trauma can be shadowy and hard to pin down, creative expression is a way to access what children can't see or say. It's like a back door to healing. In a safe environment, students can learn that taking risks in art might elicit emotions they can share with pride. Having a piece of art to symbolize their emotional process is also a motivator. More art can translate into hope for the future and healing that lasts a lifetime.”-- Heidi Durham, CEO of Art with Heart, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping children overcome trauma through creative expression

How should educators incorporate the arts into their classroom to heal and empower students who are undergoing psychological trauma? We culled five tips from Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma: A Guide for Art Educators and School-Based Professionals. This book, published in 2017 by Routledge and edited by Adrienne D. Hunter, Donalyn Heise and Bevereley H. Johns, provides a wealth of K-12 resources and strategies for using art in the classroom to enhance learning for children experiencing psychological trauma. The resources and strategies in the book are for pre-service teacher candidates, art teachers, general educators, school counselors and social workers. Additionally, the book is broken down into several chapters focusing on special populations, such as homeless students, students who are victims of human trafficking, LGBTQ trauma, non-traditional educational settings and incarcerated youth. These tips below are only a sampling of information gleaned from the book.

  1. Consider choice and boundaries in the art-making process. The importance of giving students the ability to make choices in their artistic expression is mentioned throughout the book. Choice can lead to project success (p. 173) and spark creativity (p. 79) and empower students (p. 119). However, the teacher should set some boundaries within the art. It is better to give the students parameters as to what they can draw rather than instructing them to draw whatever they want. Too little structure can confuse students. Chapter 10 discusses the importance of the teacher being mindful of the choice of art media because of the way it stimulates parts of the brain through sensory and tactile engagement. For example, the use of fluid materials, such as clay or finger paints, engages the student at a kinesthetic-sensory level (pp. 109-110). There can be risks and rewards in the choice of media. The type of media can potentially induce traumatic memories or help the students become grounded in the present moment.
  2. Know when to exhibit students’ artwork. Creating a display of students’ artwork is a good way to build self-esteem, encourage students to take risks in learning and more (p. 79). The works of all students should be displayed, regardless of the level of talent or ability of each student (p. 154). However, there are cases when an educator needs to show discernment. Some artwork may not be acceptable to display because of content or school rules. Additionally, educators should consider the possibility that a student who had suffered trauma may be re-traumatized when others ask questions about their work on display (p. 154).
  3. Create partnerships with outside organizations. The book devotes an entire chapter, Chapter 21, to collaborations and community-based art programs for at-risk students. Educators should consider networking with nonprofit leaders in the community.  Some nonprofit organizations might have access to funding to support joint programs with schools. Other ideas include creating an arts-based service learning project, seeking out scholarships that enable homeless students to participate in community arts programs, and involving parents in school and community art programming.
  4. Play a key role in a vigilance team within your school. Art teachers and other educators can look for signs in their students that they may be suffering from trauma. Sometimes, trauma experienced by a student is depicted in their artwork and can take the form of violent or disturbing imagery (p. 50). However, the artwork could be a representation of what the student has seen on TV or in the movies, rather than any trauma experienced by him or her. When presented with violent or disturbing imagery, the educator should also observe the student's behavior, such as fidgeting when describing his or her artwork, (p. 45) and compare the work with the student's past artwork (p. 151).
  5. Know when to seek out consultation. It is not the educator’s job to engage in the role of therapist as he/she is not trained in that role. Educators should dissuade a student from discussing his or her traumatic experience in the class (p. 111) and maintain the privacy of the student. If a student’s artwork or classroom behavior indicates he or she is troubled, the educator should consult with a mental health professional, such as the school psychologist (p. 151), within the school or district.

About the Editors of Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma:

Adrienne D. Hunter, MEd, is a national presenter who has more than 35 years of experience teaching youth who are at-risk, in-crisis and/or incarcerated. Ms. Hunter is past president of Special Needs in Art Education (SNAE) within the National Art Education Association and past co-chair for the Council for Exceptional Children’s Division of Visual and Performing Arts Education (DARTS). Donalyn Heise, EdD, is the founder and co-director of Teacher Effectiveness for Art Learning (TEAL) with more than 30 years of experience teaching art to youth who have experienced psychological trauma. Beverley H. Johns, MS, is a professional fellow at MacMurray College who has worked with students with significant behavioral problems for more than 33 years. Ms. Johns is also the author of more than 20 special education books.


Organizations & Associations:

American Art Therapy Association: Not-for-profit, non-partisan organization to advance the art therapy profession.

American Dance Therapy Association: Organization to support the profession of dance/movement therapy.

American Music Therapy Association: Organization committed to the advancement of the therapeutic use of music in rehabilitation.

American School Counselor Association: Association that supports school counselors' efforts to help students and provides professional development, resources, research and advocacy to professional school counselors.

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth: National membership association to ensure children experiencing homelessness are successful in school.

National Association of School Psychologists:  Professional association representing school psychologists, graduate students, and related professionals throughout the U.S. and 25 other countries.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network: Network created by United States Congress to raise the standard of care and increase access to services for children and families who experience or witness trauma.

National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, Inc.: Alliance of membership associations dedicated to the advancement of the creative arts therapies professions.

North American Drama Therapy Association:  Organization created to establish and uphold rigorous standards of professional competence for drama therapists.

SchoolHouse Connection: National organization for overcoming homelessness through education. Partners with early childhood programs, schools and more.

Guidebooks & Other Materials:

Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators  (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)

The Healing Arts After a Crisis: 7 Essential Practices (Psychology Today)

Helping Young Children Cope with Trauma (American Red Cross)

School Crisis Guide: Help and Healing in a Time of Crisis (National Education Association)

  Art for Children Experiencing Psychological Trauma: A Guide for Art Educators and School-Based Professionals is available on ProQuest Ebook Central or wherever books are sold.