Creative arts therapists tap into the ‘antidote to anxiety’

Music, dance/movement, and art therapies can help with behavioral health issues in schools.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Her dance/movement therapy class at Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker Campus had just started when Amy Hunter asked the seven high-schoolers to say and show how they were feeling.

“Tense,” said one. “Tired,” said another, as several took slumping poses.

Soon Hunter had the group, gathered in a circle, doing lively exercises — rocking in their seats, passing and throwing a fabric ball, and bouncing small objects on a circular cloth that looked like a parachute.

When the hour was up and she asked the seven to describe their mental states, the adjectives were very different: “Happy.” “Great.” “Proud.”

“It makes me feel safe here,” 10th grader Naeem Scott said after the class. “I can be myself here.”

Reaching students at a ‘pre-verbal’ level

Hunter is one of a small but growing number of creative arts therapists working in schools, using dance/movement, music, and art to reach students in ways that words alone often can’t.

The goals range from improving students’ social skills and ability to work together to working on serious behavioral health issues.

“A lot of things are experienced at a pre-verbal level,” says Rena Kornblum, a Wisconsin-based dance/movement therapist whose curriculum for schools is used around the country.

Lisa Kay, an art therapist and associate professor at Temple University who has written extensively on creative arts therapies and trauma, says: “The act of creating can get deeper into those experiences before words can be put to those experiences. People need to be physical; they need to be tactile; they need to be aural.”

Kornblum relates the story of a 2nd grader who repeatedly had tantrums in her regular classrooms. Working with Kornblum, she lay on a gym floor, looking as if she were trying to claw her way up. Kornblum eventually found that the student was trying to get to the mother who had virtually abandoned her.

Natalie Carlton, director of art therapy and counseling at Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions, calls it “unpacking the symbolism.”

She cites the case of a boy who was constantly erasing parts of his drawings and redoing them. He turned out to be expressing his sadness and frustration at having plans repeatedly canceled by his divorced parents.

And when a child has had a traumatic experience before age 4 or so, she says, he or she may not be able to get to the root of it with only verbal therapy.

‘A huge missing piece’

Even when the child is old enough to talk about traumatic experiences, a creative arts approach might be more helpful than a purely verbal one, says Lindsay Edwards, who directs creative arts therapy programs at Drexel’s 11th Street Family Health Services Center. “They aren’t talking about themselves; they’re talking about the artwork. It doesn’t seem as scary. Improvisation, I think, is the antidote to anxiety.”

For the most part, creative arts therapies are used in behavioral health agencies or community settings rather than schools, a situation that “is not ideal,” says Scott Horowitz, a music therapist who heads the student internship program at Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions.

“The schools can address [a student’s] challenges in the moment, in partnership with the teacher, the counselor, and other people in the school,” he says. “It could be integrated into” an Individualized Education Plan for special education students.

In the schools, “it’s a huge missing piece,” Edwards says.

Schools sometimes ask her about sending students to the 11th Street center, but she doesn’t have the capacity to meet the demand.

Art therapy and special education

Drexel offers a master’s degree in art therapy and counseling. It sends students in that program into the schools as interns and finds the demand high. (There are only 11 in schools this year.)

Ivy Welshans, special education liaison at Parkway West High School, says that when the Drexel students started coming to the school in 2015, she thought, “Oh, no. One more thing for me to manage.”

Now, she says, “I fight for one every year. It’s been amazing. I’ve seen students who had trouble making eye contact making great strides.”

Kathryn Snyder, whose center called Parent to Child & Therapy Associates works with individuals and in schools, says there is only limited use of creative arts therapies in Philadelphia and around the country.

Philadelphia school officials declined to make anyone available at the District level to discuss the use of art therapy. Now, almost all art therapy in District schools is the result of individual teacher initiative and private fundraising.

Lauren Magee, a special education teacher at Penrose Elementary School in Southwest Philadelphia, said that she researched the subject on her own and that the school won a grant from the Delaware Valley Fairness Project, a small local foundation, to put a music therapist in the school one day a week for the spring semester.

The project will reach 40 of the school’s 100 special education students.

“I’m hoping to see an increase in their alertness, improvement in hand/visual attention, more hand-eye coordination,” Magee says.

Snyder says that, even if a school cannot afford a creative arts therapist on a regular basis, there are techniques that staff can pick up that will help, particularly for special needs students.

Art teachers “know they are seeing kids who are disregulated and disruptive and it all spills out in the art room,” she says.

“The training we need is in the red flags to look for in the artwork. We can be alert to the signs that somebody is needing help” and raise the issue with counselors.

Pass the picture

In the art therapy room at Southwark Elementary School in South Philadelphia, art therapist Kristin Rashid was leading four 1st graders in a game called “pass the picture.”

She encouraged each of them to draw any picture they wanted and then pass it to the class member to their right.

“See if you can add something positive to the next picture,” she said.

Rashid works for Parent to Child & Therapy Associates, and her work at Southwark is the result of the improvised financing that often supports creative arts therapies in Philadelphia and elsewhere.

“I’ve done most of the fundraising,” says Kathryn Snyder, who heads the agency. “For this year, we have funding through the Pennsylvania Arts in Education Partnership and are receiving funding through the Community Schools initiative. Southwark is a community school.

“I’m working on further fundraising through grants and a fundraiser with a local clothing designer who works in the Bok building across the street from Southwark.”

In the classroom, the 1st graders were doing their own improvising, guessing what their classmate had drawn before adding to it.

“Take your best guess,” Rashid said.

There were houses, people, a zeppelin.

“What was it like to have things added?” she asked one of the children.

“I like the house,” he said.

“Say a little more than ‘it’s nice,’” Rashid coaxed.

Afterward, Rashid repeated what could be a mantra for creative arts therapists: It’s never just about the art itself.

Of her group work, Rashid said: “There’s always a component of sharing. It’s being confident that you can put your own ideas out there.”

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