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A recent artwork created by 13-year-old student Erikah during virtual art therapy sessions offered by their school IS 238 in Queens, New York. Credit: Erikah

Thirteen-year-old Erikah didn’t like turning on their computer camera and talking during remote math class this last year. They missed being able to raise their hand to call the teacher over if they need to ask for help, and found it hard to focus on classwork in their apartment.

Like many other middle schoolers, Erikah found remote learning to be a frustrating and isolating experience.

But there’s one class they look forward to, even though it’s also beamed over the internet. Every week after regular classes are over for the day, Erikah joins a group of students from the school online to create art with “Miss Keller,” Erikah’s favorite teacher.

Stephanie Keller is a licensed creative arts therapist for Counseling in Schools. Since last March, Keller has met with a group of middle school students from Intermediate School 238 in Queens, New York for virtual art therapy sessions.

Art therapy uses drawing, painting and other art-based practices “as a way to connect, and to develop a therapeutic relationship,” said Keller. Not only does it allow students to express emotions, it provides behavioral support and stress management, she said.

To Erikah, the program is a must. “Art therapy is an amazing thing and I think every kid should do it,” they said. “If you have problems like focusing or with anger issues like me, it really calms you down.”

Now, if Erikah gets frustrated during class or while working on an assignment, they pull out one of the drawings from their sessions or just start drawing to help focus.

Erikah describes their art journal as very colorful and random: “It mainly reflects my personality and how I feel sometimes.” Erikah loves to use paint and clay, and sometimes uses makeup as an art medium. One of Erikah’s recent pieces shows a girl in a teacup house as it rains outside. “She wants to go outside and play but she couldn’t because it’s raining,” they explained.

Keller usually starts each session — individual or group — with a prompt for the students. She will show them a series of paintings that reflect different emotions or feelings and ask students which image speaks to them that day. Students can point to an image of a tree waving in the wind or a huge wave crashing to share feelings of being overwhelmed. Students can then choose to talk about artwork they created outside the session or use the time to paint, sketch or draw.

Other times, Keller will give students a specific assignment. During a recent conversation about resilience, she asked students to draw or paint an image of something in nature that survives in a harsh environment. The art gives students a safe way to share with their art therapist difficult feelings or emotions without directly talking about them.

“We have these different prompts and ways to express ourselves and talk about different things that come up,” Keller said. “But we’re also focusing on things that are going on in school and things that have come up in the past. We’re addressing those things and doing it in creative ways.”

What really makes the program special for Erikah is the relationship with Keller. “She gives you really good advice, and it’s not always about art either,” they said. “Miss Keller, she gave [advice] outside of my mental health, school work, and I really liked that, because it has helped me during the pandemic.”

While research on school-based art therapy is sparse, Lauren Amigo, a licensed creative arts therapist who works with Counseling in Schools, said creative arts therapy in schools isn’t brand new — it’s been around for decades. According to UCLA’s Center for Mental Health in Schools, art therapy “opens up a nonverbal form of communication for those who have a hard time communicating their thoughts and feelings.” Some studies suggest that drawing while talking about distressing or traumatic experiences helps reduce children’s feelings of anxiety, anger and fear, and reveals information about the sources of the trauma. The American Art Therapy Association routinely updates a list of studies showing the effects of art therapy.

While many schools may not have had the capacity to focus on art during remote learning, advocates say art therapy can help students make sense of and cope with events of the past year.

Some schools are already integrating art therapy components into classrooms. Amigo spent the last year at the Brooklyn Community High School for Excellence & Equity, commonly known as Brooklyn X, working with Black, Asian, Latino, and Middle Eastern students, as well as students who had recently immigrated to the U.S. The school community not only dealt with the re-ignition of the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd and a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, it was also was particularly hard hit by the pandemic, Amigo said. Art therapy was one way of helping students at the school cope.

She asked students to think about and create art based on two questions: “What do you see outside of your window now?” and then “What would you like to see out of your window?” In response to the first question, many students created pieces that showed destruction, often connected to racism; some “used bright colors of red, which symbolized the slaughtering of a lot of people that look like them.”

The work turned into a much larger project about resilience.

The school sent ceramic tiles to every student, both those attending in person and those still learning remotely. Students worked in groups to paint symbols of their personal resilience on their tiles. Once the students are all back to school in person, the tiles will be used to create a portable mosaic that will allow them to be “reminded of their strength in a more positive way,” Amigo said.

“The students who I work with and the students within the school have gone through so, so much loss,” Amigo said. “Their resilience wasn’t necessarily by choice. It’s something that’s come up in my dialogue with them, ‘Well we really had no choices here; we really had no other options’.”

Having a space where students can creatively process and express what they are going through with someone who is supporting them “is really powerful,” said Amigo. It can be especially helpful for younger children and adolescents who “are still in the process of learning how they feel, learning how they react and learning how they respond.”

What Amigo would like to see outside her own window is an art therapist in every school. “I am a huge proponent for art therapy for students of all ages,” Amigo said.

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

This story about art therapy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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Javeria Salman is the digital news producer, and she reports and writes the Future of Learning newsletter. She covers K-12 education issues through the lens of innovation and technology, and helps manage...

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