Helping At-Risk Students With Creative Arts Therapies

Vanessa Camilleri, a social and emotional learning specialist and editor and co-author of Healing the Inner City Child, Creative Arts Therapies with At-risk Youth, took readers' questions.

December 17, 2007

Helping At-Risk Students With Creative Arts Therapies

Elizabeth Rich, (Moderator):

Welcome to our live chat on healing at-risk children through the creative arts therapies. Our guest today is Vanessa Camilleri, a social/emotional learning specialist who edited and co-authored the recent Healing the Inner City Child, Creative Arts Therapies with At-risk Youth. We have a number of good questions, so let’s get started…

Question from Donna, Librarian/Teen Liaison, Niles Public Library District:

What kinds of art therapy programs have the most success with teenaged students?

Vanessa Camilleri:

As discussed in chapter 6, art (as well as the other modalities such as dance/movement, music, drama) is an excellent vehicle for reaching teenaged students in that it engages the mind and the body, allows for symbolic representation, invites flexibility and structure and encourages self-expression. Teenagers are often reluctant to speak to someone they may view as an “authority figure”, resist being told what to do, and reject suggestions or redirection. Art allows teenagers to in a sense be the masters/mistresses of their own destinies in that it allows them opportunities to manipulate materials in ways that only they can control. In the structured and safe therapeutic setting art-making allows teenagers to have a voice and connect with an adult in a positive way that invites healing. Chapter 10 shares the story of Timothy who was murdered by a police officer. His friends express, process and overcome their grief and loss through the process of mural-making. Chapter 13 describes the use of collage and mixed media by adolescents who are in a school suspension program for being physically violent in the regular school setting.

Question from Pete Panse, NBCT, Middletown Schools:

Our District administrators here in our NY District, are consumed with NCLB and high-stakes testing in order to show the progress that can prevent a state takeover. What studies exist to refute the notion that arts instruction does little to boost test performance? Thank you.

Vanessa Camilleri:

Thank you for your question. Let me clarify that my book “Healing the Inner City Child: Creative Arts Therapies with At-Risk Youth” deals not with arts instruction, but with creative arts therapies interventions. There is a significant difference. As stated by the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapists (2004), creative arts therapies such as music, dance, art, drama, poetry and psychodrama “use arts modalities and creative processes during intentional interventions in therapeutic, rehabilitative, community, or educational settings to foster health, communication, and expression; promote the integration of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning; enhance self-awareness; and facilitate change.” In other words, different arts media are used in a therapeutic setting to address significant social, emotional and behavioral issues that may be preventing children from reaching their fullest academic potentials. The emphasis is more on the art-making process rather than the artistic product which is the case in arts instruction. Arts instruction focuses on the teaching of specific arts-related skills (sketching, ballet, monologue reading etc…) to create a product, often for the purpose of performance or display. Creative arts therapies used the artistic process to attain social/emotional goals. Furthermore, creative arts therapies are used by creative arts therapists which receive very different training from art teachers. Having said all that, the benefit of arts instruction in schools is undeniable. My article “Nurturing Excellence Through the Arts” (Educational Leadership, March 2005) makes a strong case for the use of arts instruction in schools, and references “Champions of change: The impact of the arts on learning” (Fiske, E.B, 1999) and “The power of the arts to transform education: An agenda for action” (Wolfensohn, J.D, 1993) amongst other excellent resources.

Question from Sharon Simmons, adjunct assoc. prof., Brooklyn College:

What kinds of art activities are beneficial for the social/emotional learning of elementary, middle, and high school students?

Vanessa Camilleri:

Social/emotional learning (SEL) is fast becoming a field worthy of attention. With the recent emphasis on testing, educators often no longer have the time to really “see” the children who walk through their doors every day. Social/emotional learning is the process through which children develop social/emotional skills that they need to succeed in their classrooms and in life. SEL is intended to foster safe and caring individuals and schools, encourage positive classroom communities and develop specific social skills. I have always functioned from the premise that in order for students to succeed academically and personally, they must be socially and emotionally well. Which comes first is open for debate, however it is clear that they go hand in hand. Please see previous answer which makes a distinction between art instruction and creative arts therapies. Also see reference to a previous article I have written that discusses the use of arts instruction in schools. The more forward-thinking schools will use the creative arts therapies proactively and will use music therapy or art therapy groups to for example build anger-management skills, conflict-resolution skills, communication skills and self-esteem. The use of creative arts therapies in this manner can be used by a certified or licensed creative arts therapist as a preventive method available to all students or classes.

Question from Yancy Gunhammer, Assistant Tech Coordinator, Todd County School District:

Hello Vanessa, I know I don’t live in the Inner City, but we share some similar circumstances such as poverty, drug abuse, violence, etc. I have a very serious question: I live on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota and we recently have had an epidemic amount of suicides in our community. I believe that art therapy could help heal some of the people affected by these suicides. How would I start such a project and are there online resource for ideas? Thank you YG

Vanessa Camilleri:

I definitely agree that any of the creative arts therapies could lend themselves to helping heal those affected by the suicides. The arts have the ability to express that which cannot be put into words, connect those which would otherwise not connect, and heal those heavily defended. The arts can often break through barriers in an instant that may take years to crumble through words. Furthermore, the different artistic modalities can be manipulated and controlled by children who may feel that they have lost any sense of control in their lives. The reparative nature of the arts clearly lend themselves to process and handle grief. I would advise calling on a creative arts therapist to take the lead on such an initiative and to work with him/her to guide the process. For the experience to be truly healing and therapeutic, it is essential that a trained therapist be present. Dealing with grief and trauma is a delicate subject which can lead children to often un-dealt with recollections from their own lives. As children go through the process of art-making to heal from the recent suicides, the art can contain their emotions, but the adult is charged with helping to make sense of them and to come out from the experience healed and ready to move forward. Chapter 9 in the book discusses the use of music and play therapy in working with trauma, grief and loss with a trained music therapist. Chapter 15 in the book discusses psychodramatic approaches that can be used for emotional repair by a trained drama therapist.

Question from Suzy Reid, Head of The Arts, CMS, New Zealand:

Can we get, as educators who may look closer at this, an online version of your book Vanessa? We run Dads & Lads evenings for ‘at risk lads.’ Time and funding are not there for this however.We ask more and more of our staff sometimes to the detriment of their own personal lives. How do we go about getting parents and society to take ownership of these at risk students issues so we can have more support? Cheers Suzy

Vanessa Camilleri:

I am not aware that the book can be accessed online at this time. You may want to contact the publisher (Jessica Kingsley Publishers: to have this question addressed. Unfortunately I think that often you get the most support as a reaction. In other words, AFTER something has happened. That is when people mobilize. We need this to shift and to focus our efforts in preventive programs such as yours. I think the more we speak-out, educate and share resources, the more the necessary people will pay attention. It is also essential for research to be done to demonstrate which interventions work best at preventing negative outcomes for at-risk children. Then people can fund initiatives that have proven track-records. People need to take the long-term view of things and to build programs that have lasting contact and effects. Quick fixes never work and certainly don’t impact outcomes for our kids in the long term. The more proactive we can be, the more society will come to see how these efforts bring about positive consequences overall: less unemployment, reduction of poverty, improvements in education etc…

Question from Malual Majok Ring, College of Education , University of Bahr El Ghazal., Wau, Southern Sudan:

In the town of Wau in Southern Sudan, there are a group of street children who live apart from their families. They do get an education. What do you recommend to be done to help them?

Vanessa Camilleri:

I would imagine that many of these children are reluctant to open up and to trust an adult due to prior exploitation or abandonment. They may have developed ways to survive which include suppressing difficult emotions and becoming extremely defended. Engagement in creative arts therapies would be an excellent modality to break down barriers and to expose these children to a trusting and dependable adult. A consistent, reliable and safe atmosphere in which they are encouraged to express themselves through the arts would provide them with an healing opportunity which would allow them to be children and to ‘play’ (they probably have had to grow up very fast due to the nature of their circumstances), to be creative, to communicate, and to develop social skills that may be lacking. Through the therapeutic process they would be able to gain insight and develop coping mechanism to handle the trauma that many of them have undoubtedly experienced. There is an excellent chapter in the book (Chapter 20) that discusses the plight of exploited girls in India. Many of them end up on the street and these particular girls are living in a shelter that employs art therapy to help address the many emotional issues that they live with daily.

Question from Mel Pontious:

Please describe the steps for beginning a creative arts program with students that have become adverse to school.

Vanessa Camilleri:

It is essential in beginning a creative arts therapies program in any setting that specific needs be identified so that therapeutic groups can have specific goals, purposes, and processes. Whether depression, anxiety, school-aversion, or PTSD, a clear understanding of client needs will help in designing a creative arts therapies program that is best suited. As discussed in chapter 6, therapy with at-risk children can take many forms (group, individual, family) and can occur in many different settings. It is also important to note that depending on the therapist, creative arts therapies can be grounded in any psychological theory (behaviorist, cognitive humanistic, developmental, psychoanalytical etc…). These inform methods and goals. There are a few chapters in the book (Chapters 12, 13 and 19) that use creative arts therapies to address children who are not succeeding in school. In one case they have had to be removed and placed in a special school due to repeated violent actions. In chapter 12, the arts experience takes on the form of a mentoring program that successfully changed violent behavior and improved social competencies. The arts are extremely motivating, engaging and fun. Expression through the arts in a therapeutic context uses modalities that are socially acceptable, culturally relevant and familiar. This makes children less reluctant to engage in therapeutic interactions and encourages participation. When used therapeutically the creative arts therapies have the ability to heal children through the development of a therapeutic relationship with a therapist, the parallel art-making process, the opportunity to communicate and express, and the chance to control the artistic media.

Question from Janice Doler, former Special Education teacher in Alabama:

I am a former Special Education Teacher. I think that the creative arts therapy is an excellent idea for helping at risk as well as special education students with the problem of self-esteem. I have seen numerous students at risk of dropping out who simply were not motivated to stay in school. I believe that if a student is involved in other programs in school in which they can feel that they can be good at, such as the arts that they will gain confidence in themselves in other areas as well. I am a lover of the arts as well as children and I think that this type of program would benefit our schools and help reduce the drop-out rate significantly. My question is, How would a school system which is already in a community where students live in poverty go about implementing such a program and how would it be funded?

Vanessa Camilleri:

In some states, interventions such as music therapy can be mandated as a related service on a special education students’ Individualized Education Plan. In many schools the use of creative arts therapies are used as interventions for children who have already been identified as having a specific emotional, social or behavioral needs. Specific goals and outcomes are identified for these students and progress is assessed frequently. The funding for this would come through the special education department. Some schools employ creative arts therapists as part of the counseling team or student support team in which they can develop social skills development programs to pre-emptively work on specific skills school-wide. Also see response above in answer to the question about beginning a creative arts therapies program. I hope this helps.

Question from Terisa King, English Educator, Richard Milburn Academy, Amarillo TX:

How do you remove negative influences (i.e. gang insignia, drug and sexual context) from student created artforms? Is it possible to influence a moral code of conduct or interpretation on student assignments.

Vanessa Camilleri:

This is a very important and relevant question. I have dealt with this issue many times in music therapy sessions when students have brought in songs that have been important to them which may have contained negative or offensive language. I have conducted most of my work in school settings which had prescribed “rules” about language that was allowed in the building. I have therefore always had the backing of these in my approach. I have always had conversations about why the language was important to them, what it meant to them, and why they thought it was not ok for school. These conversations have often proved to be effective therapeutic schools because as we tried to identify replacements or discuss alternatives, the underlying issue was often fine-tuned. In my experience, students have always instinctively known what was and was not ok for school. However it was always important for me to determine why a student was bringing in this type of expression. Was it for shock value? A cry for help? Etc… This helped me to figure out how to deal with the expression. In creating a safe and accepting environment it is important that as therapists we approach these situations with our eyes wide open and hopefully without our own blinders, stereotypes, or assumptions which may inform our reactions. See my chapter (chapter 7) in part II of the book entitled “Hear Me Sing: Sturctured group songwriting with inner city at-risk Children”. Also see chapter 8 entitled “Lifesongs: Music therapy with adolescents in Foster Care” for further references.

Question from

Please describe the type of arts activities that you have seen the greatest ‘reaction’ from students......describe a couple ‘sure things’ in terms of helping students heal in the educational environment.

Vanessa Camilleri:

I have had great success with drum circles in the educational setting. Meeting with an entire class (including their teachers) and leading them in a structured drum circle has provided invaluable opportunities for community building, leadership building and self-esteem enhancement. Depending on the age of the students, I provided either structured or more improvised opportunities for expression and leadership. I also conducted drum circles with our staff, which were excellent for morale. I have never met a child (or adult for that matter) who didn’t want to get his or her hands on a drum. They are extremely motivating and drumming can be extremely calming and can help to focus the often chaotic energy that our students bring. Led by an experienced music therapists, drum circles can create excellent opportunities for connection and communication. Please see my article entitled “Community Building Through Drumming” in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy, 29, 2002, 261-264.

Question from Vickie Treadway, Music Teacher, Blytheville Intermediate School:

I teach 5 & 6 grade music in a rural school, but a large percent of the student body is at-risk. How do you get the students to care about creative arts? Some are easy to reach, but the ones who need it the most are “too cool.” They care about nothing.

Vanessa Camilleri:

Keep in mind that I function as a music therapist, not a music educator. See discussion above for the difference between arts instruction and creative arts therapies. One major difference that I see in addition is that students are not graded when they attend creative arts therapies sessions. There is no right or wrong. Students are encouraged to express themselves in an honest and open fashion. In arts education classes, they would I assume receive a grade based on their performance in the class. In addition to being a certified and lisenced music therapist, I am also a certified teacher. With my education background I would beg to differ that your students “care about nothing”. They may not be willing to share what they really do care about for whatever reason – too cool, not trusting, too many witnesses, unsafe situation etc… The key is to hook them. This may require some extra time with a few key players in the class. Ask them what they are interested in. As them to share with you. Many teens and pre-teens don’t take kindly to being told what to do. One way to develop a respectful relationship with these students is to reach out to them. This is where the field of social/emotional learning is key in our approach to students.

Question from Beverly Wilson, Special Ed Teacher, Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School:

How do you involve a child in an activity who has an extremely short attention span or becomes hostile for no known reason?

Vanessa Camilleri:

Not knowing the specific child, I hesitate to make ‘prescriptions’ as to what I think would work, but I will say that in general, engagement in any type of creative arts therapy is a fun and playful way to engage any child. In my years as a music therapist, I never met a child who was not interested in at least one of the musical instruments in my room. The great thing about the creative arts therapies is that they are not stigmatizing and are not skill-based. A child does not have to know how to play the piano or use water colors to benefit from a creative arts therapies intervention. I have had success in music therapy with students who had ADD to provide a steady repetitive beat for students to improvise with or match. The steady rhythm provided an excellent container for their expression as well as a consistent, organized and grounding way for them to express themselves.

Question from Terry Roice, 9-12 English Teacher, Summit High School (an alternative high school), Teton County School District #1:

Please cite an example of creative arts therapy for a “poetry slam” within a small alternative high school English class for at risk youth.

Vanessa Camilleri:

I would direct you to the National Poetry Association for specific poetry therapy interventions. I have had success with song-writing which is a similar modality in which students have created songs – which essentially are poems put to music. Through an indepth process over a period of weeks, students have fleshed out topics, themes, and verbal expressions that were then put to music. (see chapter 7). Students have then had the opportunity to ‘perform’ their songs and in one case record their song on the school CD once it was completed. This added performance component of the therapy was extremely beneficial for their sense of ownership and pride. Performance is a controversial issue within the creative arts therapies community, where many therapists focus on the process of art-making as being where the therapy takes place as opposed to the product. In the cases I describe in chapter 7, the performance enhanced the process and brought added purpose to it.

Question from Faiidzah Mustami, Physical Education lecturer, University Brunei Darussalam:

What is the normal age range of at-risk youth or children, who can actually benefits from the Creative Arts Therapies?

Vanessa Camilleri:

Any child from infant on up can benefit from creative arts therapies interventions.

Question from Mary Beth McNulty, education consultant:

What concerns do you have with artists who aren’t trained in therapy conducting art therapy? Is reading about it in a book enough?

Vanessa Camilleri:

I have serious concerns about artists who aren’t trained as creative arts therapists claiming to use the arts as a therapeutic intervention. As with any therapeutic intervention a client is often encouraged to become emotionally exposed and vulnerable through the process of expression. If not adequately handled by a trained therapist, this client may be left undefended and emotionally unprepared to reintegrate and move on with their lives. In addition to being trained in the therapeutic use of their specific art modality, Creative Arts Therapists receive intense and in depth training regarding the therapeutic process, involving internships, classes in psychology/counseling, population-specific classes, crisis management, assessment, goal-setting, closure and termination, transference and counter-transference and much more. Creative arts therapists must be certified and licensed (in some states) to practice and receive very specific credentials allowing them to practice. Furthermore, it is unethical to claim to be providing therapeutic services when you are not credentialed to do so, as outlined in some national association code of ethics manuals. Reading about it in a book is certainly not enough. The value of the arts is undeniable, but it is important to determine the intention and the approach and to know where to draw the line between arts instruction and creative arts therapies.

Question from Drew Woodall, Assistant Principal, Northside Elementary School:

We have a new teacher who begins Monday. She will be teaching a 7th grade Core class (Language arts and social studies). She was trained as music therapist. What suggestions do you have for her in reaching her 4 or 5 at-risk students through music?

Vanessa Camilleri:

As a music therapist, I have no doubt that she will have plenty of ideas as to how to use music to work with these 7th graders. Bringing in music that she likes or encouraging them to share music that they like would be a good place to start with a specific protocall on how to share the music...artist, message, why it’s important. Song-writing may be another excellent way to connect language arts with the music therapy process. This allows for expression as well as connection and communication.

Question from Karen Allen, Managing Editor, Kappa Delta Pi, International Honor Society in Education:

How do these therapy programs work best, as before or after- school sessions or in conjunction with curriculum? How have your programs worked?

Vanessa Camilleri:

The book discusses all of these options in different case studies by the different authors. I cannot say which works best as it really depends on the population and setting. In general a context that provides a regular, structured and consistent point of contact, location and person are the most effective. This provides safety and predictability which are important components of the therapeutic process and development of a therapeutic relationship.

Question from Chan Bliss, Art Teacher, Mary E. Bryant Elementary:

Typically the schools that service students of poverty also score toward the low end of standardized tests given to assess the effectiveness of the schools. Because of this, these schools tend to put an emphasis on subjects and skills that are assessed on these tests. What advice can you give to convince the administration of the schools and other policy makers that teaching of the arts is not extra but an essential activity for the complete growth of a child?

Vanessa Camilleri:

I agree with you wholeheartedly that arts belong in school. However, my background is on creative arts therapies and not on arts instruction. Please see above responses that address this issue.

Question from Jean Raetz Topetzes- Agnes Scott College:

How can at-risk students incorporate creative arts into processing behaviors and learning dispositions that will help them with content academics?

Vanessa Camilleri:

Any creative arts therpies interventions that address social, emotional or behavior issues that may be preventing our children from succeeding academically are excellent vehicles for encouraging improved academic performance. In my work as a music therapist, I have often emphasised the development of social skills through the music-making process: listening, sharing, leadership, self-esteem, communication, relationships etc... these are all necessary and invaluable skills for students to have if they are to succeed in their classrooms. The Department of Labor has often been cited as stating some of these skills as being more marketable and essential when looking for and obtaining employment. More and more employers are looking for “the ability to communicate effectively” or “the ability to work as a team player” rather than specific content knowledge. This again is a testament to the importance of social/emotional learning as well as academic knowledge.

Question from Cheryl Saliwanchik-Brown, Advance Doctoral Candidate At-Risk Education, University of Maine:

Often, rural Maine children have similar poverty levels and familial experiences as their urban counterparts, and exhibit similar behaviors as a result. A former public high school teacher, I watched as standardized testing took precedence over developing a caring and positive school climate. I now work with MORE kids at high risk as a result of this “progress”. How can we convince administrators that relationship-building and a positive school climate is as important (if not more so)to kids, then test results?

Vanessa Camilleri: This is an excellent point and a great way to wrap up this discussion. Many of us know instrinsically that relationship-building and community building in our schools and classrooms is the KEY to academic and personal success. I will learn more in an environment where I feel safe. I will learn more from someone who respects me and I respect. I will more likely perform better in a place where I feel appreciated....on and on it goes. As educators, we need to commit to educating our administrators, our government officials, and our teachers as to the importance of these competencies. There is more and more research pointing to this direct correlation. The field of social/emotional learning (SEL) is making this a more structured and succint approach in that it is becoming a field of study with researched outcomes and therefore a reliable track record. Great SEL resources:

Elizabeth Rich, (Moderator):

Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have. Thank you Vanessa Camilleri and to everyone who sent questions. There were too many for Vanessa to answer—evidence that this is an important topic. I apologize if we weren’t able to get to yours. This chat transcript will be posted shortly on

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