Imagine reliving the most painful moments of your life again and again. When a landslide took the lives of 43 people in Oso, Wash., in 2014, children at nearby Darrington Elementary School were left struggling, arguing and misbehaving, unable to focus, and sometimes missing school entirely. One 11-year-old girl, who had already tragically lost two family members, was so aggressive on the football field that she was nearly benched as a result.
After the landslide, Darrington Elementary School reached out to Art with Heart, a nonprofit of which I am the CEO. Our mission is to help children overcome trauma through creative expression. Through therapeutic books and programs, we help reshape emotions and behavior with chunks of clay, buckets of paint, and the incredible power of children’s own deep wells of creativity. By calling on principles of trauma-informed care, we train adults and work with children to root through the deep pain they’ve experienced and draw it out, one page, one piece of art, one sculpture at a time.
Megan Lucas, a counselor who began working with the school after the landslide, used our resources weekly in every classroom, helping children work through their emotions in order to be more present and focused in their academic lives.
By combining art therapy with narrative and cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as concepts of social-emotional learning, Art with Heart has created opportunities for children to gain self-awareness and empathy while learning to behave more cooperatively with their peers and teachers. Art therapy allows children and teens to create a record of healing in their workbooks, charting where they’ve come from and where they want to go.
And the evidence bears out what we’ve seen: Psychiatrist Bruce D. Perry found that areas of the brain can be reshaped and reorganized through activities that include touch and movement—the foundation of creative expression. Just as trauma is experienced—through nonverbal sensation—it can be released.
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.
Further, a recent study from Drexel University suggests that the simple act of art-making, regardless of skill level, reduces cortisol (or stress levels) in the brain. By making art, children learn about themselves and widen their perspective, creating empathy and deeper engagement. For a child who has lost a parent or survived a mass shooting, using expressive arts in school might be the connection they need. It’s hard to imagine the future when you’re busy reliving the past, so helping children find those connections and build support is critical to developing their belief in what’s possible for their lives.
But they can’t do that work alone, and they often can’t do it with words. Rebuilding their home using popsicle sticks or choosing colors that best represent how they feel lets children safely interact with emotions they might otherwise find overwhelming.
Creative expression is, of course, one of many ways that school counselors and others can help children overcome trauma. Some children need more intervention than a school group can provide, and having a clear path of referral is an important aspect to serving children in any capacity. However, creative-expression programs can set children on the path toward a safe, healthy, and deeply successful adulthood. And, as Darrington Elementary Principal Tracy Franke has said, “I don’t believe that it takes a tragedy to provide opportunities for students to express themselves.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as School Leadership in the Wake of a Natural Disaster: Healing Through Creative Expression