The Art of Healing

Gerber School's art classroom was a hive of activity on Jordan's* first day at Cunningham. In one corner, a girl wearing an over-sized apron hunched over a pottery wheel. Across the room, a boy carefully sketched his favorite superhero, while another fashioned an abstract collage out of magazine photos and scraps of fabric. Jordan was having none of it.

"I'm no good at art," he announced to Ms. Evelyne, Cunningham's visual arts teacher. "There's no way you're going to get me to do anything in this class." But Ms. Evelyne knows the power of art as a therapeutic tool. "Just give it a try," she encouraged her new student. "Look at all the stations in this room-- drawing, painting, jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, mixed media, technology, textile, and collage. Where would you like to start?"

Jordan's first work was an acrylic painting. Everyone complimented him on its beautiful impressionistic style, and Evelyne could see an immediate boost in his self-esteem. Since then, Jordan has become a prolific artist, completing many drawings and paintings over the past four years. Staff and students frequently ask him to draw something special for them, and he has had work on display in the principal's office, the school hallway, Cunningham's Spiritual Life Center, and at public art shows and events. Recently, Jordan and some of his peers sold their work at a community art exhibition.

For youth like Jordan, struggling with anger management, low self-esteem, and poor impulse control, art is an effective vehicle for self discovery and healing. Through the creative process, kids with emotional and behavioral challenges can express their individuality and start to believe in themselves. Making art allows kids to interact with their peers and work on projects collaboratively in a safe, non-competitive way.

While Jordan finds art class both fun and soothing, he may not realize that it's also helping to improve his academic performance by honing his problem-solving and decision-making skills. Developmentally, he is gaining fine motor skills by grasping a crayon or molding clay.

In Ms. Evelyne's class, students move at their own pace and are involved in selecting which activities they want to try out. Often the choice of an art medium depends on how they're feeling that day. If Jordan, for example, is struggling and feeling sad or tearful, painting or drawing with markers and crayons will help him feel more in control and emotionally balanced. On the other hand, when he's feeling tense and angry, a medium like clay allows him to open up and relax.

At Cunningham, art is an academic subject just as it is in public school, but it's also a great therapeutic aid. "Not only does it provide a variety of sensory experiences that promote healing and growth," shares Evelyne, "it also helps kids focus and calm down, especially at those times when the outside world seems scary."

Jordan is always looking for new ways to express himself creatively. Noticing a staff member's dangly earrings recently, he proudly stated, "Hey, I can make those!" He then ran off to the art room to look for just the right materials.

*This story is real, but the name has been changed to protect the privacy of our youth.