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Artistic License

In a growing number of schools, professionals trained in psychology and painting help reach at-risk students.

By John Rosales

A few years ago, Leon could not express in words the emotional pain he felt by having to attend class. So he skipped school a lot.

“I was a wreck,” says the 18-year-old, who spoke on the condition that his real name not be used. “Then I started painting.”

After he picked up a paintbrush, Leon says he learned through art to cope with erratic behavior, low self-esteem, and an undisciplined lifestyle that almost caused him to drop out.

“When I zone in on a painting, it’s almost like a high,” he says. “Throughout the whole day, I’m calm.”

But Leon is not enrolled in an art class. He does not study drawing, portraiture, or art history. A senior, Leon has produced about three oil paintings a week since freshman year, though none have ever been graded or critiqued by an art teacher. Instead, Leon interacts with Patricia Isis, a school art therapist who provides individual and small-group counseling services with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.

“My hunch is that [Leon] might have dropped out of school,” she says. “His art therapy session became a safe place to come to and be accepted.” 

Trained in both art and psychology, Isis uses painting, sculpture, dance, music, and other art forms to help at-risk students identify and reconcile emotional conflicts. Through art therapy, students can non-verbally communicate while providing the therapist with a tangible way to evaluate and treat behavioral issues.

“The artwork is never judged or criticized,” says Isis. “No, no, no—that’s art class. We validate, explore, strengthen. Art therapy is their medicine.”

Although Isis does not teach art, she shares similar goals with art teachers, including the encouragement of self-expression and self-discovery.

The Miami-Dade County Public Schools Clinical Art Therapy Department began in 1979 and has grown to include 20 full-time art therapists, more than any other school system in the nation. They treat about 400 primary and secondary students a year who are distracted from classroom learning by emotional issues, learning disabilities, speech and language irregularities, and other behavioral disorders. Some students are clinically depressed, while others, for example, have been abandoned by their parents, or physically or sexually abused.

“We tend to service students who are less verbal,” says Isis, a therapist for 27 years. “By using the creative process of art, we can improve and enhance their mental and emotional well-being.”

While art therapy is not a routine part of most student service systems nationwide, Cathy Malchiodi, an official with the American Art Therapy Association, predicts this will change.

“Art therapy is becoming more mainstream,” she says, pointing to the current convergence of education and health care, along with a movement in human services toward student service integration.

“Student services in schools are being redefined,” she says. “Since 9/11, there’s been a surge in human services that help people process trauma.”

Which is precisely Isis’ goal. “My focus is more on the process than the product,” she says. “After a student completes a painting [in therapy], he can relax...manage his stress, ventilate his emotions on canvas.”

To become eligible for art therapy services, students must be identified as having emotional difficulties. To receive therapy in Miami-Dade, for instance, students must have a recommendation from a school psychologist, social worker, or other mental health practitioner stating that non-traditional forms of therapy may best meet the student’s needs. Students also need a recommendation from an authority figure from school or home recognizing the student’s tendency to gravitate toward artistic expression.

Art therapists do not work alone. They often collaborate with teachers, parents, and other school personnel to help students get in touch with their living environments, gain control over their emotions, improve social skills, and release pent-up frustrations through artistic expression.

“Art validates their emotions,” Isis says. “It validates how they think and what conflicts are getting in their way at school or home”—conflicts that in some cases could lead to suicide, homicide, or some other form of violence.

A painting of a burning building might help an art therapist detect the potential for fire-starting, for example. “The artwork might reveal a tendency to want to torch something,” says Isis, who has a doctorate in expressive therapies, which includes using poetry, dance, music, and the visual arts to help adjust the mental well-being of a patient. “These kids don’t have the words to put to their pain.”

While art therapists are distinct from art teachers, they’re also different from counselors and psychologists. Counselors rely on verbal communication to analyze a student’s feelings and personal issues. School psychologists emphasize behavioral evaluation for the purpose of diagnosing and prescribing remedies. Art therapists are trained to recognize barriers to learning, diagnose emotional problems, and provide individualized interventions and services. Part of their goal is to help students reach their educational potential so they can perform well in the classroom and other public settings.

“We deal with unconscious messages—but one drawing or artwork is not enough,” says Isis. “You need a series of pieces.”

A 12-year-old that Isis worked with, for instance, had experienced a traumatic emotional shock. She had been abandoned by her parents in a house at a young age. “She would babble and scribble on paper,” Isis says. “She was out of touch with reality.”

After two years of art therapy, the girl began to speak in coherent sentences and draw realistic figures and landscapes.

“Her imagery development paralleled her speech development,” Isis says. “You can see from how a child is drawing, how they are developing neurologically, cognitively, and emotionally.”  

Art therapy is gaining a higher profile, both in the art world and in the workplace. In April, the Miami-Dade district’s art therapy department and the ARTCENTER/South Florida Gallery in Miami Beach sponsored an exhibit of 95 pieces produced by art therapy students from elementary to high school. The exhibit did not include their names, only a note about their age, gender, and the image content., one of the nation’s leading recruitment resources, identified art therapy as one of the top 10 “hot jobs” for 2007, based on demographic shifts, legislative changes, business trends, and consumer behavior. Employment opportunities for art therapists exist in health care, community agencies, independent practice, and at schools. The salary of a school art therapist is commensurate with school psychologists and teachers.

In many states, NEA categorizes art therapists as teachers. However, some states treat them as education support professionals (ESPs), under the health and student services category.

To work for a school district, therapists are required to have a master’s degree, pass a national board exam, and have clinical or education experience.

“You need to understand mental problems, such as attention deficit disorder, and how it might manifest in an art form,” Malchiodi says. “One student [in a drawing] showed a huge brain floating out of the classroom window. He could draw how his attention disorder was getting to him, but still couldn’t concentrate in class.”

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