Pupil wellbeing: The healing power of art

Written by: Sam Phipps | Published:
Supportive setting: Art therapy is not an art class but a space to express yourself. It is about dealing with painful feelings (Image: Yanela Garcia/One Education)
All of this article resonates so well with me, a trainee art psychotherapist with a placement in ...

Posted by: ,

More schools are offering placements to trainee art therapists to support the rising number of young people with emotional or mental health issues. How does it work in practice? Sam Phipps reports

The crisis is mental health support for young people in the UK has been well documented, with chronic underfunding and a surge in demand for services coinciding. Art therapy can play a vital role.

Jan Stevens, deputy headteacher at Parmiter’s School in Watford, has provided a placement for a trainee art therapist since January last year. The student, Zoe Kenton, who is on an MA degree course at Hertfordshire University, has seen four young people for regular one-to-one sessions.

The placement benefits the school but also supports training and development in what Ms Stevens believes will be an increasingly vital profession.

“Any form of therapy is incredibly expensive,” Ms Stevens explained. “In the past we have paid for art therapy for a couple of students – you are looking at about £500 or £600 for 12 sessions.

“We would have struggled to pay to put one young person through an art therapy programme this year, let alone four. We wouldn’t have done it.

“Also, we liked the principle of training. We train teachers here – we are the lead school for initial teacher training in our Teaching School Alliance. My view is that if we train teachers, why can’t we train other professionals?”

However, it was vital to get the right person. Ms Stevens continued: “I would always want to meet new people first before asking them to work with our young people.”

Ms Stevens sensed at once that Zoe would gel with the particular people she wanted her to work with: “She just seemed to have that right manner. I haven’t seen her in action because obviously they’re confidential sessions but I spoke to one of the young people and she loves it. She was recently bereaved and it’s been a difficult time for her. She didn’t need any educational support but she needed that opportunity to do/share what she wanted with Zoe.”

How easy was it to pick the four young people? “Very easy. I’ve got a good working knowledge of these young people and their backgrounds, and they were asked and were keen. I didn’t have to root around for four – I could probably have found half a dozen or more.”

A key consideration is timing the 50 minute appointments as far as possible with lessons that the students will not mind missing too much. One student was a bit resistant to coming at first until this emerged as the reason and the school juggled it around.

To have almost an hour, rather than the 20 minutes normally reserved for a school counsellor, can help build a trusting relationship, Ms Stevens explained.

Zoe says working as an art therapist in a school means you have to be adaptable. But the location should be consistent and as free of interruptions as possible. It also needs to be big enough for all the art materials, ideally with good light and sound-proofed or at least not within hearing range.

“You have to have everything set up in advance – air-drying clay, paints, pencils, coloured paper, loads of paint, glitter, masks etc. You need to offer lots of options and when you introduce it you explain what art therapy is – it’s not an art class but a space to express yourself. It’s not about producing good art, it’s about feelings and emotions. You also have to be very careful about what you are saying and not be intrusive.

“One 15-year old opened up straight-away – in what she was telling and in her art. Another was on the autism spectrum and refusing to come into school. She was withdrawn and needed more encouragement. I saw a really big change. At first she was unhappy with what she was creating and being very precise. Then she found a very original way of making little clay letters and got more confident.

“One girl, who was adopted as a baby, had attachment issues (fear of rejection) and low self-esteem. She was wary of me and worked very quickly, discarding stuff. But drawing games really helped and through doing that, she seemed to trust me.”

It is also essential to have somewhere to safely store the work so that therapist and student can look at it from week to week, if required. Zoe kept all the young people’s work in anonymised folders, locked in a cupboard in Ms Steven’s office.

Jane Feeney, a psychotherapist from Watford-based The Practice who approached Parmiter’s with the placement request, says the pilot has gone well. She hopes it will be taken up by other schools around the country.

“Counselling can sometimes be too intense and quite exposing, without necessarily dealing with a young person’s trauma. If you can focus on something else and produce some art – working more with the subconscious, beyond language – it doesn’t have to make sense in a logical way.”

She is in no doubt about the rising demand: “My feeling is that mental health problems among young people are like an imminent tsunami. And though we get lots of rhetoric from the government, it is not matched by funding.”

Ms Feeney cites a government conference on knife crime in October 2016 in London. Afterwards she suggested to Sophie Linden, then deputy mayor, that every school must have a trained and qualified psychotherapist/art therapist to help stop emotional problems growing into potentially lethal violence or self-harm. “We can’t afford to,” Ms Linden replied. “We can’t afford not to,” Ms Feeney told her.

Dr Val Huet, CEO of the British Association of Art Therapists, says it is often easier to access art therapy in schools rather than through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) because of the drastic funding cuts and long waiting times.

“Art therapy still does not have an established pay and condition structure in schools – art therapists are almost all self-employed.” The same is true for drama and music therapists, she said.

“Best practice is to work with the child, carers, parents, teachers – to try to contain some of the possibilities for conflict.

“We feel it is so much easier to intervene earlier in a child’s life, and it’s a real shame we do not see more of that because it would save lives.”

Art therapy can help with all life traumas, bereavement or witnessing traumatic events, Dr Huet continued. “None of these upsetting experiences needs to be a life sentence. I don’t want to over-claim but we can make a significant difference.”

Amanda Dudley, who works with a charity and several training institutions, says the child’s needs are always put above those of the trainee, who works under a supervisor.

Ms Dudley helps find clinical placements in schools for student art therapists, who have to do two-year full-time or three-year part-time training to qualify. Many will go on to work in a freelance capacity.

“The school will get a very heavily subsidised or free service, which is essential because statutory services get nowhere near the resources they need.

“Mental health services are chronically underfunded, and children’s mental health is at the bottom of the pile. It’s a short-sighted approach because everyone ends up paying a lot more as young people grow up.”

Like Ms Stevens, she explains that a lot of care goes into matching trainee therapists with pupils, and then into supervision.

“Art becomes almost a third person in the room,” Ms Dudley said. “If you can’t say it, you can show it. We believe the child will put their feelings into the artwork, so we keep that artwork safe. Whatever they do, even if they just sit sharpening a pencil, we will keep the shavings. It’s symbolic – we will hold their feelings, everything, even if it’s a terrible mess.”

The work, which can hold multiple meanings, can be explored and reflected on later.

“Primary schools seem to be more open to having art therapists. Lots of secondaries are doing valuable work with them too but the focus shifts. At secondary, there is more pressure to perform academically, so it’s harder to integrate art therapists there, even though this is just when many young people need extra pastoral care.”

Art therapy works best in schools where therapists are welcomed, included and respected as part of a team, Ms Dudley says. They might be kept in the loop by being invited to child protection or other professional meetings.
Therapists sometimes offer teachers and other staff training sessions so that they get a feel for what it entails. “It’s really valuable for teachers, otherwise they might think it’s just playing about with art. It’s not – it’s so much more.”

Deirdre McConnell leads a team of 25 therapists – drama and music, as well as art – in and around Manchester for One Education. Its emotional and trauma support therapists have worked in more than 100 schools, including with refugees and asylum-seekers.

“Children who are already traumatised for whatever reason – war, violence, domestic abuse or anything else – can be further traumatised by school unless it is a supportive environment. For example, internal exclusions can be highly problematic,” she said.

“We worked with a boy who two local authorities refused to educate. He had set fires and got into all kinds of trouble. The health services said: he’s going to end up in prison.

“But his access to art therapy changed all that to a different vision for himself – one of education.”

  • Sam Phipps is a freelance education journalist.

Further information & resources

British Association of Art Therapists: www.baat.org

All of this article resonates so well with me, a trainee art psychotherapist with a placement in further education for special needs post 16 students.
My question is what are the barriers preventing educational psychologists from working alongside art therapists in their support for individuals and their families?

Posted By: ,

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin