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Art Therapy in School - By Emily Piper

I love art. The colours, textures, quiet, loud, chaotic, messy, surprising, joyful, heart-wrenching expression of it all. What I especially love about art is how it can transform someone. Art gives us the words that we never knew we had or needed. I am an art therapist and registered clinical counsellor, and I work as a community partner with the Surrey School District to bring art therapy to children, youth and staff at the Cre8 Wellness Through the Arts Studio. The Cre8 Studio is situated at a school site to remove the many barriers experienced for students when trying to access timely supports.

The Cre8 Studio

Art therapy works with both words and images to support peopleexperiencing life stressors, trauma, life transitions, and more. It provides a tool for self expression, building personal insights, emotional co-regulation and resiliency. That all sounds great, but what does it actually mean? When I am working with a student I have three underlying goals:

1. Build a strong therapeutic relationship – This is the foundation. I want to be a safe adult for each of my students. Someone that they can rely on, share with, and someone that understands them. For me, this might look like giving a student as much time as they need to complete an art piece, setting clear boundaries and maintaining them, acknowledging how a student is feeling before saying anything else, and admitting when I make a mistake and taking actions to resolve it – because it happens and also models for children that it’s okay to make mistakes.

2. Provide a consistent environment – I want my students to know what to expect each time they step into the Cre8 studio. This could be as simple as starting in the same area of the room each time, or clearly outlining what is going to happen during our time together. This provides a sense of safety and comfort for the student and in turn, makes it easier for students to share their thoughts, feelings and concerns with me.

3. Remain curious – There is no situation where I know more about a student’s experiences than that student. They are the expert on their lives and it is important that they know that. Instead of assuming I know more, I remain curious. I am curious about themes in that come up in the art, I tentatively make suggestions and I ask questions to clarify. I want to have a relationship with each student where they feel comfortable in correcting me if I misinterpret what is happening. Again, it’s ok to make mistakes – I make them often and it’s a very helpful part of the therapeutic experience.

Cre8 Space

Most of the students that I have worked with, have experienced more challenges in their lives than is fair. Some amount of challenge is good, it’s healthy, but when those challenges exceed the resources a child has to manage them, it can be heart-breaking. Art therapy, provides a space where those challenges and all of the complicated feelings that go with them can be expressed safely, in a contained space. It may be enough to simply “art it out” – where we don’t need to have some long talk afterwards, because the art has said it all for the student.  When a student is able to acknowledge, process and the move forward, we get a lightbulb moment.

For anyone that has spent more than a few minutes around children, I’m sure you have experienced a lightbulb moment. That moment when something clicks and you can almost see that new synapse forming in their brain. I feel incredibly appreciative and honoured that I am able to do the work that I do, because I get to see those lightbulb moments all the time. When children connect to their creative process, they experience those lightbulb moments about themselves.

For me, there is nothing better than witnessing a lightbulb moment.

Video of Emily at Cre8 shot by Antonio Vendramin, District Principal, Surrey Schools

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