The Therapeutic Art Classroom

I’ve always worked with adolescents, but after years of conducting individual therapy sessions, recovery support groups, and family therapy- I find myself struggling to take the therapy out of my therapeutic art classes in our Juvenile Detention School. This pressure doesn’t come from the detention staff, nor does it come from my principal or fellow teachers. It comes, full speed ahead, from the students. “This is school,” they say, “Why you always got us doin’ s*#% about our feelings.” So, after a couple months of repeatedly hearing this phrase, I decided that it was necessary to infuse the therapy into my curriculum without being so literal. The state operated programs hire art therapists, rather than art teachers, for a reason, and I needed to use the skills that I lived by when I met with groups in a studio space and held on strong to lessons from Edith Kramer and Bruce Moon….before I started meeting with “clients” for “sessions” and my art therapy went quickly from open to directive.

I thought back to my first internship as a clueless yet eager intern at a self-contained school in Alexandria. Lucky for me, I worked under an endlessly patient supervisor who taught me that running a therapeutic classroom means more than just asking kids to paint their feelings. If I had to sum up what I learned about studio art therapy in my very first internship at GW, it would be these 4 points.

#1: Autonomy

Create a studio space that is organized, labeled, and inspiring. This allows students to find materials independently and gain inspiration from visible materials and other artwork surrounding them, without always depending on the teacher for ideas. *This one is tricky in a space where students can barely lift a finger without asking permission, such as Detention. My materials are all locked away, where only I can retrieve them, so I depend on the artwork in the classroom to inspire my students. (My next blog entry will be all about how I’m working to establish more autonomy in an environment where the residents have lost their rights for independence and freedom).

#2: Structure

Start every day with a warm-up. This creates a comfortably predictability for the students and sets the tone for safe expression. In Detention, it also gives me time to prepare materials between classes, since I’m required to retrieve and count everything before it lands in the students’ hands.

#3: Flexibility

Be willing to take an “art vacation” on any day.  If necessary, adapt lesson plans to the mood of the group to achieve optimal expression rather than getting stuck on the end goal or product. *This is also a tricky one in a school situation, where pressure to hang artwork, fill display cases are always present. I find myself always needing to give myself reminders that I’m here to encourage the process of personal expression. The product is only an added bonus.

#4: Kindness

When all else fails, be a decent human being to your students, no matter how rude they are or how much they challenge you.  Be fair, don’t argue back, and show them what it means to be calm and have self-control.


At the end of every class, I give my students lotion for their hands. This is practical, of course, especially if we’ve been using clay. But it is also a simple act of kindness which they’ll hopefully carry with them throughout the day. When I asked my students yesterday why they think I give them lotion at the end of every class. They responded, “So we’re not ashy,” “So our hands don’t crack,” and “So we’ll be in a better mood.” Then, finally, they hit the nail on the head “Cause you want to show you care about us.”




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