Art Therapy in Juvenile Detention: Instilling Hope in Detainees

Sometimes I’m sure my students think I’m a complete joke. I’m the lady who’s always smiling, giving praise for beautiful and often not-so-beautiful art pieces, getting way too excited when students create new art techniques, and continuously stressing the importance of being respectful and kind to others. I’ve had countless students roll their eyes on their first day when I review the two, simple classroom rules: Have Busy Hands and Kind Words. Long time students understand that there is no cursing allowed in the art studio, no put-downs, no name-calling. They also understand that the expectation of all students is to stay busy and use their art therapy time wisely so that they can take full advantage of this time in their monotonous and tediously controlled schedule.  New students think there’s no way they’ll be able to follow these rules.

The other day when I was talking to a student about using his time in Detention to learn more about him and begin to make better choices so that he can make a happier life for himself, he said to me, “I’m not here to grow. I’m here to do my time and go home. End of story.”  I was hit with a brief wave of despair, and I thought, “Is this how they all feel?” But I know it’s not, I know that the protective walls that exist when they first come through our doors are often long gone by the time they leave, even if they’re only here for a month.

So I began to wonder, how can I help this student believe that he can do better? How does one instill hope in someone who has repeated the same behaviors over and over; even after they’ve shown vast improvement during times when they’ve been in a treatment or detention center. My answer is unwavering support and encouragement.

Yes, sometimes I struggle with maintaining the belief that I make an impact on my students, but when you truly love your job, commitment comes fairly easily. Every month I teach my students about a different aspect of character education: tolerance, respect, self-control, courage. We work together to create our own definitions of these concepts, share life experiences, and create artwork that applies to each theme. Time and time again, their behavior improves; they are kinder, more motivated, and more invested in their work. Then they are discharged from Detention, they break the law and return within 3-6 weeks, and the cycle goes on and on. I see the clear change during their time here. I see their willingness to reflect on their choices, their efforts to role model positive behaviors for their peers and sometimes even coach them to make better choices. I have to believe that if they made the change once, they can make it again.

I tell them they have too much to offer to spend their life behind bars. And I keep smiling, because I’m sure at least one of them will remember.


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