The Fine Art of Helping At-Risk Kids
Darius* was one angry boy. Before the Art Therapy Connection, the troubled nine-year-old hardly spoke, but regularly communicated his bottled-up rage by throwing chairs at anyone in his path. He was failing math and unable to read at his grade level.
But about seven months after starting a unique art therapy program in the Chicago Public Schools, Darius was able to proudly show his art therapist his report card with Bs and Cs. The Art Therapy Connection helps children and teens in danger of failing or dropping out of school by encouraging them to create art and safely communicate their thoughts and feelings. By using art therapy as a means of self-expression and self-discovery, students can have a more successful school year. The Art Therapy Connection works to increase concentration levels, self-esteem and self-control, as well as enhance interpersonal skills and defuse angry feelings.
A Loving Connection
"When Darius first started art therapy he needed so much nurturing," said Gwenn Waldman, executive director of program development. She is a licensed clinical professional counselor and registered art therapist.
"His mother was in prison for life and he was so angry that he couldn't focus on his schoolwork. One day his teacher asked if I could work with him because he had just slammed his fist into a wall.
"I laid out an enormous sheet of paper and told him to draw or write anything he wanted because no one was going to see it. He drew ugly and violent pictures and was ridding himself of toxic emotions," said Waldman.
Once he finished, Waldman told him to tear it up.
"He had the most fun ripping up the paper and putting it in his mouth and chewing it. His muscles relaxed and he began to look playful," she commented. This experience gave him so much power and taught him alternative ways to express anger. He saw that he could control his schoolwork and behavior."
Drawing Out the Best in Kids
Waldman started the Art Therapy Connection, a not-for-profit organization, in September 2002 in the Richard E. Byrd Community Academy of Chicago's Cabrini-Green neighborhood. Although Byrd has since closed, the program continues in several other Chicago public schools and has helped over 300 enthusiastic students.
"We currently work with 115 students in two K-through-8 schools, the Jenner Academy of the Arts and the National Teachers Academy during the 2005-2006 year," said Carolyn Collins, who is executive director of business development for the Art Therapy Connection (ATC) as well as a licensed clinical professional counselor and registered art therapist.
"At the beginning of the school year, we present a one-hour in-service to teachers and administrators, who identify those kids who need the most help. We take children out of the classroom and work with them in groups during the school day," commented Collins.
"The Art Therapy Connection has helped students express themselves through their creative talent which is critical to building self-esteem. I would recommend this program for any student population," said Joseph Gartner, former principal of Byrd. He is now the director of Jenner.
"I always feel happier about myself after art therapy," said one 14-year-old boy.
Frustration and Anger Wall
Waldman got the idea for the Frustration and Anger Wall when she visited Jerusalem and was moved by seeing people praying at the Wailing Wall. "People wrote notes to God and put them in the Wailing Wall," she remembers. "I created the Frustration and Anger Wall as a result of that experience."
Frustration and Anger WallThe wall is so popular that even students who aren't enrolled in the Art Therapy Connection ask to use it.
"Students frequently draw guns because they make them angry," says Waldman. "Kids live in neighborhoods where most adults have guns. Most have witnessed seeing someone shot, including a relative. They lay in bed at night hearing gun shots and are scared."
Gartner says that it's easy to create a "Frustration and Anger Wall" in a classroom or on a home bulletin board. "Just put up paper and have crayons and markers available. This wall is something that a classroom teacher could facilitate."
Waldman suggested these basic rules:
Don't sign your name or write anyone else's name
No swear words
Be respectful of other students' work
"It's easy to see student progress by their ongoing contributions," added Gartner.
"All the kids really love creating mandalas," Waldman said. "They get paper with a circle on it. We talk about finding that center and place of peacefulness within themselves.
"Inside the circle they paint anything that they can control. The mandala shows in tangible artwork that they can control something -- which becomes who they are," she commented. "That's why the circle is so important because it has no beginning and no end.
"They draw what they can't control outside of the circle. This is what makes them angry in their environment," she added. "Drawings include tombstones, gangs and faces with tears."
"We ask kids, what kinds of feelings do they mask," said Waldman. "So often, they can't be sad or scared because showing vulnerability could put them in danger. We talk about how we all mask our emotions to get through the day and how that's not a negative thing, just something to be aware of."
It's an activity that leads kids directly to the expression of their hidden feelings.
"We tell students to pick an emotion that they hide the most and create that feeling on their masks," says Waldman. "One girl made her mask half black representing anger and the other half white for emptiness. She painted her eyes red for rage. She squinted her eyes and said that she was feeling fire."
Finding the Funds to Keep Going and Growing
Like many nonprofits, the ATC is always looking for ways to fund its programs and grow to reach more children. Typically, ATC fundraising schemes are heavy on the creativity.
Last June, for instance, 300 people participated in the Art Therapy Connection's Chalk Festival fundraiser, a community-building event in Seward Park which raised $19,000. Businesses, organizations and individuals sponsored sidewalk "squares" which were decorated by children, adults and professional artists.
Chalk Festival fundraiserAnother creative fundraiser is a "friend raiser," a gathering of interested people in someone's home to learn about the Art Therapy Connection. "This has been a great networking tool for us," said Collins.
Possibilities for growth multiplied last summer, said Waldman, when the ATC became what is called a “prequalified service provider" for the Social, Emotional and Educational Consulting Service of the Chicago Board of Education. This means that as many as 30 public schools can benefit from the services provided by the ATC, and a portion of program costs can be supplemented by the Board of Ed when funds allow.
"In 2005 we received support grants from Nuveen Investments in Chicago and the Illinois Arts Council," said Collins. "Our projected budget is $150,000, but our actual budget is about $75,0000. We're currently seeking corporate sponsors."
The Art Therapy Connection also welcomes donations of art and office supplies. Even household materials such as paper rolls, fabric scraps and foil can be put to good use. For example, students build self-esteem sculptures with aluminum foil, masking tape, paint and decorations and lock in words of "goodness" in the inside.
"This sculpture teaches that no one can take away a child's inner goodness, no matter what happens on the outside," said Waldman.
Learn more about the Art Therapy Connection.
For numerous links and a resource packet for school art therapists visit the American Art Therapy Association website.
Connect for Kids topic page on the arts.