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The expanding role of expressive therapies

July 24, 2001
Web posted at: 8:55 AM EDT (1255 GMT)

Dr. Julia Byers is the Division Director and Ph.D. Program Director of Expressive Therapies at Lesley University in Massachusetts. Recently education editor Lynn McBrien talked with Dr. Byers about expressive therapies and their role in education.

How would you define "expressive therapies"?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, it is "the therapeutic use of art making, within a professional relationship, by people who experience illness, trauma or challenges in living, and by people who seek personal development. Through creating art and reflecting on the art products and processes, people can increase awareness of self and others, cope with symptoms, stress and traumatic experiences; enhance cognitive abilities; and enjoy the life-affirming pleasures of making art."

Art therapists are trained as both artists and therapists. Their work involves furthering the healing process by engaging people in the arts. Practitioners combine the art of dance, drama, literature, music, poetry and the visual arts with the practice of psychotherapy to further the healing process.

What are your personal interests in the field?

My emphasis is on art as communication. I see it as a vital communication tool.

Additionally, I'm fascinated in the connections between education and therapy. Especially with special education, I think, the lines can get fuzzy between the disciplines: What is education and what is therapy within different actual contexts? In the "normal" classroom, there are many avenues for expressive therapy. With a broadened understanding of multiple intelligences, particularly interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences, arts therapy can bring out a sense of empowerment for children who are gifted in these areas, where in the past only traditional ideas about intelligence were honored in the school setting.

Education, essentially, is about individual growth. As students learn about historical confrontations, famous people and how they handled decisions and defeats, literary characters, their choices and the results -- these things help them to formulate their own values, beliefs and ways of handling problems. Expressive therapies can offer an outlet for their thoughts and ideas.

Do expressive therapies have a role in school safety?

Yes, by giving children tools to communicate in positive ways. Many children experience trauma in various areas of their lives. If we don't intervene in positive ways, there is the potential for students to learn negative ways of expressing their sadness or fear or anger.

Expressive therapies can offer intervention opportunities so students can work through what inhibits and blocks them. These can include things like fears of class presentations to things that happen in the life cycle -- births, deaths, divorce, abuse.

Schoolteachers must also work with children who have pathological and physical disorders. They, too, have the right to learn. Expressive therapy programs can help the children work through personal issues to better manage the work of learning.

If you read through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, it includes the rights to love, to caring and to understanding,. Expressive therapy is connected with those rights to help children have a meaningful connection to themselves and society.

What do university students in regular teacher preparation courses learn about expressive therapy in methods classes?

Teacher preparation is more about learning methodology. They learn about normal development. My concern is that what was the normal class 20 years ago is now totally changed. I recently worked with a South Carolina school in which 80 percent of the 5-year olds were in reconstituted families. One-third to one-half were learning disabled. In schools such as this there is a lot of emotional overlay. Social disorders arise in the context of students' environments.

Anyone attempting to use expressive therapies needs the psychological background of crisis intervention tools. He or she must also know how to handle what comes out from the child. Teachers must know how to intervene. Otherwise it is better not to use activities that cause children to express their innermost feelings. For example, a colleague told me of a case in which a teacher had students create life-size body tracings to express themselves. One child had been profoundly abused and went into a state of disassociation. Art materials themselves will not evoke this, but the invitation of self-exploration can.

I travel teaching arts and human development. With teachers I review both normal and abnormal development and bring in case studies to illustrate situations. Lesley University is showing leadership in helping new teachers understand the real environment. Coursework is very hands-on in application and practice. Students in teacher-prep are asked to take more psychology courses as well.

Students can major in an expressive therapy. The background needed is a master's in one of the modalities, such as music, dance or art.

In the case of regular classroom teachers, what signs should they watch for to be on the alert that a child may need therapy?

Many teachers become alarmed if a child draws one shocking picture or writes one bizarre essay. I believe that there are different reasons children create shock images. But repeated indicators of isolation, bizarre fragmentations, or morbid symbols in any kind of expressive work can be indicators that a child needs help. Like a flashing yellow light, repetitious unusual work, or ripping and tearing up their work is enough to consult with a psychological professional. Realtors talk about "location"; in my profession the three most important words are "context, context, context."

Can you relate an especially rewarding experience you have had in your work as an expressive therapist?

Oh, there are many! I worked with the Children's Fund of Canada and Near-East Cultural and Educational Partnership in which children in six schools between North America and the Middle East exchanged artwork. During that project I worked in a Palestinian school made from an old prison. In my interventions, I suggested doing something permanent in the bleak walls. The children made ceramic paintings that were fired and tiled into the walls. It gave them some sense of permanence in the midst of so much uncertainty. I asked if the children could create murals on the white walls of the playground. There was a cultural inhibition about these projects, as in their society individual expression is frowned on, as almost anti-social. I tried to teach that the individual also needs to thrive in community in order to create a positive collective.

In another experience, I was driving through the Mideast with Doctors without Borders. Children in a refugee camp heard that "the art lady" was coming, and they called "Julia, Julia!" I pulled plastic modeling compound out of the truck. By end of an hour we'd made a huge farm with all kinds of animals. We couldn't speak to each other in language but we developed a unity through play.

I was told that they didn't have art supplies in the Middle East. I said, "Sure, we do," and we went and found shrapnel, barbed wire, scraps in the streets. Where the children once felt they had no control, they gained control over their environment through artistic expression, even with crude materials. The key in art therapy is to keep the role of the imagination alive. Through the imagination, symbols and metaphors are activated, and that transcends verbal language.

I have also worked with Israeli professionals and students in rediscovering meaningful connections with the context of humanity rather than in political conflicts. The opportunity to work internationally has been an incredible learning experience for me within the field of expressive therapies.

What would you say to perspective students of expressive therapies?

The goal of intervening in any community is to help develop empathy and compassion between people who may have lost their perspective due to multiple traumas. It is truly a rewarding field for those who would like to use their abilities and love of the arts to guide others to a path of personal peace.

Lesley University : Expressive Therapies Program
American Art Therapy Association

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