The presence of art can leave a meaningful impact on human lives. It affects our mood and our views of the world, reducing stress levels and alleviating anxiety episodes in most cases. Having these facts in mind, including art therapy in the process of guiding students with disabilities is a logical and natural decision that will most likely lead to many benefits: “Art therapy accesses sensory and affective processes on basic levels that are not available for verbal processing” ( Lusebrink, B. How to Enhance Art Therapy Interventions).
Here are a few pieces of advice on how to approach students with a disability and successfully guide them through the process of art therapy.
1. Focus on art, not on disability
Perhaps your student won’t embrace art therapy immediately. Stay supportive and show them how much fun they can have while being creative, trying not to focus on their difficulties and personal struggles. “When people are invited to work with creative and artistic processes that affect more than their identity with illness, they are more able to create congruence between their affective states and their conceptual sense making” (Stuckey, Heather. The Art of Healing).
2. Find an unobtrusive way to help them practice verbal expression
Although learning the means of verbal expression is very important, never impose this on your students, as it may lead to them “shutting down.” Melissa Hawthorne, an associate teacher and writer at Scholar Advisor suggest: “Developing verbal skills in students with disabilities should have a goal to enable them to express their thoughts and feelings. Be patient, though. There’s no quick road to mastering the skill of speech. Let them progress at their own pace.”
3. Work on their self-confidence
To make sure your student always enjoys the therapy, support their progress and let them know how well they did. Give praise often and generously, as this will make your pupil feel more self-confident and content. Boosting their confidence will make them more likely to participate and put in an effort, leading to better therapy results.
4. Keep eye contact when interacting
Don’t be intimidated by your student’s silence. Talk to them slowly and clearly, making sure to sometimes include touch as a part of communication. It is especially important to keep eye contact with the child as often as possible, as it will allow you to establish a connection and show emotion in a non-verbal manner.
5. Create a collaborative environment
Support and enable socializing during art therapy classes. Creating an environment that allows collaboration will help every student in the group. Show them how strong they are when they are together.
6. Patience is key
Some students will progress slower than some others, and it’s crucial to keep a cool head and stay patient. Criticism can seriously hurt your efforts and negatively affect the child. Instead, suggest different solutions and possibilities, remaining friendly and supportive throughout the process.
7. Observe and react
To know how they feel, you must carefully observe your students. Some of them may have difficulties expressing their fear, anxiety, they may not know how to cope with boredom or any other unpleasant feeling. Carefully follow their movements and facial expressions, as they can be important indicators of how the child is experiencing therapy. If a student shows any alarming signs, dedicate them some additional time, focusing on making them feel calm and relaxed.
8. Stay positive
Staying positive from the beginning to the end of the entire process is extremely significant. Children with disabilities can often feel and “absorb” surrounding negative energy, anger, frustration or impatience. Do your best to shield them from these unfavorable influences, showering them with affection, understanding, and support. Making them feel “at home” will help your efforts in a way nothing can truly replace.
Although the art therapy history officially reaches no further than to the mid-20th century, active efforts in establishing this therapeutic discipline have already led to many encouraging conclusions. “Recent research on visual art has focused on its psychological and physiological effects, mostly in clinical populations. It has shown that visual art interventions have stabilizing effects on the individual by reducing distress, increasing self-reflection and self-awareness, altering behavior and thinking patterns, and also by normalizing heart rate, blood pressure, or even cortisol levels” (Bolwerk, Anne. How Art Changes Your Brain).