Art Therapy with Adolescents: Making It Work for School Counselors

By Kahn, Beverly B. | Professional School Counseling, April 1999 | Go to article overview
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Art Therapy with Adolescents: Making It Work for School Counselors


Kahn, Beverly B., Professional School Counseling


In recent years, secondary school counselors have found less time available for individual and small group counseling due to larger caseloads, more emphasis on college placement, and mounting paperwork involving referrals, scheduling, and special education regulations. One solution to this dilemma is the increased use of brief or time-limited counseling techniques (Bruce & Hopper, 1997; LaFountain, Garner, & Eliason, 1996; Murphy, 1994). Although only occasionally considered, using art when counseling adolescents can achieve the same goals as time-effective counseling (Atlas, Smith, & Sessoms, 1992; Goldstein-Roca & Crisafulli, 1994; Tibbetts & Stone, 1990).

Perhaps counselors may assume that they are restricted to classical art therapy, which is grounded in psychodynamic theory. Numerous methods of art therapy have evolved from the classical approach. These more recent approaches may provide some additional advantages beyond traditional therapeutic methods when working with adolescents in schools. They may be perceived as less threatening than many traditional therapeutic interventions (Williams, 1976). They can also be easily implemented in an educational setting and are appropriate for adolescents with varied developmental, learning, and social or emotional needs (Stanley & Miller, 1993).

This article aims to provide for secondary school counselors a step-by-step introduction to the use of art when counseling adolescents, as well as successful and time-effective interventions. First, art therapy is defined and its theoretical evolution is presented. Second, a rationale for the process, based on adolescent developmental needs, is provided. The next sections explore initiating the process, choosing materials, and using art in the counseling process. Finally, an example of the use of art as therapy, as applied with an adolescent substance abuser, is presented.

Art Therapy Then and Now

Art therapy is "A psychoeducational therapeutic intervention that focuses upon art media as primary expressive and communicative channels" (Shostak, 1985, p.19). Through the art therapy process, the adolescent explores personal problems and developmental potential via nonverbal and verbal expression. This process can facilitate appropriate social behavior and promote healthy affective development. Art therapy can be used with a myriad of school problems, including academic difficulties, peer pressure, conflicts with teachers, and career exploration. It is especially effective with adolescents with special learning needs because it bypasses the use of verbal skills that may be part of the student's learning deficit. Art therapy has also been used with home-related problems such as divorce and separation, death of a parent, addiction, and abuse (Shostak, 1985).

The roots of art therapy are grounded in traditional psychoanalytic theory from the 1940s (Naumburg, 1950). Initially, the art psychotherapy process encouraged the expression and interpretation of the unconscious experience; students drew spontaneously and were encouraged to free associate to their pictures (Naumburg, 1966). The counselor served as an interpreter in this art-in-therapy approach. The art-as-therapy approach proposed in this article evolved from the art-in-therapy theory. It is based on an awareness of psychic processes, including the unconscious, but does not rely on the uncovering of unconscious material or the interpretation of unconscious meaning (Kramer, 1979). The goals of art as therapy are to support the ego, foster the development of identity, and promote maturation. In this approach the counselor functions more as a facilitator.

Art can easily be integrated into client-centered, behavioral, cognitive, and solution-focused theories. Client-centered art therapy encourages the adolescent's use of art for self- actualization via self-expression and integration of perception with an understanding of self and environment (Cochran, 1996).

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