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Guide to Expressive Arts in Schools

for Classroom Teachers, Student Services Teachers, and Administrators

We come to you from the ancestral lands of the Anishnaabe, Ininew, Dakota and Dene peoples, who agreed to share this land with the signing of Treaty 1 in 1871. We acknowledge this land is the birthplace and homeland of the Metis Nation. We acknowledge and respect the generosity of first peoples in sharing their lands, knowledge, languages and cultures.


In this guide, we will explore the terrain of Expressive Arts in Schools including core beliefs, positive outcomes, interventions, training, and scope of practice. Some links and resources will be provided to help you explore further. Our experience has shown that an Expressive Arts Program in your school can make a difference to the overall well-being of your students and the health of your school culture. Thank you for taking the time to read on.

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The field of expressive arts moves us from the place of being an art spectator to being the art-maker: whether building something with clay, finger painting, sharing a gesture that reflects our emotions, or singing along to an evocative piece of music. Art releases, expresses, and heals.


The expressive arts provide a natural way for children, youth and adults to communicate. The arts enhance our ability to express thoughts and feelings we have a hard time putting into words.  Expressive arts participants can explore, embody and express their feelings and further develop their communication and self-regulation skills, all in the context of stronger relationships and stronger sense of community. In the development of these opportunities for self-expression, we encourage the use of diverse spaces in the school building  which might include the gym, music room, a kitchen or the outdoors.


We note the power of the expressive arts in expressing and celebrating the diverse cultural communities in which we live. We honour the necessity of understanding First Nations cultural teachings and languages as part of our journey to becoming healthy, inclusive communities. We utilize the power of the arts to communicate, teach and heal, as we welcome Newcomer families to our schools and recognize the importance of retaining cultural diversity in our communities. We welcome the potential that exists for deeper understanding of each other through cultural knowledge and shared multi-modal artistic expressions. We come to know each other’s gifts through the arts.


WHEAT Institute has received a lot of positive feedback over the years as to the ways the expressive arts have helped teachers and student services staff reach their students. Comments include themes of building relationship, reaching every student in the class, having fun while learning, expressing feelings and then feeling calmer, and in general, enhancing the capacity for attachment to occur between the child or youth and the adult. WHEAT Expressive Arts Certificate grad and Student Services teacher Shannon Cyr reflected:

"The program completely realigned what I do every day. My go-to strategies are very different now. I don’t start by talking to the students from a cognitive behavioural perspective; I’ve continued to start by holding space for them and accepting the state they are in. The first thing is just to be with them. I don’t ask what happened; I wait for them to be ready to share. More than anything, kids need a space to come and reconnect to themselves and feel heard."

What are the Expressive Arts?

According to IEATA, the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association,


“The expressive arts combine the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing and other creative processes to foster deep personal growth and community development.”


This approach encourages meeting students where they are at, providing tools for creative self-expression, and providing relationship and community building opportunities. Whether it be building Lego creations in the principal’s office, puppet play with the school counsellor, making up dance routines in the gym, or joining in an Indigenous drumming circle hosted by an Elder or cultural teacher, the expressive arts enhance sense of connection and well-being.


What are the core outcomes of engaging in expressive arts in the schools?

  • Enhanced self-expression

  • Enhanced use of the imagination

  • Enhanced use of all of the senses

  • Heightened ability to be in the present moment

  • Strengthened ability to self-regulate

  • Strengthened sense of capacity and self-efficacy

  • Developed sense of personal identity

  • Deeper sense of self awareness

  • Deeper sense of empathy for others

  • Enhanced sense of connection to others and sense of community

“Metaphor is the most helpful invention I know to begin to ask people to look differently at their beliefs

and then have a new and different perception, a different picture. Change follows.” Virginia Satir

Creating a Safe School with the Help of the Arts:

Note to Administrators

Expressive arts can impact a school culture by fostering safe spaces for children and youth to express themselves. These safe spaces might include classrooms, student services offices, specialist classes, and even the principal’s office!


Principals and vice-principals have observed the positive effects of having arts supplies available in the office for dysregulated children. The tactile effect of playdoh, plasticine, slime or engagement with a puppet, for example, can support children in becoming calm enough to communicate verbally.


Instead of feeling a sense of shame at misbehavior, a child can feel a sense of self-efficacy as their stories and feelings are seen, heard and acknowledged, and they learn new ways to communicate and ultimately self-regulate better. This guide will provide details on how school staff can turn challenging moments into positive learning experiences through the arts.


Trauma Informed Practices with Children and Adolescents (2012) by William Steele and Expressive Arts thought leader, Cathy Malchiodi, provides a concise and helpful look at ways we can create safe schools that acknowledge, assess and address the impact of trauma on children, which can manifest as challenging behaviors. The arts are an important tool for building trauma-informed relationships and for supporting post traumatic growth in children.  In the following text, you will find rationale for training interested staff members in the inter-modal use of the expressive arts.


What are the key benefits of Expressive Arts in Schools

Educators are in an ideal position to provide a safe, appropriate setting for the expression and containment of feelings through diverse creative modalities.


Art Therapist, Cathy Malchiodi, has an extensive array of publications to support educators in sharing the power of expressive arts in schools. She regularly posts therapeutic arts information on Psychology Today.  


Some of the key benefits of school-based art and expressive arts practice are summarized here.


  1. Honouring Right Brain Ways of Knowing in a more Linear Left-Brain Context

  2. Supporting Students to Feel Safe, Appreciated and Capable

  3. Expressing and Containing Feelings

  4. Building Sense of Community and Belonging while also Problem Solving

  5. Strengthening Sense of Self

  6. Connection to the Collective Unconscious

  7. Enhancing Connection to the Land and All our Relations



1. Honouring Right Brain Ways of Knowing

Art and play provide rich and natural communication tools for children and adolescents, in that they offer information from the right brain, which holds the more holistic, intuitive, visual and affect-derived intelligence, in contrast to the left brain which holds the more linear linguistic and mathematical intelligence.


Many children who struggle at school are challenged, for a diverse variety of reasons, in language-based intelligence. Stress and trauma add challenges to language-based expression resulting in some children feeling unheard at school. They act out to communicate their feelings, typically in bigger and bolder ways, resulting in potential risk to themselves and others.


Expression through a variety of creative media including storytelling, drama, creative movement and art serves as a release valve for explosive and complicated feelings. This expression feels positive and effortless to young people and allows them to communicate with much reduced defensiveness and much greater trust and capacity for authentic expression.


Barry M. Cohen in Managing Traumatic Stress through Art: Drawing from the Centre (1995) says:


Art externalizes experiences, hopes, and conflicts. Art can enable you to safely test a variety of options. Art does not have to be perfect. Art can help you heal and to live. Thus, inner responses to trauma can be expressed in visual metaphors, which can then be modified or transformed. Changes in these visual metaphors can reflect changes in personal viewpoints or behavior. Transforming art images is unquestionably easier than transforming behavioral patterns, attitudes, or actual life situations, but the experience of making changes in your art can nonetheless help you to begin to manage stress and make changes in your life (p. xvii).

For further information see Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice (2006) and Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (2012).


2. Support Students to Feel Safe, Appreciated and Capable

The expressive arts practitioner creates a sense of safety by providing the tools for creative expression and exploration. The space communicates that play and creative expression happens here, and the practitioner’s presence honors divergent thinking, experimentation, and playfulness. The play space might include all manner of play things such as puppets, soft cuddly animals, sand tray miniatures, Lego building materials, playdoh and play dishes for example, as well as all manner of art supplies including finger paints, markers, pencil crayons, plasticene, play doh, items from nature, pastels and paint.


3. Expressing and Containing Feelings

School-based Expressive Arts provide ideal strategies for supporting children in expressing and containing their feelings depending on their need. We utilize a continuum of expressive media from more contained such as photography, collage or pencil drawings to more expressive media such as paint or wet clay. Processes may be directive or non-directive depending on the needs of the child.


Opportunities to create art, with an emphasis on the story or the feelings expressed instead of the product, help children to understand each other better and build empathy.


See Dawn Huebner’s What to Do When You Worry Too Much (2005) and Series for individual and small group support. 

The American Psychological Association provides several books specifically related to helping children deal with worries related to the pandemic. See covid-19-help-kids-cope. 

4. Building Sense of Community and Belonging while also Problem Solving

The arts have a powerful way of bringing people together. In schools, expressive arts can be used to create communities (in person or online) and problem solve. Groups can be formed around all of the different arts media: Drumming, Poetry, Sand Tray, Storytelling, Drama, Art-making, Movement, Mindfulness, Music, and all forms of creative arts.


Groups might take place at recess or during class time, in the classroom setting, resource teacher or counsellor’s office, or alternate specialist space in the school (gym, music room, outdoors).


Role play can be used to practice different outcomes in social situations. Playback Theatre, for example, provides a series of methods to creatively tell people’s stories, which are ideal for a classroom or small group. Local group Red Threads for Peace Playback will come out and do a demonstration to support your students in learning the process.


5. Strengthening Sense of Self

Art allows us to better understand ourselves. Creative processes allow the psyche the freedom to tell the story that needs to be told. The imagination is a vast territory, which can be explored through person-centered or child-directed Expressive Arts. We can nourish the imagination by providing opportunities for expression.

Children love to express themselves in sand tray work with miniatures. The sand tray can be as simple as a 22X15X7 inch plastic tub or as elaborate as a professional sand tray. The more diverse the array of miniatures the more creative the stories. These stories can be scribed for the child and shared back as an affirmation of the child.


Supportive, non-directive art-making expresses the imagination of the child, often surprising the child and the witness. These forms of expression strengthen the sense of self.


Violet Oaklander in Windows to our Children (1978) says:


When I see a child in therapy, I have the opportunity to give her self back to her, for in a sense poor self-concept is a lost sense of self. I have a chance to bring her in touch with her own potency, to help her feel at home in the world (p. 282).


I find that some children, especially very young ones, do not necessarily need to verbalize their discoveries, insights and awareness of the what and how of their behaviours. Often it seems that it is enough to bring out into the open the behaviours or blocked feelings that have interfered with their emotional growth process. (p. 194).


The arts can be that powerful tool of expression to release difficult feelings in order to be able to move on in a good way.

6. Connection to the Collective Unconscious

Engaging in non-directive, creative activities together allows us to share archetypal aspects of what it means to be human . Archetypal symbols such as a tree or particular animal are elements we can all identify with, which hold universal meaning for the collective. While each individual’s expression will be unique, our understanding is shared, and we gather meaning for the whole community. Storytelling, drama, movement and the visual arts are all helpful containers for symbolic expression.

See John Allen’s Inscapes of the Child’s World (1998) and David Crenshaw’s Evocative Strategies in Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy (2006).

7. Enhancing Connection to the Land and All Our Relations

Engagement through the arts allows us to tune in more deeply to the present moment and what is. Time can be spent outside making installations with natural items and noticing or photographing the beauty of the earth. By spending more time outside, we come to better know the plants, birds and animals of our territories, which can increase our curiosity about them and enhance our commitment to protecting them. Being in the trees, on the grass or by the water has a naturally calming effect.



How do we honour Indigenous cultural knowledge in our schools?

We encourage educators to welcome Indigenous knowledge keepers as you cultivate Indigenous knowledge within your therapeutic arts programming. Art-making has always been and remains an essential component of cultural resiliency, embedded within all traditional Indigenous cultures. Functional Indigenous arts, which are also aesthetically beautiful and spiritually imbued creations, have been necessary for survival and used time immemorial as ways to communicate worldview and spiritual beliefs.  Examples include beaded moccasins, birch bark canoes, tanned hides for clothing and teepees, as well as painted ceremonial drums, pipes, and medicine bundles, which hold all manner of finely crafted items with spiritual significance. The attention and expertise required to create these items were honed as part of the daily subsistence lives of Indigenous peoples, who traditionally were, and many are still, living in close relationship with Mother Earth and all living beings.

Teachings were held, and are still being shared, of how to live in harmonious, reciprocal relationships with All Our Relations. These values are now most frequently communicated to children in our territory through the 7 Sacred Teachings of the Annishaabe including truth, honesty, humility, wisdom, courage, respect, and love. The revitalization of the Indigenous languages of the First Peoples in each territory further increases our awareness of the gifts of each cultural tradition. We begin to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of Indigenous relationship to all life forms, as expressed through vocabulary, songs and dances, and the telling and hearing of traditional stories. 

By honouring the importance of Indigenous knowledges; by respectfully building reciprocal relations with Indigenous Elders, teachers, and cultural teachers; and by honouring Indigenous worldviews and arts as crucial in this particular moment in the history of humankind, we can deepen our own relationship to Mother Earth and All Our Relations, and more meaningfully engage in the practices of decolonization and reconciliation, which are necessary for our survival.  These tiny drops of awareness are offered here in the spirit of helping all of us be more inclusive in our applications of the therapeutic use of the arts and can be deepened and prioritized by our Indigenous Instructors and Elders.

Be sure to be respectful of protocol when inviting Indigenous guests. A pouch of tobacco is an important offering when requesting teachings and can be accompanied by one metre of red or white cloth. You can ask in advance about protocol if you are unsure.

  • See Canada’s first Indigenized Art Therapy Diploma taught exclusively by Indigenous faculty from Indigenous worldviews  and our Indigenized Expressive Arts Certificate poster at the bottom of our home page.

  • Although dated, The Kindergarten to Grade 12 Aboriginal Languages and Cultures Manitoba Curriculum Framework of Outcomes (2007) provides a good section on Elder views at the beginning, which highlights the value of Indigenous languages and cultures. The framework specifically explores Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in General Learning Outcome 4 (p. 65), which can be a place to start in terms of integrating Indigenous languages and cultures in your classroom and school-wide programs.

  • Through the enormous efforts of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015), we have been asked to follow up on the 41 Calls to Action. If you have not yet selected and begun work on the Calls to Action you wish to support, please do so now.

  • Find Cree Language and Culture resources here at the Gift of Language and Culture by the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

  • Follow the Cree Literacy Network who post regularly on Cree language and cultural news. See Cree songs for kids.

How do we support Newcomer students and families?

Expressive arts provide a perfect communication tool when words are not enough, and their messages transcend geo-political borders. Martha’s Vineyard-based Expressive Arts Educator Lynn Ditchfield has created a curriculum called Borders to Bridges: Creativity-based Immigration Curriculum Guidebook within the FIESTA program – Focus on Immigration Education and Stories through the Arts. She says: "The intention is to advance democratic values, to discover our individual and collective resources, and to foster understanding, and more unity in the community through the arts.” Please contact her directly if you are interested in piloting her curriculum at

On her curriculum page she indicates:


The Creativity-Based Curriculum Guidebook on Immigration will promote dialogue in schools and community. It will present practical lesson plans for interdisciplinary connections. It will contain: references to inspirational poetry, literature, films, music, graphic arts; resources for deeper investigation; interviews with detainees, undocumented and documented immigrants, and immigration lawyers; interviewing techniques for students to connect with community members; project ideas and activities using role-play, creative writing, economic analysis, scientific exploration, historical and political research; ideas for sharing information in community art displays, on public access television and social media; and an up-to-date resource listing of articles, agencies, and volunteer organizations working to further immigrant and human rights.

Frieda Lepp Kehler PhD, ExA Diploma WHEAT, is the Canadian Regional Coordinator for the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) and also teaches at Providence University College in Otterburne, Manitoba. Her research interests include motivation in language learning and the role of expressive arts in instructed second language acquisition. Together with Katy Shimp, MA TTESOL, she is working on a guide for teachers in trauma-informed practice through integrating expressive arts into language teaching. The working title of this project is Language Learning in Color: Learning to Heal – Healing to Learn. She can be reached at for those interested in bringing expressive arts into second language learning instruction and she can also help you get connected to IEATA.


Dr. Jan Stewart gives practical advice and arts-based suggestions for educators working with refugee children in her book Supporting Refugee Children: Strategies for Educators (2011). The Expressive Arts offer an effective way of working with the challenges children face coming from war-affected areas given the lack of English language, the impact of trauma, and the need to transition to stable, welcoming educational settings, wherein the resources are inherently insufficient to the need. The Expressive Arts speak when words are not enough. Please reach out to and follow the work of these leaders in expressive arts curriculum development.

Suggestions for integrating Expressive Arts and/or Expressive Arts Therapy into my school role?

  • Make a diverse array of art supplies accessible in all student support and admin offices.

  • Normalize creative expression through a variety of arts as acceptable, effective ways to communicate emotions and experiences.

  • Celebrate creative expression as communication, and look and listen for meaning.

  • Support staff in learning about the diverse ways the arts are therapeutic.

  • Utilize the power of the arts as communication tools for non-English speakers and EAL learners.

  • Utilize the arts to honour and celebrate the cultural diversity in our schools.

  • Invite in Indigenous knowledge keepers, storytellers, artists and drummers to share their knowledge and worldview


School Counsellor/ Resource Teacher/ Student Services Teacher:

  • Provide opportunities for non-directive art-making in your office as a way to tell stories and communicate feelings.

  • Have art supplies visible and accessible when students enter the space.

  • Learn ways to reach social/emotional/behavioral outcomes through the arts and build these practices into Individual Education Plans

  • Understand the implications of controlled arts media on down and up regulation (pencils, photography, collage) vs. less controlled media (paint, wet clay, slime, dancing)

  • Give students some choice of music when they enter to support up regulating or down regulating

  • Have an array of puppets on hand to serve as co-therapists to engage students, reduce defensiveness and provide a playful, non-threatening, active listener when a child is feeling upset, overwhelmed and defensive.

  • Have a sand tray in your office, which can be as simple as a Tupperware tub of sand, with a collected set of miniatures for playful self-expression

  • Create arts-based groups (poetry, drama, movement, art-making, drumming, mindfulness) as part of daily programming to build students' sense of self-efficacy, competency, empathy, community, and identity.

  • Create accessible lunchtime and after-school arts-based groups and clubs

  • To enhance the use of all of the senses, utilize the different areas of your school as part of your practice when available: outdoor classroom, gym, music room, Blue room, play room, kitchen etc.

  • Provide an Indigenous Drumming Group open to all students. Drumming is a globally accessible and highly impactful medium of expression to connect with the self and spirit and to build community.


Classroom Teacher:

  • Use music regularly to set the emotional tone in the classroom.

  • Allow creativity and imagination into movement breaks ie. Move as if you were...

  • Give students time for free creative expression wherein they are not directed to learn skills but rather to express themselves, their stories and feelings, using specific media including: miniatures, puppets, Lego, stuffed animals.

  • Provide students opportunities to experience a variety of arts: drumming, dancing, writing poems, improvisation, playback theater, visual arts, etc.

  • Allow time every day for movement to music (upregulating) See Koo Koo Kangaroo’s Milkshake for example or Go Noodle Dance videos. Movement warm-ups can be combined with drama games. See an example.

  • Allow time every day for mindful breathing to creative visualizations (downregulating) See Sitting Still Like a Frog and Treehouse Meditation. All meditations can be combined with related art making activities such as building treehouses with cardboard and utilizing miniatures for play in them. Wouldn’t it be fun to know you will have time to chill by your treehouse at school!

  • Use a daily mandala practice after lunch or recess as a self-regulation practice. See 5 Mandalas in 9 Minutes on YouTube.

  • Janine Tougas, a 2019 WHEAT Expressive Arts Certificate grad has co-authored – a financial literacy kit for K-3 incorporating stories, puppets, and games. Also published in French as Available at Apprentissage Illimité/aha Learning.

  • Shelley Klammer sends regular email newsletters and is active on social media with plenty of arts-based activities for fun and self-awareness.


For Drama Activities for the Classroom see Agusto Boal's Games for Actors and Non-Actors (1992), David Diamond's Theatre for Living: The Art and Science of Community-based Dialogue (2007), and Viola Spolin's Improvisation for the Theatre (1983).


What is the difference between Expressive Arts, Expressive Arts in Counselling, and Expressive Arts Therapy?

Expressive Arts practitioners are divided into two categories by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association:


1. Consultant Educator

Which might include trained classroom teachers, administrators, and arts educators who further their education to become expressive arts consultant educators. We call this work Expressive Arts.


2. Therapist

Which might include trained School Counsellors, Resource Teachers, and Clinicians who further their education to become registered Expressive Arts Therapists. Practitioners initially receive training to call themselves Expressive Arts Therapists and can then register in order to be Registered Expressive Arts Therapists.


The Ontario Expressive Arts Therapy Association divides these skill sets into Practitioner and Therapist.


These are important distinctions to be aware of when seeking training.

Core similarities between Expressive Arts Consultant Educators and Expressive Arts Therapists include:

  • a variety of arts media are employed

  • the emphasis is primarily on the process not the product

  • creative expression and playfulness are prioritized

  • social, emotional, and behavioral curricular outcomes can be me

  • the roles will look different dependent on the contexts in which they are conducted


Core differences include:

  • scope of practice – only trained psychotherapists can practice therapy

  • therapists may work with deep and psychological issues over time

  • therapists receive supervision of their practice

  • the diverse array and inter-weaving of individual, group, classroom and school-wide expressive arts activities are the expertise area of the school-based practitioner

  • school-based practitioners are advocacy experts and can bring together the team required to provide all of the support services necessary to help children with the most complex needs


Advantages to having school counsellors trained as Art and Expressive Arts Therapists include that the counsellor

  • is on site with other guidance and counselling duties and no external referral, transportation, acclimatization process needs to occur. 

  • knows all of the students in the building and is aware of all students’ needs

  • can provide timely, effective response to crisis situations until such time as additional support is available

  • can provide proactive, practical, solution-focused, daily therapeutic arts intervention as needed to help children to better self-regulate

  • can contribute to the overall well-being of the school population through the support and implementation of school-wide arts and wellness activities

  • comes to know the children through a unique, solution-focused, arts-based lens, which can be life-saving for struggling children who do not have strong, positive attachments outside of school

  • can create an in-school, open-studio space where students are able to discharge brewing emotions through the safe, contained therapeutic use of the arts

  • could be part of a network of school-based art and expressive arts professionals who collaborate on division-wide arts and wellness activities to have an even more profound impact on school culture, divisional culture and community well-being


While art and expressive arts therapists practice in schools in the United States, their presence is relatively new in Canada and reliant on the development of Canadian training programs. Once attending local training programs, students participate in school-based practica, and new research begins to emerge to support the viability and efficacy of school-based work. Schools who have participated in practica are encouraged by the profound impact an art therapy or expressive arts therapy practicum student can have in terms of school culture and support for individual students with specific needs. Successful practicum placements and positive impacts influence our ability to advocate to senior administration regarding the ways that the role of art or expressive arts therapist can be integrated into existing student services offerings to reach students whose needs are still not being met with traditional resources.


Expressive Arts in Counselling: Art in Therapy

Some counselling professionals integrate art into their counselling practice from the lens of a variety of different counselling theories See Integrating the Expressive Arts into Counselling Practice: Theory-Based Interventions (2018) by Suzanne Degges-White & Nancy Davis. The practitioner follows the premises of the theory, however utilizes the arts as part of the counselling process.


Some of the most common counselling modalities that make use of the arts in schools include:

  • Solution-focused: reframe the situation, focus on solutions, take small, daily steps to change

  • Narrative: externalize the problem, see the system of the problem saturated story, and build community to witness new preferred stories

  • Adlerian: build relationship and foster insight

  • Rogerian: build relationship and understand the client through creative means


See the recently released work of Regina-based art therapist and WHEAT instructor Karen Wallace and Dr. Patrick Lewis, Trauma Informed Teaching through Play Art Narrative (PAN)  (2020).

Expressive Arts Therapy: Art as Therapy

Some founders of the field of expressive arts therapy at the European Graduate School, including the late Paolo Knill, and Ellen and Stephen Levine of the CREATE Institute, cultivated Expressive Arts Therapy as a therapeutic model unto itself, with its own unique therapeutic lens and core conditions, which they summarize in Principles and Practice of Expressive Arts Therapy: Toward a Therapeutic Aesthetic (2005). These practitioners, along with other founders, see art itself at the heart of the therapeutic processes and healing; in essence, the art is the therapy.


Some core concepts from their book of expressive arts principles include:

  • Low skill/high sensitivity (p. 100) – you do not have to be an artist to tune in to the therapeutic power of the arts. Becoming sensitive to the tools of expression is key.

  • Widening the range of play (p. 89) play is the child’s language. Non-directive play is a core principle in child play therapy and necessary for a child’s full expression of self.

  • Intermodal transfer (p. 126) refers to the weaving of one arts modality to the next based on intuition and tuning in and for amplified therapeutic impact, which Markus Alexander refers to as the “just right next” in Expressive Arts Education and Therapy: Discoveries in a Dance Theatre Lab through Creative Process-based Research.

  • Decentering (p. 83-85) refers to the ability to step back from the problem while immersing oneself in arts processes to increase understanding and flexibility, followed by a return to the concern from an imagination infused perspective to gain insight


Shaun McNiff, art therapist and founder of the Expressive Arts Program at Lesley University, was a key figure in guiding us to explore and trust the healing power of the imagination with his seminal work Art as Medicine (1992). His ground-breaking work from a Western perspective moves us to the core of how art heals, and links us to ancient traditional Indigenous understandings of the role of the spirit world in healing. McNiff says,

The creative imagination acts spontaneously as its own saviour” (p. 16).


When witnessing children, youth or adults in the process of creative expression, we see this to be true.


Edmund Husserl’s philosophical concept of phenomenology, on which the arts therapies are based, highlights the direct, present moment experience of phenomenom through the senses as a way of knowing and a key aspect of wellness. See Phenomenology of Therapeutic Art Expressions (1995) by Mala Gitlin Betensky.

In her  book Expressive Arts Therapy for Traumatized Children and Adolescents: A Four-Phase Model (2016), Carmen Richardson, a specialist in working with sexually-abused children and adolescents,  provides many tools for supporting children and youth in creatively processing trauma. While in-depth trauma work cannot be done in the school setting, Carmen's book is helpful in that it clearly delineates the trauma recovery process and offers a plethora of heart-connecting examples and illustrations that demonstrate the power of the arts as a communication tool for the most challenging human experiences. 

By including Expressive Arts Therapy in a look at School-based Expressive Arts, we are not recommending that school-based work take the place of one-on-one therapy with a therapist in an off-site setting, but rather show the ways that the tools of that work can enhance the work of school-based practitioners in meeting the containment and expression needs of children who may not have access to a therapist. Greater awareness may also provide greater sensitivity to the need to refer, as well as greater awareness of the different emphases of school-based vs. private practice work.


What better way to close this overview of the therapeutic use of the arts in schools than with Stephen Nachmanovitch, who summarizes the profound value of the experience of art-making in his seminal work on life as art called Free Play: Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts (1993).


"There is a German word funktionslust which means the pleasure of doing, of producing an effect, as distinct from the pleasure of attaining the effect or of having something. Creativity exists in the searching even more than in the finding or being found. We take pleasure in energetic repetition, practice, ritual/ As play, the act is its own destination. The focus is on process, not product. Play is intrinsically satisfying. It is not conditioned on anything else. Play, creativity, art, spontaneity, all these experiences are their own rewards and are blocked when we perform for reward or punishment, profit or loss...Play is without ‘why.’ It is self-existent" (p. 45).


So, how do I begin my training in Expressive Arts?

One way to begin integrating Expressive Arts in a school setting is to join the Expressive Arts Certificate or School-Based Expressive Arts Certificate offered by WHEAT Institute in Winnipeg, Manitoba. These programs:

  • are currently offered live online with top quality teachers,

  • can be done in the span of 1 or 2 years,

  • is comprised of approximately 200 hours of coursework,

  • is designed for classroom teachers, school counsellors, clinicians, artists and therapists working in the community in a variety of ways that utilize art as wellness.


Courses run evenings, weekends and in summer only and focus on:

  • working with children and adolescents

  • developing expressive arts skills that can be used day-to-day

  • providing an in introduction to the theory and practice of therapeutic art-making

  • using the arts to support students’ social, emotional, and behavioral growth, through individual, group and school wide interventions

What are the Expressive Arts?
What are the core outcomes?
Creating a Safe School
What are the key benefits?
Honouring Indigenous knowledge
How to support Newcomers
Expressive Arts in my role
School counsellor/ resource teacher/ student sevices teaher
Classroom Teacher
Differences between ExA and ExAT
How to begin training
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