Using Art Education Effectively with Students who have Experienced Trauma

A photo of a woman with long, brown hair and dark rimmed glasses, wearing a short sleeved lavender shirt and chunky beaded necklace.

Donalyn Heise

In over 30 years of teaching visual art classes in K-12 settings, one student from early in Donalyn Heise’s career continues to drive her work. “This student made the top grade in every art assignment I gave, but I failed him as a teacher because I had no idea he was flunking out of school,” says Heise. She later learned that the student’s sister had committed suicide, and that he seldom attended classes or handed in assignments outside of art. This experience drove Heise to focus her own pedagogy on what she calls a “resilience framework,” using art education as a platform to help students thrive.

Many children experience psychological trauma, to include natural or environmental disasters, domestic or societal violence, bullying, homelessness, human trafficking, or rejection of sexual identity. Heise cites research by William Steele (2002), who found that youth who experience trauma may have emotional, mental, behavioral, and physical challenges that make them less likely to succeed in school.

Inspired by her early-career experience, Heise began to search for ways to use art education to help students who have experienced trauma thrive. She focused her classes not on the students’ trauma, but on ways to strengthen their resilience. Heise is quick to point out that her work is not art therapy, but teaching the content of the art project along with mastery of the technique. She explains, “We can teach landscape, shading, other artistic techniques along with how to use art to be a student’s visual voice.”

35 paper quilts are lined up together in 4 rows (3 rows of 9, 1 row of 8). The quilts are many colors, but mostly blue, yellow, pink, purple, and orange.

A display of paper quilts created in one of Donalyn Heise’s art classes.

One visual art activity Heise uses within her resilience framework is making paper quilts. In the lesson, students draw or paint 3”x3” paper squares while listening to different pieces of music. They discuss repetition in terms of the quilt patterns, and also reflect on the things in our lives that need to be repeated and those which do not.

After creating many squares, the students exchange them with their classmates; the squares which are exchanged form the outside border of each person’s quilt. For their center square, Heise asks students to think about a challenging time in their life (but not to draw it or say it aloud), then tells them to draw their source of strength in that challenging time. “Their strength is at the center of the quilt, and they are surrounded by their community, through the classmates’ squares,” she says, adding that the quilts can be brought together for a large display, but can also be taken apart so that students can take their individual quilt home.

Heise emphasizes the importance of trying to structure one’s art education practice to reach every student, regardless of his or her ability level or personal experience. One method she suggests is to offer many choice-based adaptations in the art classroom, and to offer the adaptations to every student. “I recommend having all the students try out adaptive tools, then allow them to opt in or out of using them. The same goes for other types of scaffolds: I make sure they are offered to every student. This helps reduce judgments and blurs the lines of disability,” says Heise.

Ultimately, Heise aims to help students feel safe and successful in the routines and materials found in the visual art classroom. She says, “By teaching flexibility, mastery of something, and a vision of the future throughout our art lessons, we help students articulate and celebrate their strengths and points of joy.” Through the resilience framework, Heise hopes to teach students both artistic technique and the valuable, intangible properties of the arts.

 

Donalyn Heise will co-present a session entitled “Using Art to Reach Students Who Have Experienced Trauma” with Adrienne D. Hunter and Beverley Holden Johns at the 2017 VSA Intersections: Art and Special Education Conference.

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