By Bev Johns
Estimates show that 46 million children are impacted every year by trauma. The content and processes of art education can play a vital role in the education of children who have experienced trauma, are at-risk, are homeless, and/or are incarcerated. As educators, we must be very sensitive to the needs of children who have experienced trauma and better understand why they may behave in the way they do.
In order to establish positive rapport and to meet the needs of children who have experienced trauma, we must gather as much information as possible about what types of trauma they may have experienced. That may be possible because we have learned about their background or the child has told us. However in some cases we may not know what has happened to the child until an incident occurs and we investigate what may have caused him or her to behave in a particular way.
1. Learn as much as you can about the child’s background without being invasive with the child. We must be careful that we are not asking too many questions of the child. They may be guarded and afraid that someone will find out something that will get them into trouble. Art teachers can learn a great deal through observations, keeping their eyes and ears open, talking to previous educators, and reading past records. We must be vigilant and when students have unusual reactions to specific events or rooms or noises, we need to explore the reasons for those reactions.
When children build trust with the art teacher, then they may give verbal or non-verbal clues about their behavior. Teachers must be good detectives to determine what is happening with the student. You may learn that you or your colleagues remind the child of the person who abused them, or trigger another traumatic memory.
2. Avoid surprises with children who have experienced trauma. Remember that they are on heightened alert and are worried about what might be happening next so we should not come up from behind students. In some cases we may want to seat these children so that no one is behind them. While some teachers like to turn lights off when children become noisy, this isn’t advisable for some children that were locked in a dark room. A high level of noise might trigger a reaction from a child because he remembers the loud noise when his brother was shot on the street in front of his house.
3. When planning activities, think ahead about what impact the activity might have on the student. Even activities that an art educator might perceive as straightforward or simple can become loaded due to a child’s traumatic experience. Offer choices to students about what they can create to help avoid triggering bad memories. For instance, children who have been recently removed from their families or placed in foster care might struggle with assignments that involve drawing or painting their family; it is helpful to offer another option for the assignment.
4. When planning activities, be cautious about the materials you use. The child may have been hurt with a particular object so you would want to avoid an activity where the same object is used. The child may have limited clothing or may have been beaten if their clothes got dirty. In that case, the art teacher will want to provide students the option of wearing protective clothing when utilizing art materials that may get on clothes.
5. Make sure that your art room is a safe and happy place for the child. Create an environment in the art room where lots of positive feedback is given, the child is recognized for his or her strengths, and the child knows that the teacher will not allow them to be bullied in any way. The teacher must be supportive and engage in active listening with the student. Rather than devaluing what the child says, gather more information. When the child says, “I can’t do that,” the teacher can say, “How can I help you?” When the child says, “This is too hard,” the teacher can say, “Can you tell me why,” or “Let’s try this together.”
The art room is the place where there are no right or wrong answers, It is a place where children have multiple opportunities to be creative, express their feelings, and experience success.
Bev Johns is a Professional Fellow at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. She has worked with children with significant emotional and behavioral disorders for over 35 years and is the author of 20 books in the area of special education.