Art Therapy for Trauma in the Classroom


All children experience stress.  In fact, it is natural and normative for young people to encounter stress and learn to process it in healthy ways.  Some children experience very high levels of stress, either as an isolated moment of impact or as a period of heightened, prolonged unrest.  

Trauma occurs when the experience of stress is significant enough to overwhelm one’s capacity to manage and diffuse it.  Not all individuals who experience trauma will exhibit lasting symptoms of distress.  Yet for others, traumatic stress can dismantle one’s entire sense of belonging, safety, and self-control.

As teachers, we may witness the effects of childhood trauma in the classroom.  Significant stress manifests in a myriad of ways- from speech impediments and frequent urination to disruptive behaviors and excessive organization.  Educators are not advised to step into the role of psychologist or student counselor, unless they are explicitly trained and licensed to do so.  However, we can do our best to take proactive measures to mitigate significant stress in the classroom setting.

The implications of trauma in childhood can be significant, affecting physical wellbeing and brain development at a molecular level.  Specifically, significant trauma is capable of creating blockages, or “stalls”, in the right brain (where visual memories are stored) and in the Brocas area of the frontal lobe (where speech and language processing occur).  Meanwhile, the amygdala, which is responsible for recognizing and reacting to danger, becomes hyperactive, leaving the “fight or flight” switch turned on. (Rausch et al, 1996).   

Art is widely recognized as one effective means of trauma-informed care.  A variety of art forms are employed in therapeutic contexts.  Classroom art activities can be used as a component of trauma-informed instruction and may include drawing, painting, drama, music-making, creative movement, sculpting, weaving, and collage-making.

Artistic expression is unique in its ability to bypass speech-production areas in the brain and construct wordless somatic paths to expression.  The actual process of art making is a predominately right-brained activity.  As the right brain is stimulated and strengthened, left-brain connectivity (the essential link to language acquisition) can begin to repair.  Miranda Field, writing for the University of Regina, explains:

“Research has shown that the non-verbal right brain holds traumatic memories and these can be accessed through the use of symbols and sensations in art therapy. Communication between the brain hemispheres can be accomplished through the use of art therapy and may assist in the processing of the trauma (Lobban, 2014).”

Humans retain traumatic memories in physiological and cerebral ways.  The use of art in education addresses both facets.  Chloe Chapman, for The Palmeira Practice, shares that “using art to express emotion accesses both visually stored memory and body memory, as not only does it enable people to create images, but the use of art materials such as clay and paint can reconnect them to physical sensation.”  In fact, research links sights and touch to the amygdala and the processing of fear.  When these sensory elements are introduced in safe contexts, the slow relinquishment of trauma can occur. (Lusebrink, 2004)

Art making provides a container for trauma and can promote feelings of safety, security, belonging, grounding and validation.  Creative output engages the student in organizing, expressing and making meaning from traumatic experiences.  It also encourages the reconstruction of one’s sense of efficacy and and the notion of “being present” in the new context. 

Art expression provides learners with the option of creative choice, as well as the ability to process trauma in their own measure- reducing the likelihood of emotional overload.  Ultimately, students who are exposed to art as therapy are more likely to reach a place of recognizing and valuing their own existing coping strategies- and becoming more receptive to learning new ones.


Ready to grow on the path of trauma-informed education through art therapy? 

Visit the incredible authors and resources below.

1.     101 Mindful Arts-Based Activities to Get Children and Adolescents Talking: Working with Severe Trauma, Abuse and Neglect Using Found and Everyday Objects  (Dawn D’Amico)

2.     The Big Book of Therapeutic Activity Ideas for Children and Teens: Inspiring Arts-Based Activities and Character Education Curricula (Lindsey Joiner)

3.     Free Video Series: Trauma Training For Educators (ACES in Education)

4.     Essentials for Creating A Trauma-Sensitive Classroom

5.     The Art Therapy Sourcebook (Cathy Malchiodi)

6.     Art Heals: How Creativity Cures the Soul (Shawn McNiff)

7.     DBT® Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, Second Edition (Marsha M. Linehan)