expressive arts group

January 11, 2011

community work

In 2005, I studied a certificate in art therapy. The course was created and run by Annette Coulter, who is one of the pioneers of art therapy in Australia. Annette was trained in Britain. I was also studying a Masters degree in Child and Adolescent Mental Health, and a Bachelor of Arts (Education) at the time. 

At the time I was doing therapeutic casework with children living in foster care. I was able to use art therapy techniques to a limited extent with the children I was working with.

When I moved from foster care to community work, I was wondering how I could use my art therapy skills in the new context. I was thinking about offering the school an expressive arts group. One day the Principal of the school asked me if I was interested in doing art as an after school activity. Synchronicity! I started the group in Term 2, 2009.

Expressive arts is a creative process which provides children with the opportunity to play and experiment with art materials, whilst exploring topics such as self-esteem, friendship, resilience, and conflict. The emphasis is on the process of creating rather than the finished product, and it helps children to tune into their thoughts and feelings.

Ever mindful of child protection, I have a rule that the children are not allowed to take any of their art work home. This allows for a physically and emotionally safe space where children can express anything they wish through their art, without fear of risk, interpretation or criticism.

I set one art task per week for the children based on the abovementioned themes, and the rest of the time the children can explore anything that is placed out for them. How the children interpret the art task is up to them and it is not mandatory.

We set a limit of 20 children for the group but have had up to 27 children attend the group. I have one assistant, whom I have had to train and supervise. The Principal refers children to the group who are experiencing behavioural, social, or emotional difficulties. The Principal does not give me any information about the children’s past history or presenting difficulties. This is no job for the faint hearted but the principles I learnt in the art therapy course have never failed. We have had: children with eating disorders; traumatised children; children who have experienced physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse; children with the usual diagnostic labels – ADD, ADHD, ODD, PDD, PDD-NOS, conduct disorder, aspbergers syndrome; children suffering grief and loss; and children living in foster care. The group is only for those children attending the school, and due to my funding criteria the priority is for children from Kindergarten to Year 4, but I never turn anyone away.

I use all of the rules which apply to art therapy. How the facilitator responds to the children’s art work is vital…

You only ask 2 questions:

  • What would you like to tell me about your artwork?
  • How did it make you feel?

Don’t praise the child’s artwork!!!!!

You can comment that s/he spent a lot of time on it, or s/he used a lot of colour, or filled the page, or left lots of blank space.

But never, never praise.

You can also say…

“when I look at your artwork, the (size, colour, shape, texture, of a particular thing on the artwork) reminds me of …    “


“when I look at your artwork, I feel …   “

Be reflective with children. Use the words that they have used and with the same affect to confirm that you have heard what they have said.

Don’t expect the child to answer or comment on what you have said. Silence is absolutely OK. A child will only start revealing parts of him/herself when s/he feels that you can be trusted 100% (that you won’t reject, ridicule, reveal their secrets, or judge). 

When in doubt about what to say, say “Mmmmmm”.

Do not speak to parents about the children’s artwork. “Mmmm” is a very handy phrase to use with both children and adults. Do not let parents go through the children’s artwork.

Based on the success of the group I facilitate, the organisation I work for attempted to do something similar in the next suburb. They contracted a local counseling service to run an art-based programme for selected children. They had eight children and four workers in this programme, and it failed. The workers were not art therapy trained and the requisite amount of emotional safety was not assured. They invited parents to participate in the programme. The children took their artworks home. The workers did not respond appropriately to the children’s art. The children’s behaviours were such that there was no benefit to continuing the programme.

Approximately 75 children have attended my group since it started. Some have been in the programme the whole time, some leave and come back and leave and come back, and some just stay for one term. I have expanded the activities in the Expressive Arts Group to include play therapy which has the same principles and method of working as art therapy.

Parents can make an appointment with me to view their child’s artwork. However before that appointment I would sit with the child and ask him/her which artworks he/she would not like the parent to see.

The buzz for me has been seeing the children getting so much from their art, respecting the process, and respecting other children’s art. The old hands now say to the newbies, things like “we don’t comment on other people’s art” and “there is no such thing as a mistake in art”.

If you are interested in expressive arts, you should read everything by Dr Judith Rubin. I had the good fortune to attend a seminar by Dr Rubin a few years ago. It was a delight to meet a practitioner who is so comfortable and confident in her skills.  

Also brush up on your Sigmund Freud, Wilfred Bion, Melanie Klein, Carl Jung, Milton Erickson, and Donald Winnicott. And read “Dibs in search of Self” by Virginia Axline.

There are two schools of thought on art therapy and it is safer to stick to articles and books written by practitioners trained in Britain. I would recommend that you study an intensive and experiential course on art therapy if you are going to facilitate any art experiences which activate the subconscious. Also get yourself some art therapy, direct experience can not be substituted with any amount of reading or study, and you need to be fully cognisant of ‘the process’ and to have your own issues sorted out before you work with vulnerable children.


For more posts on expressive arts or art therapy, go to


About hakea

groupworker, parent educator, therapist, mother of three boys.

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11 Comments on “expressive arts group”

  1. darkstarburning Says:

    What an excellent post. My ( now ) teenager attended a school for children with behavioural problems, he’s an Aspie who was spiralling out of control at the time, and one of the lessons he looked forward to most was art therapy. I never once saw what he made, and we never discussed it, but I loved that he’d found that outlet.


  2. phrogmom Says:

    i love this post! i REALLY wanted to study art therapy but back when i was going to school it was so new there just weren’t many programs out there. i might still pursue it one of these days. i have a child with suspected aspergers, and i know once he gets older, art could really be an outlet for him. he already really enjoys drawing. he isn’t verbal though, so we can’t really discuss what he draws. i am going to subscribe and hopefully learn more!


  3. RK Says:

    This sounds fascinating. I like the idea of using creative outlet as means of therapy – especially for children, who may still be developing their vocabulary and analytical abilities.


  4. kloppenmum Says:

    I also really like this post. I particularly like the way you have respected the children’s need to have a safe-haven to express their emotions. I am interested that you are also exploring play therapy. I think that is going to be a key factor in child therapy over the next 20 years or so.


  5. kaet Says:

    Really interesting – thanks!


  6. Rosie Says:

    thanks, this is really useful intro to the way that a program could work.

    sounds like you do great stuff in yours! it would take a bit of practice to get to the ‘no praise ‘ point, but sounds crucial…

    good luck with it all



    • hakea Says:

      Hi Rosie

      I didn’t find it difficult to transition to ‘no praise’ because it made good sense. My colleague who assists me with the group had to bite her lips a few times initially.

      Every now and again a child will present something that is staggeringly beautiful, detailed, or is the essence of everything the child is struggling with at that time, and I just want to say “wow” but I breathe and I look at the child and ask “how do you feel about your artwork?”. And after all the children have gone for the afternoon, my colleague and I will debrief and be amazed at how wonderful this art therapy process is.

      Do you have a blog I can visit?

      Do you have an interest in this type of work?


  7. Latesha Gettelman Says:

    Hi! Someone in my Facebook group shared this website with us so I came to take a look. I’m definitely loving the information. I’m book-marking and will be tweeting this to my followers! Fantastic blog and brilliant design.



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