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Front Line Staff / Program Design, Development, and Quality / Staff Leadership and Management

Checking-In with Your Students: Using the Arts to Open the Door to Communication

Imagine with me, that 13-year-old Steven walks through the door of your out of school time program.

His thick eyebrows are furrowed over low eyes. His lips twisted into a sullen scowl. You excitedly greet him at the door with an extended hand. “Good Afternoon, Steven!!” He mumbles an unenthusiastic “Hi”, limply shakes your extended hand, and walks away with hunched over shoulders.

Clearly, something is up.

Now, of course, you can check in with Steven by asking him if he is okay: “No” he replies. “Do you want to talk about it?” He hesitates then whispers “No.” You reply with an “Okay”, but you can also try the following Arts-based check in:

In BuildaBridge classrooms, we create an area that is stocked with some blank drawing paper, colored pencils or markers, books, music player and headphones, etc. We refer to this space as our “Peace” or “Thinking Corner” (however, you can feel free to call it whatever you would like). This space is ideal for student self-soothing, also known as emotional self-regulation, as students can utilize the space whenever they feel angry, tired, sad, anxious, etc. to help calm themselves down.

Direct Steven to the “Peace” corner in your classroom/activity space.

Suggest he draw out how he feels using the supplied materials. For the sake of this example, Steven chooses to do some drawing. Inform him that he can use whatever colors he would like.

As the facilitator of this process, it is important for you to understand that that piece of paper Steven uses to draw how he feels acts as a container for all the strong emotions he is feeling. The very act of drawing allows Steven to move the emotions he is feeling from the intangible, internal to the tangible, external in a very physical way as it is now actually on and within the confines of the drawing paper. The drawing may not be realistic. It may be a page full of jagged lines, or a sad face, or…a sneaker. Whatever it depicts, it is Steven’s visual representation of his emotions. It takes the “edge” off of all Steven is feeling, and in my experience, opens the door for verbal communication as Steven has a visual representation of his feelings to simply describe to you. Let him do just that describe or tell what each line, symbol, figure, etc. means. Ask probing questions, if needed.

Check for his affect.

Does he seem relieved? Is he still angry?

If he seems relieved or “feeling better”, ask Steven what he would like to do with his drawing. Use this time to point out to Steven that he has let all of the negative emotions he was feeling out on that paper. They are not in him anymore and he now has the power to do whatever he wants with them. He is in control! I often ask students if they would like to throw the negative emotions in the trash (to which all have obliged!). This actual physical discarding of the negative emotion drawing is an incredibly powerful and transformative moment as the student has gained

• an alternate means of communication,
• a self-soothing technique,
• the understanding that he/she has control of their emotions and can choose what to do with them,
• as well as increased his/her Internal Locus of Control (ability to self-regulate emotions or behavior).

If Steven is still upset, you can then ask him to draw the opposite of what he is feeling or how he would like to feel (e.g. He is currently sad because he failed his spelling quiz, but would like to feel happy). Encourage him to add things or steps that will help him move from sad to happy in his opposite drawing. Through the art-making process, you are helping Steven develop important life skills such as goal setting. Also, you use this time to help Steven plan for his next spelling quiz. Perhaps you can ask him to draw, write, or say what he thinks he can do to better prepare for his next quiz. Again, it is the art-making that opens the door to this communication. Try it! Feel free to use any other Art modality-movement (dance), music, poetry, etc. The children we serve desire to communicate with us, they just need to know there are more options than just words to do so.

Today for breakfast, I enjoyed a bowl of white hominy grits (with salt and tons of pepper and butter) and a maple-apple flavored chicken sausage. Yum.

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