Art therapy calms down
an ADHD child’s racing mind
and pumps up his self-esteem.
BY STACEY L. NELSON, ATR- BC
10, PAINTS A CLAY plate he made in his past four art ther- apy sessions. He dips his brush into the
cup of silvery black paint he has mixed, and
dabs it into the cracks of the clay.
Jacob’s breathing and brush strokes start
to quicken. He seems anxious. I ask him if
he needs a break, and he stops to take three
deep breaths. He resumes painting, at a
slower pace. When he completes his work,
he puts the plate aside. Next week he will put
the finishing touches on it. He draws quietly
for a few minutes before returning to his
Jacob has been diagnosed with autism
and ADHD. He is curious, creative, and unusually friendly for a child on the spectrum.
He is impulsive and easily distracted. I have
worked with Jacob at school since art therapy was added to his IEP, more than eight
Jacob knows how art therapy helps him.
How Art Therapy Works
“It keeps my brain calm,” he says, “and it
helps my body get calm.”
Children with ADHD and learning dif-
ferences often have intense emotions, poor
social skills, and low self-esteem. Children
naturally communicate through art and play,
and art therapy gives them a useful, nonver-
bal approach to face these challenges.
Art therapy uses the processes of drawing,
painting, and sculpting to improve well-being and confidence in kids. It is based on
the premise that self-expression can be used
to address emotional problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce
stress, and increase self-awareness. One
does not have to be a da Vinci to benefit from
Art therapists work with students in
mainstream and special education classes.
An art teacher educates students about
ART THERAPY FYI
Art therapists are master’s-level
professionals. They generally hold a
credential in the field of art therapy,
such as Registration (ATR) or Board
Certification (ATR- BC). Many art
therapists also have a license in counseling, psychology, or family therapy.
Therapists are skilled in choosing art
materials and in making interventions
appropriate to the child’s needs.
To learn more about art therapy, or
to find an art therapist in your area,
contact the American Art Therapy
techniques. An art therapist encourages art-making to reduce problems related to learning and emotional adjustment. Art therapy
enables a child to explore personal problems
through physical activity and sensory integration. Different parts of the brain are engaged during creative expression. Sweeping
a brush across a canvas requires motor skills.
Drawing a picture of a memory requires analytic and sequential operations, logic, and
abstraction. Working through the sequence
of steps needed to complete an art task requires attention skills and working memory.
Making art generates a relaxation response and improves a child’s mood.
Creative activity increases brain levels of
serotonin, the lack of which can lead to
depression. Manipulating clay for five minutes can reduce stress hormones more than
squeezing a stress ball.
A centering art activity, such as coloring
a mandala (a circle design with geometric
patterns), before a group activity, has been
shown to increase an individual’s attention span and decrease impulsive behavior,
promoting better decision-making and focus during tasks. As part of a comprehensive treatment program, art therapy can
help students feel in control. A study that
paired academic assistance with weekly art
therapy sessions found that the addition
of art therapy contributed positively to the
social-emotional adjustment of children
with learning disabilities.
Jacob’s mother, Jenn Lynn, proudly