Using art to Help Students Find Calm
Simple art activities can help elementary and middle school students express how they feel, which is particularly helpful during stressful times. As we enter the final months of the 2021-22 school year, we are all feeling mixed emotions. Our students are experiencing the unpredictability of this time, and with that, they are experiencing many disruptive sensations and feelings. The behavioral challenges teachers have observed this school year result from students’ brains and bodies feeling overwhelmed: students are often anxious, worried, or angry.
These challenging behaviors can frighten or dysregulate all students who may observe aggression, defiance, and other responses from their peers. Adversity and trauma are personal and live in our nervous system, manifesting differently.
We often try to shield students from these uncomfortable situations by not addressing underlying conditions, which can unintentionally create additional anxiety because the unknown meets a student’s interpretation of a peer outburst or crisis. Our brains predict experiences based on past experiences, and we have a visceral sensory response, which is usually a sensation we experience in our bodies when we feel uncomfortable or see another person struggling.
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If a young person hears someone yelling, a door slamming, a classmate sobbing, or harsh tones of voice, her heart may begin to beat rapidly, and she may feel tension and tightness in her body. These sensory cues occur immediately before students recognize how they think. And emotions can be contagious, so other students in the room may begin to mirror or pick up dysregulation from classmates and possibly the teacher. But the nervous system is designed to protect us; our students need to know this.
Students are resilient in their responses when adults are authentic and honest, explaining what is behind the behaviors. Students benefit from open conversations with them when the environment is calm and collaborative. And through the expression of art as a daily ritual, we can begin to create safe and predictable practices that can help students access the cerebral cortex, where learning occurs.
Like intentional breathing and rhythmic movement practices, integrating artistic activities and techniques can create a sense of safety and comfort, reducing stress. Art therapist Linda Chapman finds that “the inherent newness of creation and self-discovery is life-affirming and life-reviving.” Below are suggestions for artistic activities that can calm the nervous system.
When we have morning or afternoon meetings, we can organize these activities by teaching students about the brain and nervous system. We can talk about how impossible it is to think clearly or learn when we feel anxious, angry, or sad. We can discuss behaviors such as clues or signals about an unseen injury or wound. We can share stories of times when we feel lonely, hurt, disconnected, or angry. And we can discuss how our brain is always trying to protect us when we start to feel rough or dysregulated.
Drawing and creating art are potent ways to help students express their sensations, feelings, thoughts, strengths, and preferences. Educator Ashlee Harmon and I shared artistic practices that we integrate into our morning meetings and other proceedings. Ashlee has created a Conscious Artists Club for her sixth graders, and they also share and create art with younger students.
3 Art Activities to Support Students Express Themselves
1. What do my colors say? Have students fill a sheet of paper with colors, lines, and shapes for two minutes. Then ask questions like these: What color is angry, what shape feels invisible or not seen? What shape or color is tired or worried? What shapes or lines feel anxious? What name would you give your art? Why? You can ask how your images are alike and how they are different.
2. Mapping My Favorite Place: Ask students to draw a map of their real or imagined favorite place, creating roads, trails, mountains, and hills and showing the route to get there. They can use colors, streaks, shapes, and marks. Ask questions like these: Who are the people you trust in this place? What are the sounds, pictures, smells, and colors? What discerns calming or exciting about this site? Could you select to go there in your mind when you feel uneasy, upset, worried, or furious?
3. The Colors of My Heart: Give each student a blank sheet of paper and take out markers or colored pencils to share. Students will then draw an extensive outline of a heart to fill the entire article. After removing the seat, students can choose three or four colors representing the emotions and sensations they are experiencing. Students will use these colors to fill their heart space with textures, lines, or patterns. If students feel comfortable, they can share their heart colors with a partner or group.