Drawing on the Positive: Art Therapy Speaks to Student’s Interests and Customizes Care

October 18, 2021

“I want to make the robot,” Jake says clearly, without a specific tone or measure of insistence.

The robot is a character from one of Jake’s favorite video games. The 12-year-old came to his art therapy session with a vision. He’s grown accustomed to making something during his sessions. And Jake always knows the intricate details of what his creations should be – the colors required, the elements needed.

Jake sits at a picnic table under a large white tent, shaded from the summer sun. Social Worker Jenna Eckna and Creative Arts Therapist Alison Uliss join him; between them is an assortment of art supplies, from packets of modeling clay to a range of markers and paper.

As he chooses from the materials, Jake is practicing flexibility when his vision and the supplies at hand are not the same. Alison and Jenna reinforce Jake’s positive behaviors. The dialogue shifts back and forth between what he will use to create the robot, and what drew Jake to the robot in the first place.

“He’s good at being affectionate.”

Helping children with social, emotional, and learning needs

Communicating and expressing emotions does not come easily for most Green Chimneys School students. For many children with mental health or developmental disorders such as Anxiety, ADHD, Depression, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorders, simply attempting to exist in a traditional school setting can result in behavioral outbursts, academic withdrawal, and social isolation.

Jake with Social Worker Jenna Eckna (left) and Creative Arts Therapist Alison Uliss (right)

When Jake first arrived at Green Chimneys, it was difficult for him to remain in the classroom for any extended period of time. If a project wasn’t going as he envisioned or if it was time to transition to a non-preferred activity, things would begin to spiral. Tantrums were loud, included some expletives, and could result in him having to leave the room. He had struggled for years to fit into school settings that didn’t serve his unique needs but Jake has had a very different experience in the residential treatment program at Green Chimneys. In the dorm and in class, Jake is benefiting from structure, reliable routines, and more individualized care. Jake is also benefiting from smaller group settings in the classroom and in the hours outside of the school day.

When specialists work as a team

At Green Chimneys, staff collaborate to customize student care plans. Social workers partner with specialists to enhance individual and group therapies. When Jenna recognized Jake’s intense interest in art, she saw art therapy as an opportunity to engage him and yield some therapeutic feedback. In coordination with Alison, the two clinicians allow the process of creation to be a means of connecting in a less imposing way than traditional talk therapy in an office. For children with special needs – particularly those with immense imaginations, great intelligence, or poor interpersonal skills – the process of creating can help a child to verbalize their feelings or perceptions.

“Collaboration, communication, and consistency between departments and all involved are key components in the effectiveness of each child’s treatment plan,” explains Alison. “I admire Jenna. She saw Jake’s comfort and talent with art making and pursued art therapy for his benefit. Working together, we meet with Jake weekly and continue to build on his strengths.”

And two things are clear: Jake is growing, and he’s a valued member of our community. At Green Chimneys, we strive to provide space to regulate, structure to trust, and room to practice and explore. Jake’s strengths are celebrated here. He’s excellent at being kind and creative. Jake is doing well academically, and he has even made the honor roll. His peers enjoy his support of their artistic endeavors as he is typically willing to share his talents and visions with them. Staff appreciate his self-awareness and his desire to strive to do the best within the context of the session, as well as in daily living.

Over the past two and a half years, Jake has been able to share more of himself while achieving better self-regulation and improved communication. Most days, he’s able to get through an entire school day without crisis. Jake’s begun to more effectively utilize his coping skills and resources, drawing from within and accessing external supports, as well. Together, Jake, his family, and his entire treatment team are working toward new goals for this school year, and we are excited for all they will achieve.

From animal-assisted activities to art therapy, Green Chimneys students receive individualized clinical support in the therapeutic education setting.

Learn more about our residential treatment program