CT Daily, Knowledge Share

Thinking creatively: Expressive arts for counseling youth in the schools

Patricia Van Velsor February 1, 2013

chalkMeeting the needs of today’s students is challenging for counselors working in the schools, particularly with the increasing diversity of the U.S. population. To engage today’s students, school counselors must think innovatively in delivering school counseling services. Creative “nontraditional” counseling approaches, when integrated into traditional school counseling services at both the preventive and responsive levels, can offer needed support and guidance to students from a variety of backgrounds. The expressive arts — visual arts, movement, drama, music and writing — offer countless ways to promote the academic, career and personal/social development of students, which are goals of a comprehensive school counseling program.

Although research in this area is new, the results of available studies are encouraging. For example, according to research conducted by Michael Mason and Susan Chuang in 2001, students participating in an after-school arts program showed increases in self-esteem, social skills and leadership. In another study conducted by Katherine Smithrim and Rena Upitis in 2005, student participation in a Canadian schoolwide arts education program correlated with engagement in schoolwelcometrategies that facilitate student engagement in school and learning. When the idea of including more expressive arts activities is suggested to school counselors, however, they often cite lack of time, training and talent as obstacles. It is important to realize that school counselors can include expressive arts in a counseling program without an inordinate amount of extra time — and the benefits might well be worth the effort involved. Additionally, school counselors need not be accomplished expressive artists themselves to introduce creativity into their counseling programs. In her book Art Therapy for Groups, Marian Liebmann suggests that practitioners experiment with different media and get to know what it is like to work with those media. If possible, try out an expressive art activity on your colleagues at a district counselor meeting or a professional development workshop. This can provide you some idea of possible difficulties, help you smooth out potential logistical problems and demonstrate the benefits of the activity.

School counselors can also work exploration of expressive arts into their self-care routines. For example, participate in an art therapy workshop. Take a beginning drama or dance class. Pull out those old poems you wrote for that college literature class and write a new one to express how you’re feeling today. These activities can get your creative juices flowing and help you to unearth your talents.

Instead of watching that favorite TV show, mine the Internet and your local library for information on art therapy, play therapy and art education programs. Each of these areas is rich with activities that school counselors can adapt for a range of ages and a variety of academic, career and personal/social counseling goals. Following are some examples of activities to get you started.

Activities for academic development

The expressive arts offer a wide variety of options to promote academic development. Adapt the following activities for individual, small-group or classroom counseling.

  • Provide an underachieving student with old magazines to make a collage of the things he or she does well. Relate the student’s strengths to school subjects.
  • Have students in a small group create a rap song using information they are learning for class. Discuss ways the students can use the song to study.
  • Have individual students draw an ideal study area or have a group of students actually create a model study place. Help each student consider individual learning style and reflect on sensory input, assessing for noise in the area (hearing), lighting (sight), comfort (touch), distracting odors (smell) and snacks for studying (taste). Also ask students to consider resources and necessary space for different tasks.
  •  (This activity is done in collaboration with teachers.) Help teachers initiate groups to work cooperatively on a study project. Each group takes a portion of the academic content and dramatizes the content to other students in the class. The counselor can help facilitate the dramatization.

Activities for career development

For creative career development activities, a good source is Career Counselling: Techniques That Work,edited by Kobus Maree. The expressive arts can engage even young students in thinking about future careers.

  • Lead a game of Career Charades in which students act out careers as other students guess the career. Young children can “swat the job” with a fly swatter from a list of careers on the board when they have guessed the career.
  • Have students write a poem about who I am and what I like,or have them make a drawing (with shapes, symbols and/or pictures) about themselves and reoccurring enjoyable activities in their lives. When students have finished writing or drawing, help them identify qualities and preferences or common themes in the stories and how these relate to career interests.
  • Have students interview a person in a career of interest. Then ask students to create a visually appealing brochure to encourage others to pursue that career. This can be accomplished with art media or a computer graphics program (if available).
  • Get the family involved in student career exploration. Have students interview family members about jobs they have held as well as their “dream jobs.” Using the information gathered, ask students to create a career family tree on a poster using assorted art materials (markers, string, magazine cutouts and so on).

Activities for personal/social development

School counselors possess special expertise in personal/social counseling. Many of these counselors already have discovered the value of moving beyond talk and using expressive arts to allow students to express and explore personal thoughts and feelings as well as to negotiate social relationships. Those counselors who have not made use of expressive arts — or who want to learn more — may want to check out Play Therapy With Adolescents, edited by Loretta Gallo-Lopez and Charles E. Schaefer. The book provides rich examples of activities that can be adapted for group and classroom counseling. School counselors might want to try the following ideas.

  • Have students make a shoe sculpture with old shoes. Ask the students to bring in five found objects (stones, bottle caps, feathers and so on) that represent them, or provide the students with a collection of objects from which to choose. Have each student glue objects to his or her shoe to create a personal sculpture that answers the question, “What is it like to walk a mile in my shoes?” When complete, have each student share a description of his or her sculpture.
  • Give students a news article (one article per every four to five students for classroom counseling) of a serious current event. Ask the students to create a drama about the people involved in the event (for example, victims’ families, police officers) that focuses on their perspectives and feelings.
  • Have a group of students collaborate on painting a mural on large paper for a classroom wall or directly on the wall (with school permission). The range of topics for mural painting is unlimited. The collaborative work can promote a sense of community, which is important in any school setting.
  • (This activity is used in collaboration with teachers.) Peruse the class readings for the students’ language arts class. Design an expressive arts project (for example, poem, collage, skit or song lyrics) in which students depict how their lives relate to the characters and/or themes in the literature.
  • Provide students with throwaway cameras to take photos on a topic related to a school resource or problem. (You might be able to get a local business to contribute some cameras.) Help students work together to select photos that appropriately represent the focal topic. Then ask them to create a book by formatting the photos and writing accompanying captions.


To get a better understanding of the richness of expressive arts, school counselors need only to choose from the wealth of activities available and then try some out. An expressive arts project can facilitate student empowerment through self-expression, and a shared art experience can promote community building.

The beauty of expressive arts is in their potential for enhancing self-expression, communication skills, cooperation, problem solving and creativity — all of which are important counseling goals. The broad choice of media can also appeal to students’ different learning styles, whether auditory, visual or kinesthetic/tactile. Moreover, when expressive arts are used in conjunction with other areas such as multicultural curriculum, service learning or classroom readings, they can demonstrate the role of school counseling as a larger part of the school mission. And that may be exactly what school counseling needs — to move from its oftentimes relegated status as an adjunct service to center stage in the schools.

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at American Counseling Association Conferences.

Patricia Van Velsor is associate professor in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. Contact her at pvanvels@sfsu.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org



  1. Great article

    I am very please to read about the application of art therapy in our daily role as school counselors. When working with youth and children ,the creativity of the counselor always represents a difference. The application of art ,allows the youth/children to express themselves freely and promotes rapport.

  2. Michele Rattigan

    I am wondering about the term art therapy? Art therapy is not the same as someone using art or creative interventions that can be therapeutic. Art therapy is a profession that cannot be learned in a weekend course, yet rather involves extensive training and clinical supervision. I am of the mindset that art belongs to the people. It’s in our history and in our daily lives. I also however, think that the term “therapy” has gotten thrown around and diluted overtime; similar to people using the term “depression” when they are down and sad. Both very real, but very different. There is a bridge that connects art therapists, artists-in-residence, creative counselors, Jungian analysts, and so on; however I think it is also mindful to tread carefully into transitioning to utilizing art in a counseling or therapy session. If you are not planning on going to school for art therapy, then reach out to an art therapist for supervision and/or guidance, which would be the ethical thing to do. Many years ago AATA (the American Art Therapy Association) published an article by Rebecca Olivera in response to other disciplines utilizing art in therapy. I found it to be well done and a wonderful guideline that helped better define how we (art therapists and non-art therapists) are alike and how we are not. I would love to share it with anyone who is interested if you cannot find it.

    1. Cari Grandy

      I would love to read this article. I am looking into graduate school and have been very interested in how expressive therapies can be used with children in urban schools. I would love more guidance in this.

  3. Theresa Mueller

    “…they often cite lack of time, training and talent as obstacles. It is important to realize that school counselors can include expressive arts in a counseling program without an inordinate amount of extra time —”

    I am licensed and experienced art educator and a masters level experienced art therapist. What you are proposing is art activity which is only one aspect of art therapy.
    Please be careful here. When art therapy is over simplifyed and reduced to simple strategic art activites and then offered as quick fix solutions it’s power to serve others is also reduced. Yes use the arts but don’t assume you are doing “art therapy” nor mislead others with your verbage.
    I don’t know how often I see Social Workers use art processes and then assume “art therapy” doesn’t work in some given situation because they have neither the training nor the experience to understand and facilitate much of the processes involved in professional art therapy applications.
    Also when other professions introduce art therapy without acknowledgement to the profession they reduce and misinform the public as to it’s real applications.
    Remember that there is a masters Level profession of trained Art Therapist, Music Therapist, Dance and Movement Therapists etc. that are inadvertantly being undermined here at the expense of the public.

  4. Caroline D'souza

    Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. Yes the use of creativity in its various forms is so important to promote mental health amongst youth.

  5. Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

    As the first representative to the ACA Governing Council from the Association for Creativity in Counseling in 2004, I am supportive of adequate knowledge and education in the application of creative arts to any mental health or healthcare situation. Therefore, I also support what Michele and Theresa have articulated and also want to add a few thoughts to this interesting discussion.

    First, as I understand it the ACA is developing a clearinghouse of “creative interventions” for use by counselors. I am sure this is being done in earnest and with great enthusiasm, but I also want to point out that the creative arts therapies [ art therapy, music therapy, drama therapy, dance/movement therapy, and poetry therapy], expressive arts therapy, and play therapy [and its cousin sandplay therapy] are not just a set of techniques. All have developed in the context of theoretical constructs and also have credentials processes– some board certification and licensure [art therapy for example, in some states] or professional registration and standards of competency. Now that does not preclude counselors from applying some of this knowledge in work with their clients; however, it does underscore that these approaches come with theoretical frameworks and are not just a set of activities to be applied when it “seems right.”

    I also see the issues being discussed as a much larger and growing problem for the field of professional, school, and to some extent, mental health and clinical counseling in general. There is an emerging belief and attraction to facile techniques, without understanding theoretical frameworks or in the case of the arts therapies, media and the creative process. I am confronted with many new professionals in the field of counseling who now really don’t want to learn to think therapeutically, but rather want a workbook of activities that they can apply to treating everything from people with bipolar disorder to trauma-related symptoms.

    So I encourage the ACA to think more deeply about the image articles in Counseling Today project [and may I say, I read Counseling Today from cover to cover, it is a valuable publication to my practice] and instituting clearinghouses for activities that may require a therapeutic objective and decision-making tree to be ethically applied to counseling practice.

  6. Robin

    This article as well as the comments in the section following it are well written and make some good points. What is lacking is the fact that no one has given any information as to where to get the proper training as well as what can be done without that training. Where does one draw the line between using a medium to facilitate and stepping outside of the area if expertise? And who defines that?

  7. Lynn

    Robin, please see above. Michele Rattigan offered to email an article with some of this information to anyone interested. Her contact information is within this thread.

  8. Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

    I support the enthusiasm about the 1997 article, but there is one aspect that often goes unexplored in these types of discussions between art therapists and counselors are the actual characteristics of “what makes it art therapy” versus “what makes it creative arts in counseling.” In most discussions, it comes around to “education” and “credentials,” but I think that circumvents the real issues that could make for a productive conversation and increase understanding. For example, if a counselor and an art therapist [and I do not know which is which] used the same art-based approach with an individual, what would I see and hear that would be different? I ask that question a lot of supervisees and students, but I think it is worth revisiting here too.

    I think there is a recognizable difference and I write about it frequently– but I would like to hear from those on this discussion. With art therapy education increasingly turning toward counseling master’s degrees with art therapy specializations, there is quite a bit of blending and blurring going on; dance/movement therapy essentially declared themselves to be a counseling field at one point in recent history. Play therapy essentially is an add-on credential that first requires a license in counseling or related mental health field; play therapists traditionally have used art in their practice since the historic beginnings of their field. I imagine the field of counseling and Counseling Today would probably appreciate some articulate answers that demonstrate a clear difference in the two professions through example and theoretical frameworks.

  9. Linda

    Wow great to see and read ideas on thinking creatively working with teens. I think this idea could be adapted and applied to variety of clients or groups of people. For example elderly or grief and loss groups. What an inspirational read which gets me thinking of how to use ideas or create my own in various of settings. One advanatage of working with teens they may be more willing to tried these ideas and have more creativity. Some people as they age think it is young peoples things. So to make it adaptable to other ages is the challenge. Thank you for the ideas and inspiration.


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