A therapist at one of MERATH’s partner nonformal education centers tells the story of a child so traumatized that she mixed up all her paints until they were black, filling her blank page with her dark and unspoken anguish. There are many ways of thinking of the therapeutic benefits of art, but for SKILD and other professionals working in the humanitarian field, Art Therapy is a clinical technique. This means that the creative expressiveness unlocked through art activities is a form of treatment, making the process of creating itself more important than what is made. More than this, therapists that use art in their treatments understand these creations – which can range from scribbles to collage to graphic representations of memories – to be confidential, just as the notes from a verbal therapy session would similarly be subject to client-doctor privilege.
What makes art especially useful in treatment settings is the way they allow the unsaid to be articulated, which is extremely useful for vulnerable children particularly. Art helps reduce their anxiety about being in a clinical setting, as well as expands their vocabulary for expressing deep psychological wounds they may not fully understand.
A SKILD psychologist recalls working with a 9-year-old child from Syria at one of our partner non-formal education centers. SKILD began to work with the child at the beginning of the academic year, after an emotional assessment that showed that he had experienced severe war trauma. Despite being very smiley and cooperative, the boy was haunted by the war incidents he had witnessed. All his drawings were filled with war atrocities, and revealed dark aspects of his situation that were not immediately apparent from his sunny disposition. Through the course of his treatment, and in coordination with his parents, this child learned to process his emotions and express new interests in his artwork.
Given the variety of challenges that refugee children in Lebanon are facing, it is easy to think of Art Therapy as a specialist field or a crisis measure. Yet, as a Beirut Baptist School (BBS) art teacher Raymonda Chamoun points out, art has therapeutic and developmental benefits that can help all children. Chamoun explained how she leveraged her art therapy background in her regular art classes when she joined BBS last year: “Every child has his or her own way of expression, and for this reason, art therapy teaches us to work on the individual, and not the group. In my experience, this approach helps all students.”
Last year’s BBS Art Fair expressed this idea by taking on the theme of “Every Child is an Artist.” Featured works included the “I AM” project, which promotes a positive self-image in students by encouraging them to define their identities and attributes through collage. Another activity asked them to consider the question: “What’s In Your Heart?” By coloring in a blank heart-shape with warm and cold colors, the students got in touch with and expressed their inner feelings. “This exercise helped us see what’s really going on inside these children. A heart that is mostly blue is a child trying to tell us they feel blue, and a heart that is mostly yellow is a child that feels happy and radiant,” said Chamoun. “This isn’t just an indirect way of expressing themselves. It actually allowed them to articulate their feelings out loud, using the artwork as a focal point.”
This year, Chamoun is working with special needs children at BBS with a variety of needs, including autism, Down syndrome and developmental delay. In some cases, art activities help these children develop their fine motor skills, learning to grip their pencils properly and coloring between the lines. In other cases, these activities help with relaxation, attention and self-esteem. Reflecting on how art more broadly connects to the school’s overall mission, Chamoun continued: “My main message is about the love of learning. I teach them that what they learn in my class helps them with everything. Perspective lines are not just a way of making fun, optical illusions – they will one day help them as engineers. Color theory is everywhere; when they look at a traffic light – why are they red, yellow and green? Why does their teacher correct their homework with red ink? I try to give them a reason to care about all aspects of their education, because I don’t see ‘bodies’ in my class, I see their souls. For me, art is part of their spiritual formation.”
Art’s power to touch, heal and reconcile different aspects of our lives make it an effective tool for dealing with traumas and finding our inner voice. Chamoun’s insights into the interconnections of art as therapy and art as a learning tool perfectly express LSESD’s broader mission for providing inclusive and holistic education for all.
Jad Baaklini | Program Officer