Taking a look at what neuroscience has to say about the benefits of art therapy.
When asked about his experience of art therapy, a young boy with dyslexia replied, “I feel proud”, while gesturing to his creations. An older boy on the autism spectrum responded to the same question saying: “I feel understood”. The importance of pride for a child who struggles to keep up at school and suffers low self-esteem, cannot be underestimated. Nor can the significance of feeling understood to a child who struggles with social relationships.
Both of these experiences of art therapy are suggestive, not only of the curative potential of the arts but also of the importance of the relationship between therapist and child, supporting the unique and intimate processes of an evolving sense of self.
What is art therapy?
Art therapy isn’t simply about making art, teaching art or instructing a child’s art making. Crucially, art therapy is about making art in the company of a masters level-trained arts therapist who can help to regulate difficult emotions, broaden perspective and work toward equipping the child with the tools they need to navigate life with increased confidence and resilience.
Art therapy offers children a safe form of emotional expression and communication that is unrestricted by language and communication difficulties.
Some art therapists work with the broad array of sensory materials available to the visual arts, such as paint, clay, pastels and collage. Others integrate further modalities, including sand play, creative writing, storytelling, puppetry, drama, music, dance and movement. Whichever approach is taken, art therapy provides children with opportunities to explore different sensory materials and to express themselves.
Art therapy for SEN
Children with learning disabilities can struggle with low self-esteem, isolation and behavioural difficulties related to challenges they might face with communication, academic performance and feelings of not fitting in or not understanding social norms and expectations. For children struggling with such difficulties, art therapy offers a bridge between the child’s inner world and the outside world, enabling them to express their inner turmoil in the company of a safe and regulating adult. The therapist can then act as an “auxiliary cortex” (Diamond et al., 1963), empathetically helping the child to recognise, label and regulate emotions whilst, if appropriate, assisting them to understand and adjust to social and cultural expectations.
The art therapist adapts their approach according to the individual needs of the child they are treating and can focus on specific outcomes, for example:
- building self-esteem
- supporting mentalization processes (the capacity to read and understand ones own and other people’s emotions and motivations)
- developing coping skills
- working through trauma in a safe, non-intrusive way
- developing interpersonal skills and reciprocity
- building frustration tolerance
- supporting sensory integration
- promoting internal locus of control (developing the child’s capacity to identify choice and exercise appropriate levels of control in their life)
- teaching and supporting self-regulation
- working with children, teachers and families to attend to specific behavioural difficulties.
Some of these goals will be particularly relevant to children with SEN. For example, many children with SEN experience higher levels of external control over their lives and have to develop much greater frustration tolerance to cope with the challenges of “keeping up” with what might seem easy for other children. Emotions associated with feeling different can impact on self-esteem and have an isolating effect, further impacting on the development of interpersonal and mentalization skills.
The arts can offer an emotional outlet whilst simultaneously supporting the child’s sense of being understood. By creating and exploring symbolic images, children are able to develop their own understanding and to communicate their perspective to the arts therapist, without being limited by the words and narratives of the adults in their lives. This can be especially relevant when helping a child to understand and process a diagnosis, for example. Diagnoses are given by adults; children are assessed and spoken about by adults in the process. Art therapy can support children to explore and express their personal narratives around diagnosis, what it means to them, how they experience their additional needs and how they would like others to support them. Since reflective and communication skills may not be sufficiently developed to do this verbally (this can be challenging for the most articulate adult), the arts can support children to find a voice.
Art therapy for learning
Neuroscience increasingly demonstrates the importance of the arts for both cognitive and emotional development (Malchiodi, 2012).
The creative process of art-making activates multiple areas of the brain (Kaufman, 2013; Bolwerk et al., 2014). Healthy brain functioning is correlated with the integration of different brain structures (Cozolino, 2002). By activating different brain regions, art therapy might provide a means of exercising the whole brain, supporting integration, brain plasticity and healthy brain functioning.
Speaking on education, Louis Cozolino, a psychologist and professor renowned for his writing on the neuroscience of psychotherapy and education, suggests that learning is best supported by a multi-modal approach in which cognitive, emotional, sensory and physical experiences combine: “There is a greater likelihood that learning will generalize outside the classroom if it is organized across sensory, physical, emotional and cognitive networks…” (Cozolino, 2013).
Cozolino places special emphasis on the significance of visual stimulus for learning: “We have an amazing capacity for visual memory, and written or spoken information paired with visual information results in better recall…” (Cozolino, 2013).
In art therapy, different modalities and sensory materials are used to explore dominant themes and to support intended outcomes. Even when movement is not explicitly part of the therapy, processes of painting, moulding, playing, gesturing and vocalising add physicality to the areas of emotion, cognition and symbolic representation pursued through the arts. The tactile nature of different art therapy materials and the kinaesthetic processes of creating and embodying art, can provide important opportunities for sensory integration (Hass-Cohen, 2008).
While our cultural perception of the arts often limits creativity to the domain of leisure and recreation, creativity using the arts entails complex thought processes and physical mastery. For example, when painting a picture the brain is engaged in thinking about shape, form, colour, light, scale, relationship, perspective and symbolic meaning. This is an abstract thought process that is then translated into two-dimensional form through careful attention and the action of painting. In art therapy, this is done with the intention of conveying meaning from one mind to another, expressing or eliciting feeling. The process of making art to convey something of depth and importance to another is very powerful and necessitates a high level of cognitive and emotional planning. Additionally, the use of the arts to support communication skills and social development can be furthered through small art therapy groups. This can work well in schools, where children might need extra support to form friendships with peers.
Self-regulation for learning
The stress reducing and regulating qualities of art therapy directly support learning. “Stressful situations trigger the release of the stress hormone cortisol, which interferes with neural growth. Prolonged stress impairs our ability to learn and maintain physical health… Success in school depends upon a student’s ability to somehow decrease their stress…” (Cozolino, 2013).
Studies have demonstrated the stress-relieving effects of art-making, showing reduced cortisol levels after 45 minutes of engagement with the arts (Kaimal et al., 2016). Furthermore, the art therapist attends very carefully to the body language of children they work with, noticing the impact of different sensory experiences and any physical tension or signs of distress a child might exhibit. Many art therapists are informed by the growing emphasis on self-regulation supported by neuroscience findings. Self-regulation techniques, involving breath, movement, the capacity to observe and tolerate emotional responses and painful thoughts, while maintaining choice over behaviour, can be taught during the course of therapy. It can take time to master self-regulation but children with these skills and capacities are better equipped for navigating life challenges and maintaining an internal equilibrium that is supportive of learning and development.
Whole brain-body benefits
As our understanding of development and wellbeing evolves, there is general consensus that interventions that treat the whole person are most effective. The mind-body integration of the arts therapies certainly offers possibilities for the activation and expression of the whole person. It is also increasingly clear that emotions form a part of cognition and that learning and neural growth and development is best supported by nurturing and enriched environments. As Cozolino suggests, the “magic” of art therapy is perhaps the combination of a nurturing relationship and the enriching qualities of the arts: “…the client-therapist brain can ‘fire together’ in the service of regulating affect, creating new avenues of expression, and enhancing neural connectivity. Pretty good magic…” (Cozolino, 2015).
Choosing an art therapist
The scope of art therapy is broad and this article offers only a limited definition of it. Art therapy can be offered individually and in groups, at school and privately. In schools, art therapists can be instrumental in developing creative, inclusion-promoting strategies to support both teachers and children.
If you are looking for an art therapist to work with your child it is important to ask the therapist about their approach and to explore how they might work with your child’s needs.
Early intervention is important and art therapy can be initiated at any age. Art therapy can be beneficial at any stage in life. It is as valuable to adults as it is to children.
Auriel Sarah Eagleton is an HCPC registered Integrative Arts Psychotherapist who specialises in learning difficulties. She is based at the London Art Therapy Centre:
Auriel is also co-founder of the Art Therapy Cabin, a woodland based therapy centre offering environmental arts therapy to adults and children:
For further information about art therapy and registered therapists, visit:
- Bolwerk, A., Mack-Andrick, J., Lang, F. R., Dörfler, A. and Maihöfner, C. (2014) How art changes your brain: Differential effects of visual art production and cognitive art evaluation on functional brain connectivity. PLoS ONE, 9(7).
- Cozolino, L. (2002) The neuroscience of psychotherapy : building and rebuilding the human brain. New York: Norton.
- Cozolino, L. (2013) The social neuroscience of education : optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Cozolino, L. (2015) Forward. In Hass-Cohen N. & Findlay, J. C. (ed.) Art Therapy and the Neuroscience of Relationships, Creativity and Resiliency. Kindle, New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
- Diamond, S., Balvin, R. and Diamond, F. (1963) Inhibition and choice. New York: Harper & Row.
- Hass-Cohen (2008) Partnering of Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience. In Carr, R. and Hass-Cohen, N. (eds) Art Therapy and Clinical Neuroscience. Kindle, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
- Kaimal, G., Ray, K. and Muniz, J. (2016) Reduction of Cortisol Levels and Participants’ Responses Following Art Making. Art Therapy.
- Kaufman, S. B. (2013) The Real Neuroscience of Creativity. Scientific American. [Online] [Accessed on 2nd October 2017] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/the-real-neuroscience-of-creativity/.
- Malchiodi, C. (2012) Art Therapy and the Brain. In Handbook of Art Therapy. 2nd edition, New York: Guilford Press.
- Sousa, D. (2012) How the Brain Learns. 4th ed., Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.