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9 Processes of Art Therapy for Special Educational Needs (SEN)

Defining the curative factors of art therapy, Tracy Councill (2015) identifies nine key processes. An adapted version of Councill's nine key processes of art therapy is offered here:

1. Promoting internal locus of control. Children have little control over their lives and those managing additional needs can have even less control. By being given the freedom to manipulate materials and to express themselves openly, children are supported and encouraged to exercise their capacity to influence their environment. Coupled with mentalization skills offered by the therapist, children can begin to make contact with their choices in life. This in turn supports motivation and can lead to an active drive toward wellbeing.

2. Creating and strengthening personal narratives. The imaginative realm of art therapy creates and supports personal stories that may need to be processed, developed or altered in order to support the child's stable and coherent sense of self. This can be particularly important when a child receives a diagnosis. A diagnosis inevitably requires a reformulation of personal narratives, it also introduces or explains a sense of difference. It is important for children to develop positive narratives of capacity, potential and wellbeing around issues of difference and diagnosis.

3. Displacement into art. Art materials can provide a safe container for strong emotions, for example rage being pounded into clay. Children are still learning how to cope with strong emotions. It can be exhausting and very difficult to control and contain emotions when the basic capacity to do so has not yet been established. The arts provide a safe medium through which emotions can be expressed and worked through in the company of the therapist.

4. Problem solving, supporting mastery and cognitive development. Problems can be explored using the arts and a sense of confidence and accomplishment developed as solutions are discovered. The creative process of working through problems can gradually be generalised to other areas of life. This can be especially important for children who feel, or have been led to believe, that they are limited by their learning difficulties.

5. Exercising nonverbal expression when words fail. It is not uncommon for adults to struggle to find words for their experience. This is an even greater difficulty for children who are still developing language and communication skills. The art therapist attends to all the child's non-verbal, as well as verbal, communication, offering an experience of being understood and supported through difficulty.

6. The unifying potential of metaphor. Councill suggests that self-expression through metaphor can give an individual's story the power to resonate with universal themes, allowing others who don't struggle with the same difficulties to understand more of the child's personal experience. This is an important therapeutic means of sharing, being seen and understood.

7. Visual expression enables children to tell it how they see and feel it. For example, diagnosis can be explained to a child in many different ways and it can be hard for children to communicate their personal experience of diagnosis when the topic is dominated by adult words and narratives. The visual image or story can

bypass other people's narratives and allow children to develop their own perception and understanding.

8. Safe access to nonverbal memories. Art therapy can keep difficult memories in the realm of play and imagination, thus making them safer to explore and work through.

9. Accessible to all and non-judging. Art therapists aim to come alongside a child and understand, without judgment, the child’s experience. This can be an incredibly powerful and accepting experience for children who spend much of their time struggling to keep up and win approval from others.

Coucill's nine key processes are not exhaustive but they do highlight key functions of art therapy and are well adapted to describing some of the most important functions of art therapy for children with special educational needs. One of the benefits that is not covered by Councill is the potential for sensory integration offered by the variety of materials used in art therapy. Likewise, Councill doesn't elucidate on the processes of art therapy that support cognitive development. For more on the benefits of art for cognitive development and sensory integration see my article for SEN magazine, due to be published end of October 2017.


Councill, T. (2015) Art Therapy with Children, in The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy (eds D. E. Gussak and M. L. Rosal), John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Chichester, UK. doi: 10.1002/9781118306543.ch24

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