Opinion: Investing in Arts Education Can Help Students Heal – City Limits | Candle Made Easy

“The arts are a form of embodied play that transcends verbal processing, allowing us to explore, connect with ourselves and others, and ultimately build or rebuild imagination when life circumstances or the experience of trauma took it away to have.”

Adi Talwar

A work created by students at the Bronx Community Charter School.

In May, 19 students were shot dead in their own classroom in Texas and an 11-year-old was killed by a stray bullet in the Bronx. Gun violence plagues our city – and our nation – while our students suffer the effects that trauma can inflict on their young, developing brains.

Fortunately, we have a powerful and underused tool at hand to help our students heal and process the world around them: arts education. That’s why I—a licensed creative arts therapist and registered drama therapist—am part of the movement pushing New York City to guarantee funding for art students in the city budget.

Here’s why: For some students who have prior life experiences that make them vulnerable to mental health problems or violence, accessing mental health support like art therapy is literally a matter of life or death. Children exposed to traumatic events also often experience a range of after-effects, which can include emotional distress, difficulties with behavioral and affect regulation, difficulties with building and struggles at school, and illness. Traumatic stress can affect brain and nervous system development. But students who participate in creative arts — like dance, drama, creative writing, and painting — are able to rebuild neural pathways that may have been stunned by past trauma.

The art works by integrating both sides of the brain. When we balance verbal and non-verbal processes, we can support neural integration and reduce stress. This is how the creative arts literally change the composition of the brain. The arts are a form of embodied play that transcends verbal processing, allowing us to explore, connect with ourselves and others, and ultimately build or rebuild imagination when life circumstances or the experience of trauma have taken it away .

In my work, I know that drama therapy offers an innovative way for people to access and process their trauma. As well as empowering our imaginations, we give people space to connect with their own sense of play and spontaneity, untying the bonds of fear and creating space for emotional well-being. Just recently, in my drama therapy group with middle school students, we explored the issue of community building after being online for almost a year and a half. The students were asked to make a list of places where people could meet and then choose one where we would create our scene. Through this play, students explored themes of existence, loneliness, and truth. At the end of the scene, the students shared their own personal fears and truths and reflected on the process of coming together to create the scene. The metaphor and act of play helped the students find another way to explore and break through the stuck they were feeling in their real life.

Teaching artists, teachers and art therapists are on the front lines. If the city can arm them with art, they might have a chance to help the kids fighting in front of them. Trauma-aware art practices help children connect their minds and bodies and integrate their lived experiences from a safe distance using the metaphor that art provides.

I hope that the City Council and Adams Administration will prioritize students and their mental health by guaranteeing adequate per-student funding for arts. When children are given opportunities to process through the arts, they are better able to regulate their emotions and ultimately their behavior and are more likely to accept lessons in the classroom. And while there’s plenty of quantitative data on how the arts support students, learning the qualitative data is just as important.

In my classes, the moment of eye contact, the change in body language, and the smiling eyes—even behind a mask—show how much better mental health can begin with the arts.

Heidi Landis is a Licensed Creative Arts Therapist and Registered Theater Therapist in New York City.

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