Arts-based work groups help children

A holistic arts-based work group offered through Laurentian University’s School of Social Work is offering children in foster care the skills they need to put their past behind them.
The children, aged eight to 13, come from broken homes and troubled families, said Diana Coholic, an associate professor at Laurentian’s School of Social Work. Many have experienced abuse, neglect, violence, and disrupted relationships, leaving them anxious, depressed, withdrawn or apprehensive. They often blame themselves and have poor self-esteem.
Coholic and her team began working with children several years ago as part of a research project funded by Sick Kids Foundation. The children participate in the art-based group work once a week for two hours over a six-week period.
“During the two hours, they’re engaged in creative activity aimed at helping them understand their feelings, learn social skills and develop resiliency so they can cope better in daily life,” said Coholic. “We don’t ask them to talk about anything that’s happened to them. They’re free to raise whatever they want.”
The children are referred to the arts-based work group program by the Children’s Aid Society of the Districts of Sudbury and Manitoulin, but funding for an additional three years announced earlier this summer by Sick Kids Foundation will allow Coholic and her team to expand the program with referrals from the Sudbury-based Child and Family Centre.


A lot of emphasis is placed on teaching the children mindfulness, described by Coholic as “having the ability to understand what you’re thinking and feeling and why, moment to moment. in a non-judgmental way.”
With its roots in Buddhist thought 2,600 years ago, mindfulness is by no means new, she said.
“A lot of people live their life ruminating about the past or worried about the future. They’re not grounded in the moments of their lives. Mindfulness is about learning how to do that. It sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s a very different way to live your life.
“Most people are driven by their feelings and act out,” said Coholic. “A lot of the children we see feel out of control. They don’t understand that they have choices about how they’re going to react and how they’re going to feel.”
The arts-based activities they participate in can serve as an outlet for their feelings.
In one activity, for example, the children imagine they are going to an island and asked what they will bring with them. They might draw a picture with a fence around the island and talk about how people are going to be allowed in, said Coholic.
“Their feelings will often come up in the exercises and that’s how we talk to them about what’s going on in their life. Safety is a common theme because, for a lot of children, their safety has been challenged or shattered through the experience of abuse or trauma.”
Research on children who have experienced trauma indicates that they have limited social skills, a poor sense of self, difficulty focusing and listening to others and are easily frustrated. By participating in arts-based group activities, they are able to alleviate feelings of isolation, pick up interpersonal skills and learn to co-operate with others towards a shared goal. The sessions also help them learn about values through comparison with others.

Piers-Harris Scale

The children complete the Piers-Harris Children’s Self Concept Scale before and after participation in the program, but the absence to date of comparison or control groups prevents Coholic from attributing improved scores to the program. The pre- and post-group score, however, are used as a tool for discussion in post-group individual interviews.
“We also get a lot of reports from foster parents who say the children seem to feel more confident and are better able to cope at home and at school.”
The children like it, too, “because it’s fun, it’s non-threatening, it’s safe and they’re not under any pressure to talk about anything they don’t want to talk about.”
Free training workshops are offered every summer for practitioners in the community who are interested in incorporating the methodology into their work. Coholic also advocates the use of arts-based group work by teachers, particularly if they’re working with children in need of extra help.
Coholic, who grew up in Kirkland Lake and earned a PhD in Australia prior to joining the faculty at Laurentian University in 2001, has recently written a book about her work –  Arts Activities for Children in Need: Developing Mindfulness, Self-Esteem and Self-Awareness, due to be released by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in February.
Family physicians in the Sudbury area who are interested in referring children to one of Coholic’s art-based work groups can do so through Children’s Aid or the Child and Family Centre.

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