Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Art Therapy and Social Work

Have you wondered how to incorporate art therapy in a session with a client?

I took a [post] graduate class on the use of art therapy within a social work framework. Art therapy is something that I wanted to learn for a variety of reasons.

Art is something that I hadve always enjoyed. It is also a medium of expression that can make it easier for some people to express themselves, as well as find a healthy release for some of their emotions (and/or traumas).

In addition, I believe that the more tools you have in your mental health professional toolkit, the better. This way, you are better equipped to meet your client where he/she is.

2 Key Take-Aways from Class:

* Art therapy is a client-centered strategy; in other words, if a client misinterprets an instruction, let the client go with the assignment as per his/her interpretation.
For example, if you ask a client to draw a picture of his family and instead the client draws a picture of his/her classroom, let the client do so and then question the client about his/her class and teacher(s) and when you feel you can, use this as a jumping point to asking some questions about his/her family sans a drawing (for now). In this way, you are meeting the client where he/she is.
* Similar to dream interpretation, there is no secret formula to reading another person's art. You have to ask the person questions about their drawing in order to be able to figure out what a picture means. Different people may have completely different associations with the same items or attach different significance to those objects. In short, one cannot make any assumptions...

How do I feel about this class? I love it !

It is a very experiential class in that you are not just learning about art therapy/theory but actually practicing it as well.

Engagement Exercise

For example, in last week's class, we didn't just learn about an art therapy engagement exercise via lecture but actually participated in such an exercise ourselves. [In this context, an engagement exercise refers to one that allows the therapist to to start building a rapport or a connection with the client.)

The particular exercise that we participated in involved our splitting up into pairs and then taking turns with our partner drawing a shape on a paper followed by decorating or supplementing something your partner made on his/her respective shape.

In other words, after I drew a circle, my partner drew lines coming out of the circle, turning the circle into a sun. Or when my partner drew a diamond shape, I added lines/ribbons so as to turn it into a present. Initially, my partner and I were shy with one another but as time went on, we loosened up and became more playful with one another, reflecting the natural progression of how a dialogue would progress between two strangers who are meeting for the first time.

Role Play Assignment

This week, we once again split into pairs (albeit different ones), and the assignment entailed some role play; one person was assigned the role of therapist and the other partner, the role of client. The therapist was to find a way to conduct a session incorporating some of the art materials out on the table with her/his client as if it was their first session together.

The main goals of a first session with a client include:

* establishing rapport
* finding out the client's presenting problem/main issue
* setting treatment goals
* gathering client data/information
* contracting (this includes discussing confidentiality, clarifying roles/expectations, setting up meeting times etc.)

It so happened that my partner (let's call him P) preferred to take on the role of client; therefore, I took on the role of therapist. I asked P what brought him in today and P proceeded to tell me what his concerns were and how he was feeling.

I then explained to P that I often work with art with clients because some things can be best expressed with pictures. I pointed at the art materials laid out and asked P whether he could try to share how he was feeling with one (or more) of these materials. The materials laid out included: colored pencils, cray pas oil pastels and one regular pencil as well as a few sheets of paper.

While P initially felt a bit hesitant, P let down his guard and started drawing and as he drew, I asked him various questions. These questions helped me better understand what he was trying to convey via his drawing and how he was currently feeling.

I was then able to make the leap from the drawing to question P on when he started feeling his current emotions/mood so that his artwork was a terrific segue for more discussion. By the time, we concluded our "session," we had a good feeling for the probable cause of P's current state of distress, as well as the beginning of a plan for how to address it.

While this was only role play, this exercise gave me a taste of what it would be like incorporating the art element into a session with a client; I so enjoyed it.

What are your thoughts and/or experiences regarding art therapy? Is this something that you would like to add to your work with clients?

You May Also Enjoy:
New Social Worker: Different Strokes: Art & Photo Therapy Promote Healing   
Psychology Today: Part One: Art Therapy as a Career Path 
Art Therapy - The Power of Art in Healing
Children’s Growth Through Art
11 Tips for Employing Art Therapy Techniques 
Drama Therapy – Healing Through Role Playing/Storytelling
Social Work and Music Therapy

Photo credit:
image of paint

1) I am a social worker and not an art therapist. The above information is only meant to be seen as a taste of what is involved in art therapy.
2) Please do not substitute material on this site for consultation with an art therapist or mental health professional. It is not intended to serve as mental health advice, let alone assessment, diagnosis, or treatment.
3) Before practicing art therapy, one must obtain sufficient training, supervision and licensing.  So You Want to be an Art Therapist, Part Two: Art Therapy Education describes some of the different paths available to those interested in art therapy as a profession or as an additional technique for those who have a master's degree in licensed mental health professions like counseling and social work.

D. Fagen, LCSW, LCAT, ATR-BC, Creative arts therapy in clinical social work lecture, January 30, 2012.


  1. Hi Dorlee,

    I love the engagement exercise you described. I am going to use it with a new client.

    Your posts are always very informative.


  2. Hi Andrea,

    Thanks so much for your kind feedback. How wonderful that you are going to use the engagement exercise with a new client!

    If you have the time, I'd love to hear how that goes :)

    Take care,

  3. Actually, Andrea - your enthusiasm for the engagement exercise reminded that there were two additional optional components that you could include (time permitting) subsequent to the part I described:

    1) ask the client to write a little story based upon his/her favorite three images out of the bunch that you two created - and query how the client found this activity, thoughts about the story etc.

    2) ask the client to select the three words out of the story that pop out to him/her as the most significant - then look with the client at those three words in isolation and ask the client what those words mean to the client and what thoughts come to mind...typically some important information is revealed

    Hoping this helps,

  4. I enjoyed this post, Dorlee. I think the arts are very powerful in reaching people at a deep emotional level. Also, thanks for including a link to the art and photo therapy article from THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER.


    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this post, Linda.

      Yes, I really saw that art therapy enables us to connect with others at a deep emotional level... In this particular case, it seemed to allow me far greater access at a first meeting than I would have expected.

      Take care,

  5. Brilliant article that expresses well the difference that art can make. I particularly love that you give practical examples. Really struck a chord as I am passionate about this subject too.

    I also use art therapy in my work with disengaged teens as a means of helping them to visualise a more positive future as creativity is all about creating and imagining something that doesn't yet exist. Such a vital life skill. I wrote about it in a recent blog post on creativity.

    I love the whole concept of your site by the way. Great resources = great social work practice!

    1. Hi Sam,

      Thanks so much for visiting, and for sharing some of your experiences and learnings, and your kind feedback.

      It's so wonderful that you use art therapy as a powerful clinical tool in with disengaged teens.

      What you are saying makes so much sense...I hadn't yet realized the therapeutic impact of the creative act itself on a person's contemplation (the first stage of behavior change) that is, the ability to see beyond one's current frame of reference. This is indeed a vital life skill...

      Thanks - I look forward to learning from you - be it here or your lovely blog :)

      Take care,

  6. I'm reminded of my classroom teaching days with this post. There were students who would struggle in every class, but once a blank sheet of paper and pencils or paints were placed before them, a grand transformation would take place. Frowns would turn upside down. Posture would be a little straighter. Suddenly, everyone is in awe of the work that this "struggling" student manages to produce.

    It's sad when the arts are often the first thing that gets cut by school boards, especially when there the benefits have been proven.

    "When we access our creativity we access our joy," heard at a workshop. Based upon your experiences, a lot more is also accessed.

    1. Hi Marianna,

      Thanks so much for sharing what a remarkable difference the arts made in your classroom with your students. As I was reading "frowns would turn upside down," you also brought a big smile to my face :)

      It is very sad that the alternate methods of expression, be it artistic or physical are immediately cut when there are monetary concerns. Different folks need need different strokes...and the world out there is only becoming more challenging and stressful.

      I love that expression you shared: "when we access our creativity, we access our joy!' This is so true...

      Take care,

  7. Hello!

    I happened to stumble across your blog while exploring I really enjoyed reading about the engagement exercise. Unfortunately, I'm a medical social worker that works predominantly with adults and the elderly. However, if I ever have the time and a long-term young patients I'd love to try that exercise as a way of building rapport.

  8. Hello!

    I'm so glad you happened to stumble across my blog and that you enjoyed this post.

    While art therapy is often thought of as an activity to engage with children and adolescents, it is one that adults may benefit from as well. In fact, my above illustration of a first session happens to be with an adult.

    I hope you get a chance to try it soon :)

  9. Thank you for your post, Darlee. I enjoyed reading it.
    I am very new to social work profession, just graduated in May 2013. I am interested in applying art in work with clients ( adult population), and am wondering - are social workers required to take any art courses prior to applying some art techniques into their practice? even if it is not an art therapy? if so, what are regulations regarding those techniques? I checked ATCB website, but didn't find any clear guidance.. Please could you give any advice, from your perspective and experience? Thank you! Yana

  10. There are different ways to incorporate art therapy techniques into your practice as a social worker but I would only do after taking some classes and getting appropriate supervision.

    The specific rules/methods may also vary by state so I would first recommend that you check with your state requirements/rules... and confirm that you are allowed to do so as a social worker.

    Once you have confirmed that you are permitted to do so within your state, I suggest you look for a few classes in art therapy as well as for someone qualified who could provide you with supervision.

    Pamela is one art therapist who provides both online art therapy courses and supervision

    Hoping this helps

  11. Thank you Dorlee!
    Could you please share how did you choose what classes to take? And what classes in art therapy you took? Was it just for better understanding of art in SW practice or did you follow some requirements of a Board in choosing the classes to take?
    Thank you again,

  12. Hi Yana,

    I don't know what state/country you live in and/or intend to practice in but the rules/specifications literally vary state by state. In addition, how far you want to go with your studies/licensing will also impact things...

    For example, I reside in New York. In New York, a social worker who takes classes in art therapy may employ various art therapy techniques in her work with clients [seeking supervision as needed].

    However, if you wanted to go as far as you could with art therapy and/or be called an art therapist, just taking a couple of classes would not be sufficient. You would have to get another degree and another license. As an ex., here are the requirements in NY

    In my particular case, I was not trying to be an art therapist; however, I was most interested in learning about this area and incorporating some art therapy tools into my work with clients.

    It so happened that the school I had attended for my MSW offered a graduate class in Creative Arts Therapy for Clinical Social Work and this is where I took the class I wrote about it in my blog.

    Many different graduate schools of social work offer various elective classes. But if you've already graduated, I would suggest you start out with taking a workshop or two in the subject to test the waters.

    And then if you are truly interested, you can start exploring the various options in your area for deepening your knowledge according to the amount of resources you have at your disposal (time, money, availability of classes etc.). Your teacher (s) would be good resources for additional information.

    Hoping this helps,

  13. Hi Dorlee,

    Thank you for your detail answer, and the link you gave me. It helps to understand this area better ( by area I mean the connection between art, art therapy, and a social work). I am going to practice in California, but am still in the process of finding my real passion. I'll keep reading your blog and maybe new questions will arise soon :)

    Thanks again!

  14. Hi Yana,

    It was my pleasure :) Here is another link that you may find helpful < this link is to the Art Therapy Credentials Board - they indicate the requirements for being an art therapist as well as some other possible variations - being a social worker and going for a certain number of credits at an accredited school etc. And then you go for a licensing exam as an art therapist etc.

    Enjoy your explorations,