Art of darkness

31st October 1997 at 00:00
Art can help troubled children exorcise the demon within, writes Jane Norrie

With its sand and water, paints, clay and glue, the room might look like a nursery, but its real function, as the art therapy room, is to act as a refuge - a place where children can express themselves without fear and with little restraint. At one end a pile of cushions is ready to be flopped on, made into a camp - or even thrown in anger. At the other stands a doll's house that has been patched up and repaired. And according to state-registered therapist Frances Prokofiev, the doll's house, with its evidence of mending and making good, "is symbolic of what the room is about".

Ms Prokofiev is one of a small number of art therapists working in education. For the past six years she has been employed part-time by a large London primary, in an area of widespread social and economic deprivation. She says: "I was brought in by a visionary head who saw the benefits of having extra professional help on-site."

But Ms Prokofiev points out that she is only part of the picture. Individual children are referred to her as a result of liaison between class teachers, the head and the special needs co-ordinator.

Teachers can become drained by pupils' problems and usually welcome the chance to discuss reasons for their behaviour. Parents are also involved and have to give their permission for the therapy. Whether the children are disruptive or withdrawn, the bottom line is that their difficulties are preventing them from accessing the curriculum.

Most of the children referred suffer low self-esteem. One of the therapy's main aims is to give them space and time to themselves. "Here they can express their anxiety, anger or despair without being judged," says Ms Prokofiev. "The only limit is that they do no damage to themselves or the room. Many feel powerless, but once they access their creative powers they get a sense of their own omnipotence. They can release their feelings in a symbolic, and acceptable, way."

The pupils' problems are varied. "There are traumas such as bereavement. Then some of the children have physical disabilities that have led to emotional problems. What is slight to some, like the birth of a new baby, can be a major difficulty to a more sensitive child. Some cannot make relationships with their peers, or are bullies or bullied. Others, with unpredictable or violent parents, are unable to develop a trusting relationship with any adult. Children in foster care tend to be particularly upset, feeling they are not good enough when no adult will give them a home."

Each session lasts 45 minutes and takes place at the same time every week. Sometimes Ms Prokofiev has the children in small groups. They may then learn that other children have suffered similar difficulties, and can learn from the way others have coped. But as well as empowering the children, the sessions can help a child grasp concepts such as responsibility, or the value of not using up all the materials so there will be none left for others, or yourself next week.

And "there is something primitive about using paint or liquid clay," says Ms Prokofiev. "Like a form of regression, it helps you get in touch with your early childhood when perhaps something went wrong. Not only are the children allowed a freedom with the materials but I store all their products to show they are valued."

The main aims of the therapy are to bring about change, alleviate stress and aid communication. Throughout the United Kingdom about 60 therapists are involved with schools, some in secondaries, where the pupils can refer themselves. Ms Prokofiev recalls the case of Mary whose twin sister died. Consequently Mary came to believe people were out to hurt her, even imagining pains in her own body. "When she came to me she made a clay figure of a girl lying down, which I interpreted as her twin," Ms Prokofiev says. "There was so much confusion, so many unresolved feelings of loss. Through the workings of her unconscious she was able to understand herself better. Once she was allowed to let things out, her life became very different. Even the pains she had felt disappeared."

Sessions can continue for up to two years, so bringing the therapy to an end is a crucial part of the process. Each of the children must have time to discuss the impending termination so they understand they are not being rejected by the therapist. The truth is things have improved so they no longer need her. Ms Prokofiev says: "They may have a sense of loss at the ending of the relationship but they will gain a sense of achievement."

Teachers who would like further information on training, or employing an art therapist can contact Hazel Redsull at Span educational unit, 10 Tavistock Road, Croydon, Surrey. Or phone her on 0181 679 9822 evenings only.

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