Art Works! (To Develop Flexible and Other Kinds of Thinking)
…the ability to change strategies or revise plans when conditions change …
I recently read an article by art therapist, Lisa Mitchell, about using art to practice resilience, flexibility, and nimble thinking. I have been thinking a lot about this. I work with children in grades k-12 who experience challenges in reading and (according to the data) are performing far below grade level. Doing what we have been doing for years, providing traditional intervention (remediation and re-teaching) is not working for these students! If it were – my struggling students in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and all grades beyond would have “learned how to read” by now. I truly believe that these students are lacking executive functioning skills (have ADHD symptomatology) and have fallen through the cracks.
The folks at Understood.com remind us that executive skills develop gradually and at different rates for different people. Executive function is a set of mental processes that helps us connect past experience with present action. They are the air traffic control tower for our decision-making. Most children struggle at one time or another with planning, organization, and follow-through. Executive function skills are developmental and vary from person to person. Children who behave in ways that are inflexible have trouble when a familiar routine is disrupted or a task becomes complicated is an example of ADHD symptomatology (executive function deficit). They get frustrated when a first attempt to solve a problem isn’t successful. They are unable to see new ways to do familiar tasks or to make another choice when the first choice proves unworkable. These behaviors negatively impact their school success.
Neuroscience supports the positive benefits of artistic expression. Through activities that involve creativity, children with executive function deficits discover new ways to concentrate on what they enjoy most and do best, to focus, to forgive and appreciate themselves, and to cope with their impulsivity with new tools they can transfer into other parts of their school life (Safran,2002). Making art actually grows neurons that strengthen executive functioning skills and build resilience, flexibility, and nimble thinking.
The research shows that making art benefits individuals with ADHD symptomatology when provided sensory-motor and neuro-academic activity that is designed to improve brain connectivity. Ultimately these activities lead to improved self-esteem, problem-solving, academic, social, and behavioral, and executive function skills – the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Author and researcher, Kathy Malchiodi (2002) writes, making art, using their hands, offering children a chance to do something provides a structure … that helps school-age children stay focused and understand the next steps of any problem or task at hand.
Many adolescents with ADHD symptomatology/executive function deficits thrive on out-of-the-box interests. Parents, in supporting their teen’s quest to find activities to pursue enthusiastically should allow all doors to remain open for consideration. Theater, dance, visual arts, stand-up comedy, creative writing, journalism, entrepreneurship, and consulting are just a few of the possibilities to keep in mind.
School reform does not often include a focus on creativity and art-making at the center of academic success. Perhaps we should rethink and realign our thinking to what the neurologists are now telling us – that art works!
Perhaps, if educators better understand the positive impact that art has on children with ADHD symptomatology, then perhaps, there would be fewer art teachers laid off and more demand for art therapists service for children struggling with lack of access to, participation and progress in the general education curriculum and perhaps we would see an increase in the number of children with ADHD symptomology making typical academic progress and succeeding in the school setting. In this author’s opinion, the area of art therapy and the brain and its application to the school environment needs further study – art is such a hopeful alternative to school failure for students – how can we not embrace the research and run with it. So many children are depending on us.
Malchiodi, K. (2011). Handbook of Art Therapy (2nd ed.). New York, New York: The Guilford Press.
Safran, D. (2002). Art Therapy and AD/HD: diagnostic and therapeutic approaches. Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsly Publishers.
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Art Works! Studio, LLC
for Cognitive and Expressive Studies
Our in-person and online visual, expressive arts, and English language arts instruction promotes wellness, heartfelt joy, and personal growth for people of all ages and abilities. Whether one-on-one or in small groups, we focus on creative and critical thinking, connection, compassion, and community.