POLYPHONYJournal of the Irish Association of Creative Arts Therapists

Art as Therapy: Creative Interventions in the Primary School Classroom

Published on May 27, 2023 by Sheila Richardson


The “Art as Therapy” specialist elective module for fourth-year student teachers on a Bachelor of Education Degree draws inspiration from creative arts therapeutic methodologies. This module provides opportunities for student teachers to explore how the context of how visual arts practice can foster a more comprehensive understanding within an educational setting. Teaching and learning are enhanced through diverse creative teaching methods, such as projective drawing, narrative collage, and reflective journaling.

Visual arts practice is employed as a tool to probe and understand issues that affect the current educational landscape, such as well-being in the classroom. Particular focus is placed on arts and health, and its relevance in the context of the cognitive, mental, and emotional needs of the child within a primary school setting and beyond. The module explores how visual language is a central means of communicating in today’s world, and it encourages student teachers to not only ‘look’, but also to develop self-insight. The aim is to enhance teaching and learning, cultivate empathy, and foster better pupil and teacher relationships.

People find different ways to express their feelings. As young children, if we can’t communicate very well through words and voice because we are still learning to write and speak, drawings and art-making are special resources we can use to help express our emotions and our relationships with our families and the world around us. There is much in common between art therapy and art teaching, and this can be highly beneficial provided the boundaries of each field are understood (Dalley, 1984).

As a visual arts lecturer at a teacher training college, a practising artist, and an art psychotherapist, my research and work practices often overlap. At one end of the spectrum, art therapy is seen as a specialised form of psychotherapy used in clinical settings. Conversely, visual arts in education focus on aesthetic values and formal element considerations. My work resides at this intersection. The “Art as Therapy” module I have devised within the “Visual Arts in Education” segment of the Bachelor of Education Programme 2023 is part of a suite of specialist elective modules on offer at Mary Immaculate College. For this article, I have chosen to describe three creative interventions that I have adapted from the fields of art therapy and visual art practice, which student teachers can employ in the classroom to aid teaching and learning. These efforts aim to address aspects of the new Initial Teacher Framework in the context of research, reflective practice, creativity, and well-being (The Teaching Council, 2020).

Kinetic Family Drawing Test

During my Master's Degree course in Art Therapy in Cork in 2013, I had the opportunity to experience a range of popular drawing assessments with young clients while on placement within a clinical team at the Child and Mental Health Service (CAMHS). These creative interventions formed part of the assessment and treatment process to build an overall picture of the child’s world.

The Kinetic Family Drawing Test is one of the most well-known emotional evaluations for children (Friedlander et al., 2000). It enables an understanding of how children and adolescents perceive their closest relationships. It’s a straightforward way to understand the quality of relationships and communication, and how children construct their reality based on family relationships (Machioldi, 2012). While diagnostic drawing tests or projective drawing tests are typically used by clinical psychologists, art therapists, social workers, and other mental health professionals for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents, adapting elements of these tests can be a valuable resource within an educational setting. Drawings can show us the inner symbolic world of the child. Drawing is a visual language. In the context of a primary school classroom, drawings give us a tremendous idea about children’s fears, joys, experiences, and personalities. Teachers are thus encouraged to pay closer attention to drawings and bear witness to art created by pupils. Template art is therefore not encouraged.

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Fig.1 Example of a Kinetic Family Drawing by a student teacher. 2023

Diagnostic Drawing allows the child to express themselves through pictures. It aids with understanding their own perspective and inner world (Student Feedback, 2023)

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Fig.2 Example of a Kinetic Family Drawing inspired by clinical assessment methods by a student teacher.

Figures 1 and 2 showcase examples of Kinetic Family Drawings inspired by the Kinetic Family Drawing Test (KFDT), created by student teachers on the “Art as Therapy” module under the guidance of a qualified Art Therapist. The core objective is not to transform teachers into clinicians but to enhance a teacher’s communication, empathy, and relational skills through visual language. This approach is especially useful with children whose first language is not English, children who are non-verbal, or pupils who are neuro-divergent. We can assist teachers in developing their practice in several ways. Dylan Wiliam, in his article “How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine?” (2011), suggests that changes in practice requiring new kinds of teacher learning and professional development models will have a significant impact.

Collage as an Intervention to Create New Narratives

Collages are visual artworks that are created by selecting magazine images, textured papers, or ephemera, altering these elements, and arranging and attaching them to a support such as paper or cardboard. Collage is a popular art technique among art therapists and artists, who have found it helpful for people who may be intimidated by the prospect of creating their own representational drawings or paintings (Malchiodi, 2006). Collage “provides a safe and structured resource in the difficult self-expressive process” (Linesch,1988, p. 47). The art materials of glue, magazine images, and scrap paper are generally accessible, and many people can cut, tear, and adhere selected images to complete a collage.

The process as an art method is a form of re-creation and restoration, refining and transforming a visual piece into a higher form beyond its original intent. It is in essence a form of alchemy. In my own experience and arts practice, I have found the act of collage-making transformative in nature. It facilitated a state of harmony and balance amidst the uncertainty and anxiety that prevailed during the global pandemic in 2020. The daily images from the media provided me with a task and were close at hand in the form of newspapers and circulars, enabling me to find meaning in this madness.

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Fig.3 Quarantine College. Sheila Richardson. 2020

Collage facilitated the need to stimulate my body while cutting and pasting and searching for new elements. The physical act of improvising with the printed and found materials offered a necessary distraction. Intellectually, the collage method assisted me to arrange the continual influx of stressful information into manageable forms. The act of combing through articles, newspapers, and pages of magazines allowed me to organise information into a new and more hopeful narrative.

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Fig.4 Exploring old and new narratives through the medium of collage, by a student teacher.

The student teachers found the collage insightful, tearing apart and reconfiguring ideas while reworking old thought patterns. The use of collage, due to its properties of producing representational imagery without the need for drawing skills, may help some pupils in the classroom express themselves. This integration of diverse elements to produce associations and develop neural and human connections is a potential benefit of this method.

Reflective Journals

Visual journaling is believed to promote students' critical reflection on their previous learning, current experiences, and ongoing professional growth. Research supports the value of written journals as educational tools that encourage reflection, but visual journaling holds the potential to facilitate reflection not only for pre-service teachers but also for pupils in an educational setting.

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Fig. 5 An Example of a visual journal by a pre-service teacher. Exploring Emotions and a sense of BELONGING.

I really liked the activity of embodiment of emotions (body clues) that was discussed in the last lecture. Hence, I decided to base my final piece on this activity ... an interesting and creative way to teach about emotions ... could link to a lovely PSHE (Personal Social Health Education) lesson. (Student Feedback, 2023)

The student teachers became anxious, exhausted, and overwhelmed at times during the semester. They used the visual journal to sort through the feelings that arose, especially as this was their last programme semester of the four years in the art studios at Mary Immaculate College; marking the end of their time as student teachers but not yet officially teachers. There was a sense of this period being a transitional time. The journal acted as a container for these emerging feelings. Deeper connections were fostered as they identified with their pupils in their primary school placements. The pre-service teachers recognised in their own struggles the life journey and struggles of their young pupils.

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Fig. 6 An Example of a Visual Journal as a voyage of self-discovery, by a pre-service teacher.

The journal facilitated a conversation within themselves. As memories resurfaced, they remembered themselves at the ages of the pupils they were going into the world to teach. The journal acted as a diary and confidante. Reflective journals also enhanced their empathy skills. Visually, the journals were rich and deep with further contemplations and empathy for those less privileged, or pupils from marginalised backgrounds. The student teachers undertaking this module appeared better equipped to face their new careers in the classroom. Insight through visual journaling can be defined as discernment about the underlying meaning of a situation, emotion, or behaviour. The student teachers expressed and experienced this phenomenon of gaining insight. They gained clarity about aspects of their experience through the process of making art, combining it with written text, and reflecting upon their journal entries individually or as a group.

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Fig. 7 Example of a reflective journal by a student teacher expressing themselves through different media.


The 21st century is an era of technological advances, unpredictability, and unfamiliar demands. In this changing landscape, it is vital that creativity is at the heart of learning, in order to foster lifelong skills required in this new age, such as idea generation, assumption-making, problem-solving skills, and building self-efficacy (Jones, 2009; Kaufman et al., 2007; Riga & Chronopoulou, 2014; Seng, 2000).

Emerging literature suggests that creativity is vital, not only in the domains of music and the arts but also in science, engineering, and teaching (Kaufman et al., 2013). By engaging with the “Art as Therapy” module and novel creative interventions, students were motivated to deviate from established thought patterns and behaviours. The reflective process embedded in their weekly journal entries facilitated the exploration and evolution of their teacher identities.

Teachers are increasingly encouraged to be reflective practitioners. This emphasis on teacher well-being is highlighted by the Welsh government's 2015 research, which underscores the effect of teachers' emotional and mental health on learner well-being, academic achievement, and personal development (Welsh Government, 2015, p. 37).

Emotionally and mentally healthy teachers are better able to develop strong teacher-learner relationships. This in turn is important not simply in terms of ensuring academic attainment, but fostering an ethos that nurtures the young person, building their co-operation, commitment, resilience and confidence. (Welsh Government, 2015, p. 37)

In alignment with this perspective, the Teaching Council of Ireland's Cosán framework considers professional learning and reflection as critical components of the teaching vocation (Teaching Council, 2016).

As we navigate the complex terrain of 21st-century education, the intersection of art therapy and pedagogy offers a promising path toward enriched learning environments that balance both academic achievement and emotional well-being.

A student's feedback from 2023 illustrates the transformative potential of the module:

This module offered a powerful introduction to Art as Therapy. I loved coming to lectures every week and tasks acted as a form of “therapizing” (sic.) myself every weekend. I really got to develop my own sense of identity while developing ideas in the classroom. (Student feedback, 2023).


The Teaching Council of Ireland. (2020). Céim: Standards for Initial Teacher Education.

The Teaching Council of Ireland (2016) Cosán: National Framework for Teachers’ Learning.

Cropley, D., & Cropley, A. (2005). Engineering Creativity: A Systems Concept of Functional Creativity. In J. C. Kaufman & J. Baer (Eds.), Creativity across domains: Faces of the muse (pp. 169–185). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

Cutting, M. L. Chilton G & Scotti, V. (2014). Snipping, Gluing, Writing: The Properties of Collage as an Arts-Based Research Practice in Art Therapy. Art Therapy, 31:4, 163-171. DOI:10.1080/07421656.2015.963484

Dalley, T. (2008). Art as Therapy: An Introduction to the Use of Art as a Therapeutic Technique. United Kingdom:  Taylor & Francis.

Falconer, E. G., Cropley, D. H., & Dollard, M. F. (2018). An Exploration of Creativity in Primary School Children. International Journal of Creativity and Problem Solving, 7-25.

Friedlander, M. L., Larney, L. C., Skau, M., Hotaling, M., Cutting, M. L., & Schwam, M. (2000). Bicultural identification: Experiences of internationally adopted children and their parents. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 47(2), 187–198. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0167.47.2.187

Kaufman, J. C., Baer, J., Cropley, D. H., Reiter-Palmon, R., & Sinnett, S. (2013). Furious activity vs. understanding: How much expertise is needed to evaluate creative work? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(4), 332–340.

Linesch, D. (2015). Art Therapy with Adolescents. In The Wiley Handbook of Art Therapy (pp.252-261). DOI: 10.1002/9781118306543.ch25

Malchiodi, C. (2006) Creative interventions and childhood trauma. In C.A. Malchiodi (Ed.), Creative interventions with traumatized children (pp. 3–21). Guilford Press.

Machioldi, C. (2012) What art can and cannot tell us. In C.A. Malchiod (Ed.) Handbook of art therapy (pp. 446–457). Guilford Press.

Welsh Government. (2015). Keeping learners safe. The role of local authorities, governing bodies and proprietors of independent schools under the Education Act 2002.

Wiliam, D. (2011). How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine? Retreived from http://www.dylanwiliam.org/  

Sheila Richardson

Self Portrait Pic. 2023

Sheila is a visual artist based in Limerick. She is a graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design with a distinction in Painting and received an excellence in painting award from the University of Wales where she completed her MA. She is also a graduate of the University of Brighton and Crawford College of Art and Design. She is supported by the Limerick City and County Arts Office with a studio fellowship at the Cappamore Artist Studio Complex.
Her artistic practice is concerned with the exploration of visual language and art-making as a process of Individuation and autobiographical narrative.
Sheila lectures in Visual Arts in Education at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.  She is the author of a specialist 4th year Module titled Art as Therapy which she delivers on the B.Ed. Programme. Sheila is a trained Narrative 4 facilitator in creative storytelling and co-founder of The Girls Stories Project, an intercultural programme empowering female Muslim adolescents who are new to Limerick City.
She is passionate about art-making and its inherent transformative function.