Article: Art therapy: emotional expression or educative success model?

Author: Shannon Davey | Tags: , , , , ,

Shannon Davey examines the impact of art therapy on young people engaged with the youth justice system in England and Wales. This research suggests that the predominant method of measuring the success of these programmes tends to overlook some of the important, but less quantifiable, positive changes for young people.

Art has been referred to as the ‘natural language of adolescents’ (Moon, 1998, p.175) where art heals and creativity cures the soul (McNiff, 2004). A comprehensive review of arts engagement within the youth justice system concluded that art can ‘reduce reoffending behaviour, help to re-engage in education and sponsor personal and social development’ (Hughes, 2005). Despite the number of resources compiled, Hughes’ reliance on both published and unpublished literature rendered this review with limited validity and reliability, with undertones of bias and government agendas. There is a clear lack of studies representative of the differences in severity of offending, such as those held in Secure Training Centres versus those in the community identified as at-risk. To address this under-researched area, this study focused on exploring the differences, similarities and effectiveness of arts interventions in different youth offending institutions.

There is a common link between offending and communication difficulties which affects young people’s education. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists (Coles et al., 2017) found around 60% of young offenders had a speech, language and communication need which affected their day-to-day life. Art affords diverse modes of communication that have been proven to connect non-verbal parts of the brain to those responsible for expression during the creation of art (Lusebrink, 2004; Hass-Cohen and Carr, 2008). This can aid young people in the reflection of their emotions and their subsequent offending behaviours (Malchiodi and Crenshaw, 2015). Furthermore, research has demonstrated the inclusive capacities that allow for successful participation despite diverse and complex needs such as financial status, nationality, geographical location and IQ (Hogan and Coulter, 2014).

Across England and Wales, Youth offending services (YOS) have used art activities to improve outcomes such as returning to education or entering employment. For example, Southampton YOS created a partnership with the John Hansard Gallery to run a weekly Arts Award programme. The Arts Award covers subjects such as Music and Art which can provide a ‘gateway’ to engagement whilst helping them to gain nationally-recognised qualifications to raise employability (Hughes, 2005; Leicester City YOS, 2010; Parkinson, 2016). This was also used as an educative tool as part of the Summer Arts Colleges, which saw significant increases in educational engagement and attainment during/after the programme resulting in a significant decrease in offending (Hughes, 2005; Anderson et al., 2011; Bilby, Caulfield and Ridley, 2013). Supporting this almost 10% of young people from Leicester City YOS were involved in arts-based activities and the overall rate for full-time participation in ETE has increased by 18% (2010). However, the therapeutic, wellbeing and emotional affordances of arts programmes received little recognition. This article, therefore, focuses on the importance of art as a therapy to explore emotions and the consequential effect on the rate and severity of offending as opposed to a measure of effectiveness within the education sector for policymakers.

The study

For this small-scale study, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with three arts practitioners working across differing youth offending settings to enable the development of rich narratives drawn from real-world settings. The main ethical concern was for the participants’ confidentiality and anonymity to protect, not only their identities but also the young people who took part in their arts programmes. In this article, I refer to them as Participants A, B and C.

Participant A works within an alternative education provider which utilises the Arts Award for young people aged thirteen to sixteen-years-old who are on the cusp of anti-social and criminal behaviour or who are already involved in the youth justice system. Participant B works alongside the most vulnerable children, aged ten to seventeen years old, housed in a Secure Children’s Home either on a welfare order, remand or sentenced concerning a highly serious crime. Again, utilising the Arts Award with a focus is on gaining qualifications by providing a full education programme with the opportunity of gaining an Art GCSE. Finally, Participant C is a lead artist within a Youth Offending Institution. These house hundreds of males only, aged between fifteen and seventeen years old. Due to the size of the institution, the art programme is only run for two weeks at a time with twelve people in each group and two groups taught per day.

Investigating the relationship between art and reducing offending

Previous research has shown art as a catalyst for a reduction in offending related behaviours, specifically highlighting disruptive behaviour and disengagement (Hughes, 2005; Arts Council England, 2006; McDonald, Holttum and Drey, 2019). One way in which practitioners described achieving correlation was by celebrating the abilities of previous offenders to inspire others to create something. Participant A explained this process as:

enabling them to explore creativity does help them to build their self-confidence and their self-esteem and then seeing what they’ve achieved and what they’ve created increases their confidence and their motivation to continue to explore the arts

Practitioners reported an increase in self-confidence as linked to a realisation of young people’s own abilities. Personalised narratives of young people’s experiences showed that once they have realised that they can do something, it has helped them in all other aspects of their lives, creating a positive impact on their behaviour. An example was given of a young person who entered the Koestler Art Awards and being able to visit his work in the exhibition, it gave him ‘a real confidence boost’. Interestingly Participant B noted that girls have been more ‘accepting of their abilities and their talents’.

Practitioners also suggested that art was more accessible for young people than other academic subjects. By learning through the process of creation, young people can tailor the subject to express their interests, increasing engagement and confidence. An evaluation of Sandwell YOS (Caulfield, Sojka and Massie, 2019) found a correlation between low self-confidence and language and communication issues. Moreover, The Social Exclusion Unit (2002) found that more than half the young people in custody had difficulties with English and Mathematics, subjects which have specified requirements rather than guidelines. When a young person is struggling with the requirements of a subject they often resort to disrupting classes or truancy, however, due to art being accepting of young people with a range of abilities and utilised as a tool for communication and expression it reduces the likelihood of disruptive behaviours during learning. This was supported by Participant C who described a young person saying, ‘it’s enabled me to communicate’ whilst the other participant A highlighted the change in engagement and attendance:

their attendance records are appallingly low and so just the evidence of raising their attendance levels shows that something positive has happened.

When asked, all the participants spoke freely about the short-term effects art had on re-offending rates, however, it was difficult for them to establish a relationship over a longer period. For example, participants B and C reported that if a young person does re-offend more than once (including breaking conditions on their sentence such as curfews) they are not allowed to be placed back at the same Secure Children’s Home they came from. Moreover, Participant C only saw the young people for two weeks and then relied on feedback from administration staff so they had little opportunity to see the longer-term impacts of their programmes. Having said this, Participant A spoke of a clear example where a young person has stopped offending and then guided others on their journey:

those that have returned later on in life particularly in adulthood and they’ve actually come back to volunteer with us and we now employ three young people that we first worked with when they were pre-teens and teenagers.

Practitioners shared anecdotal feedback from young people who had made claims that engagement with arts programmes had assisted them in ‘changing their lives’. From the perspective of the practitioners, these individual experiences initiated a change within the wider group, with Participant C reiterating that ‘when you can hold other people up in your peer group, that is when they start making a change’.

The importance of time spent at the institution was highlighted as a barrier to the potential positive impact on offending behaviour. Practitioners stated that ‘if they’re only with us for a finite piece of time then, we do know a lot of people do re-offend again, but they rarely offend as seriously again’. It is also important to note here the difference in complexity of needs between the young people at each institution as a Secure Children’s Home is for those requiring greater help which would perhaps change their journey to one that is longer and likely to involve reoffending but on a less frequent basis and less serious crimes. Wider factors such as time meant that regardless of the evidence suggesting that there is a link between prevented/reduced offending and arts engagement we cannot conclude that there is a causal link. Despite this, the research has shown how art does support ‘transcendence’;

recognised as young people going beyond their full potential to help others self-actualise as mentors, and therefore it can be identified as a factor that could aid in the prevention of offending.

The affordances of art interventions in the management of emotions

During the interviews, wider risk factors cited by practitioners included involvement in gangs, exclusion from education, violence in their home lives, sexual abuse and being a witness or being part of significant multiple traumas, substance misuse and mental health concerns including suicide and self-harm. Participants reported that art acted as an ‘escape’ from reality, functioning as a distraction, but also as an emotional release that supports the mental health of young offenders. The consequential effect on young people’s emotions was expressed by Participant B:

Young people who come to us might have done something awful, but they have witnessed or been part of really significant multiple trauma usually over a number of years, so they’re used to being scared, they’re used to being defensive and they’re used to fighting.

Art has been shown to promote inner peace through the externalisation of feelings (Hogan and Coulter, 2014). Comfort can be found knowing that the artwork created cannot retaliate producing a safe space to challenge the individual’s perceptions without judgement (Bilby, Caulfield and Ridley, 2013; ibid; Bruce, 2015). If the young person felt there was the risk of judgement it could knock their self-confidence and they may revert to previous coping methods such as starting fights due to feelings of anger, embarrassment or sadness. Participant A described art as a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’. Once a young person has realised their abilities and achieved something it has ‘multiple positive outcomes for their emotions’ (Participant A). However, it was noted that being provided with a consistently safe space was crucial to their emotional well-being, as described in the following excerpt:

They don’t go back to a secure environment and when I say secure, I don’t mean as in a physically secure environment. I mean they don’t go into a nice family set up … go back to a dysfunctional family setting or they’ll go back to a care home which they’ll run away from. (Participant B)

Factors that impacted positive outcomes for emotional regulation within the three different arts programmes included having mixed genders, the difference in ages and how these affect peer support and the varying length of time spent within the programmes. For example, whilst Participant C has a two-week project, Participant A has a year-round programme that allowed the mentors to build positive trusting relationships. There is clear evidence here to suggest the young people benefit from more permanent or longer-term arts programmes.  Participant A explained possible reasons as to how their organisation aids in emotional regulation:

Mentoring helping them to work through issues like anger [which] helps them to kind of learn better strategies to regulate their emotions and their behaviour.

This research conducted with practitioners highlighted that art offers a potential long-term solution for the management of emotions. Self-expression acts as the main attribute to allowing young people to process their thoughts and feelings which otherwise would normally manifest into an outburst of offending related behaviour. Expressing these also allows them to communicate effectively with their family, peers and professionals to get the help they may need. However, the success is reliant on consistent longer-term programmes that create a safe space for personal expression.

Art as a therapy or an educative success statistic?

This research has shown the predominant use of arts programmes as educative tools focusing on accreditation and was often measured through qualifications gained and boosting employability prospects. This position enables particular ‘successes’ of programmes to be quantified, however, it overlooks the well-being benefits and therapeutic experiences which were frequently reported by practitioners as the most valuable affordances. Whilst a qualification is beneficial it is not the objective of creating art and it would be a missed opportunity if this was the extent of the impact on young people.

The reported benefits from practitioners included increased self-esteem, self-confidence and self-actualisation. Although it emerged these were difficult to measure due to being individualised, youth policy discounted these and focused on educative/employment successes as measures of impact. This is because ‘hard outcomes’ appear more easily quantifiable than ‘soft outcomes’. The significant role of emotion in offending needs to be acted upon as well as acknowledged. The research found that art is most effective with inner expressions and therefore I recommended a transition towards intrinsic needs becoming the basis for art interventions with young people.

Contrary to my expectations within this research, there was no causal link found between art and reduced offending, due to wider factors such as positive peer groups and other intervention plans. Despite this, my study has shown that art does support ‘transcendence’ as it has been identified as a factor that could aid in reducing offending behaviour. Art plays a valuable role in the management of young people’s emotions and where emotions impact behaviour, it is vitally important in terms of future support and crime prevention interventions. Acknowledging that arts programmes should resist a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, I highlight the value in more widespread use as an offending preventive. Whilst this research has contributed to re-valuing the therapeutic perspective of arts programmes for young offenders, it is clear that further research needs to be undertaken to recognise these affordances and acknowledge the place of art therapy within the Youth Justice System.

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Last Updated: 3 July 2021


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Shannon Davey is a BA (Hons) Youth Justice graduate from Nottingham Trent University starting a career in art therapy.