Involvement in the arts can be tremendously beneficial to both victims and perpetrators of violence. Art therapy or similar programs can help heal those who have been harmed by crime or violence, and arts-based programs can serve a preventive role as well.
Children and youth exposed to various forms of crime, violence, and trauma often find it difficult to articulate their feelings. Arts-based therapy can help them share their emotions and begin healing. Participants may engage in drawing, painting, sculpture, music, drama, and many other art forms. Arts-based therapy is often used with children who have been exposed to domestic violence in the home, for example. It may occur at the school, where a trained art therapist might hold a session in which she or he examines the child’s existing artwork. For adolescents, this technique is commonly used in the treatment of eating disorders.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the American Psychologist journal have published reports on “best practices” for youth violence prevention (YVP) Programs. Critical components of school-based YVP programs identified in the reports include interactive student participation; fostering of relationships between students, staff, and families; rewards for positive behaviors; and total school involvement. Prevention programs designed specifically for elementary school children should also include largely group activities, active participation in story-based or narrative learning, opportunities to practice negotiation skills with peers and authority figures, and humor and playfulness.
Arts-based YVP programs fulfill a number of these criteria. Prosocial outcomes of arts-based YVP include increased social well-being, improved motivation and learning, enhanced individual and community development, and reduction in aggression, violence, and crime. The programs that are most successful at reducing crime and violence are generally flexible in their program structure, provide mentorship, offer opportunities for ongoing program involvement, and share links to other community organizations.
Many examples of arts-based YVP can be cited. For example, Urban Improv (UI) is a school-based program that has operated in the Boston Public Schools for 14 years. UI uses structured theater improvisation to assist youth with making difficult decisions, controlling their impulses, and resolving nonviolently. An evaluation of UI found increased prosocial behaviors among its participants. Specifically, UI helped prevent new aggression, and decreased hyperactivity among participants.
Branch Out is an arts-based program created by Molly Foote that focuses on developing interpersonal empathy and open communications among participants. It has been used primarily in the U.S. Northwest and can be integrated into whole-class curricula as well as large- and small-group programs. Creative activities help students learn personal empowerment, social skills, career awareness, diversity appreciation, and community building. Counselors facilitate discussions during and after the activities and can add role playing or other creative activity to enhance students’ understanding.
Another example is Elijah’s Kite, a children’s opera that addresses bullying. One evaluation of 104 fourth- and fifth-grade students showed significant increases in knowledge about bullying and reductions in self-reported victimization among those who viewed the opera.
- Haner, D., Pepler, D., Cummings, J., & Rubin-Vaughn, A. (2010, March 1). The role of arts-based curricula in bullying prevention: Elijah’s Kite–A children’s opera. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 25(1), 55-69.
- Kisiel, C., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., Schmidt, C., Zucker, M., & van der Kolk, B. (2006). Evaluation of a theater-based violence prevention program for elementary school youth. Journal of School Violence, 5(2), 19-36.
- McArthur, D., & Law, S. A. (1996). The arts and prosocial impact study: A review of current programs and literature. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.
- Thornton, T. N.,Craft,C. A.,Dahlberg,L. L.,Lynch,B. S.,&Baer,K.(2002). Best practices of youth violence prevention: A sourcebook for community action. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.