The Arts and Trauma

Sad and LonelyTrauma and the Classroom

The adjustment counselor at my school introduced me to the work of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, today’s leading expert on trauma treatment.  It seems that we are discussing things like trauma and social-emotional learning a lot in education and so she forwarded our staff a link to watch an hour presentation that acts as an introduction to his new book and body of work connecting trauma to the physical body.  It is fascinating.  (Here’s a link to what I watched.  I’m not sure if the video will remain available for long:  Watch the video now.)

I’m no expert in trauma, I’m just a classroom teacher who went into education because I love learning and teaching children.  But our job has changed GREATLY in the last decade.  It used to be that classroom teachers where part teacher, part parent, part nurse, and part mentor.  Now we also are therapists, mediators, behaviorists, confidants (and mandated reporters) and motivators.  It certainly isn’t just teaching that I do everyday.

There are just so many children that are dealing with a great range of trauma in their lives, that teachers need to be prepared for more than just lessons.

I appreciate that my principal and even my district acknowledges this.  Progress is being made in my school as we invite a former teacher and yoga instructor to help us implement “Mindful Me” strategies into our classrooms.  (So now add yogi to my list of titles, lol.)  Our district is beginning work this year to integrate SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) competencies into our UbD (Understanding by Design) curriculum work.  All worthy of our time; all just a plain ‘ol good idea.

*SEL Competencies cited from

*SEL Competencies cited from

Art and SEL

During our last UbD/SEL Arts Curriculum meeting (which I’m fortunate to be part of), we spent time looking at our transfer goals.  These are the goals we wish EVERY student in our district to meet in the arts.  They are ultimately our starting point from which to work backwards as we recreate and refine our curriculum.  Our job at this meeting was to make sure that we were fitting in SEL language in our arts’ curricula goals.  We all agreed that the wording we used implied SEL skills.

That’s when one of our middle school art teachers, Kate Bernadoni said the quote of the day:

Art is SEL.”

All agreed.  Everything you do from conception to production and beyond involves self-awareness, self-management, social-awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.  It is ALL part of the creative process!

I remember years ago, these things were considered part of the “hidden curriculum:”  the things we inherently taught students while we taught our lessons.  Things like responsibility, problem solving, conflict resolution, sharing, getting along with one another.   In fact I wrote a brief post about the Values of the Arts back in 2009 and again in 2012 in a piece called, “Are the Arts Fluff?

Well, NO!  duh  (But then again not everyone thinks so…)

However, there is someone who certainly believes in the power the arts have for people.  And that is Dr. Bessel van der Kolk.  I nearly jumped out of my skin in excitement when he talked about how the arts must be part of a person’s trauma therapy.  (It’s at about minute 15 of his video.)  Essentially, he does not believe in too much talk therapy as that will only help the victim to relive his or her trauma.  Instead, he promotes using art and art therapy.  Getting these victims to join a musical group, take an art class, belong to a drama troupe:

These are experiences that help trauma victims to feel alive and live in the present.

And as we can also imagine, it helps with building relationships and finding a new way to respect themselves and their bodies.

Art Heals

For anyone who knows the arts, it will not surprise them of the healing power they can have.  The arts may have helped you in your own life, whether it be something as seemingly small as getting over a middle school crush by listening to music or redefining your purpose after childhood abuse through drama.

Here is a beautiful story about a girl who is a victim of bullying and how she finds a new sense of self  as she develops her visual art skills through art therapy.

[You can view the video on YouTube.]

Arts and arts integration continue to carry learning that are so important for all students at all ages and stages in life.  How might you utilize the power of the arts in what you do in education?


Join us for the first ever Arts and SEL retreat coming this February, 2017!

Winter Teacher Art Retreat
Teacher-Centered PD on integrating the arts of drama, music and visual art with wellness and Social/Emotional Learning. This overnight retreat starts at 5:00 on Friday, February 10 and goes until 4:00 pm Saturday, February 11, 2017. The cost includes double occupancy lodging and 3 meals. For a single room, please choose that option. If you would like to pay by check, download the registration form. There are also options for paying in installments. Email Elizabeth at
Price: $300.00

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Article by Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth Peterson has devoted her life to education and to reaching out to other teachers who want to remain inspired. Mrs. Peterson teaches fourth grade in Amesbury, Massachusetts and is the host of She holds an M.Ed. in Education, “Arts and Learning” and a C.A.G.S. degree with a focus in “Arts Leadership and Learning.” Elizabeth is author of Inspired by Listening, a teacher resource book that includes a method of music integration she has developed and implemented into her own teaching. She teaches workshops and courses on the integration of the arts into the curriculum and organizes the annual summer Teacher Art Retreat. Mrs. Peterson believes there is a love of active, integrated learning in all children and from their enthusiasm, teachers can shape great opportunities to learn.
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