The elementary school counseling model used in the Athens (Ohio) City Schools is one in which our counselors serve several schools, so I (Katherine Ziff) structure my work with priority to offering preventive and developmental services to groups of children. Three years ago, in consultation with our school psychologists and administrators, I began offering studio art-based group counseling sessions that we call ArtBreak to children. The program has evolved into an ongoing, choice-based studio art counseling intervention that allows children to relax and express their feelings, practice prosocial behavior and develop problem-solving skills and creativity. The program now serves 35-45 students each year. For the past two summers, supported by Integrating Professionals for Appalachian Children (IPAC) and Project LAUNCH, an initiative funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through the Ohio Department of Health, I have also been able to offer ArtBreak through public libraries in two communities. Project LAUNCH promotes the improvement of the health and wellness of children from birth to age 8, and the summer groups were composed of children in this age group.


Our summer ArtBreak program offers sessions in the meeting spaces of community libraries. Participating public libraries enroll children in the program. These groups, each consisting of 10 children, meet six times during the summer for an hour each session. Sessions are held twice a week for three consecutive weeks for children up to
age 8.

The ArtBreak program in the elementary schools runs from October until the end of the school year. Each group meets weekly for 30 minutes. Groups are composed of seven to eight children from kindergarten through sixth grade. Students are referred by teachers, parents or a community mental health provider with a form that we developed based on the therapeutic goals supported by the Expressive Therapies Continuum. A parent or guardian gives each child written permission to participate in ArtBreak.

Guiding principles

ArtBreak has four guiding principles:

  • The Expressive Therapies Continuum
  • Choice-based studio art
  • The counselor as a facilitator
  • Multiage groupings and community

The Expressive Therapies Continuum is a foundational art therapy framework introduced by Vija Lusebrink and Sandra Kagin in 1978. A developmental hierarchy associated with how information is processed in relation to how images are created in a therapeutic context, the Expressive Therapies Continuum delineates three areas of therapeutic goals with associated media. Briefly stated, these are:

1) Use fluid media such as watercolor and finger paint to address kinesthetic/sensory goals such as relaxation and expression of feelings.

2) Use more resistive media such as colored pencil and crayons to address perceptual/affective goals such as improving cognition, increasing empathic understanding, identifying emotions and grasping cause and effect.

3) Use resistive media such as collage and sculpture to address cognitive/symbolic goals such as developing problem-solving skills, identifying and integrating strength, and supporting creative thinking.

In ArtBreak, we use the Expressive Therapies Continuum as a guide for stocking the studio with materials, reflecting on student work, setting goals for students, and completing documentation and evaluation. In a choice-based art studio such as ArtBreak, students are encouraged to make their own choices about media and materials. In stocking the studio, we avoid kits and preplanned projects and provide art-making materials that are high quality and safe for children. We have a few tools such as awls and mat knives for working with cardboard that are used only by the counselor or under close supervision, but everything else in the studio is for the children to use freely themselves.

The groups begin with a basic set of materials and media. Over time, we supplement these materials and media as children seem ready or ask for them. In this way, we have introduced multistep, complicated processes such as printmaking (when a student asked for a potato to carve and use to make prints), sewing (when a student asked to make a small pillow) and installations such as a whole-room, multimedia experience that the children dubbed “Winter Wonderland.”

The role of the counselor in ArtBreak is not to direct activities but rather to facilitate, model problem-solving, demonstrate the use and care of art-making materials, teach skills such as setup and cleanup, encourage and model supportive behavior and language, keep time, document student work products and process, and make decisions about new materials and processes to introduce to the children.

We find that multiage groupings of children are important to the process of building community within an ArtBreak group. This approach creates new patterns of behaviors and relationships by offering children social experiences that are different from those found in their regular classrooms. It also allows opportunities for new friendships across ages to develop. Older children sometimes are models and helpers for the younger ones, while younger children sometimes delight the older group members with their willingness to experiment and try out different materials.

Setting up the studio

We have conducted ArtBreak in a large room with a sink as well as a small room with no sink, simply outfitted with a bucket, cleanup cloths and a pitcher of water. A tile floor is much less worrisome than a carpeted one, but we have managed in a carpeted studio by reminding children about the floor when painting and cleaning up any drips quickly.

A good way to begin is to provide two or three materials from each of the three areas of the Expressive Therapies

Continuum and then to add to the supply according to what the children seem ready for. To start, include fluid media such as finger paint, chalk pastels and watercolors; more resistive media such as oil pastels, crayons, tempera paint and brushes, clay, watercolor markers and water-based oils; and resistive media such as collage materials, buttons and beads, graphite and sculpture materials.

A sculpture/construction area can be furnished at no cost by seeking donations of cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes as well as other cardboard and plastic odds and ends. Provide construction tools and supplies such as scissors and hole punchers, pencil sharpeners, drawing pencils, glues, a variety of tapes (including duct tape), ribbons and strings, and brass fasteners of different lengths. You’ll need paper that is suitable for both wet and dry media, as well as glossy finger-paint paper.

Old cafeteria trays are helpful to contain individual work, and a large cutting mat is useful for cutting cardboard. Smocks can be made inexpensively from old shirts. A drying rack for paintings, at $120, has been our only single item of significant cost. The materials and supplies are permanently located in our school studios. In our summer library-based program, we use a portable system of bins that can easily be packed and stored in a corner of the room.


Written and photographic documentation is a daily task for the facilitating counselor. We keep notes describing group and individual process as well as reflections about new materials and supplies needed, changes in process and ideas to support children in their art making. Part of the documentation includes communicating with teachers and with families about what their children are making in ArtBreak and their process.

We also learn by asking children questions about ArtBreak: Tell me about ArtBreak. What do you do here? What do you learn?

Children tell us they learn about emotional regulation and sensory expression: “I learn I have to work calmly in here”; “Finger painting feels good. It is awesome and smooth. Regular paint is not so fun as finger paint.”

They describe using their cognitive skills: “We learn about tools, what you can make with them, being careful with them”; “You use your thinking. You think about what you make”; “I learned how to make a robot, how to sew.”

They tell about community and group process: “We have fun. We help each other, and that’s fun.”

And they delight in the opportunity for creativity: “We aren’t directed. Your mind is not in a can”; “We don’t get told what to do, what to make. We have ideas”; “ArtBreak is when you can express your ‘magination!”

ArtBreak has evolved to a point where we are beginning to conduct outcome research and offer school counseling interns opportunities to learn to structure and facilitate ArtBreak groups. I (Katherine) am also working with Margaret King of Ohio University to prepare a workbook detailing complete ArtBreak “how-tos” for practitioners.

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at past ACA Conferences.

Katherine Ziff is a school counselor in the Athens City Schools in southeastern Ohio as well as an exhibiting artist. Contact her at

Sue Johanson is a school psychologist in the Athens City Schools and vice chair of IPAC. Contact her at

Lori Pierce is a school psychologist in the Athens City Schools. Contact her at

Letters to the editor:


  • Engaging Learners Through Artmaking: Choice-Based Art Education in the Classroom by  Katherine M. Douglas and Diane B. Jaquith
  • Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema and Kimberly M. Sheridan
  • Expressive Therapies Continuum: A Framework for Using Art in Therapy by Lisa D. Hinz
  • Katherine’s ArtBreak blog:


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