chalkMeeting the needs of today’s students is challenging for counselors working in the schools, particularly with the increasing diversity of the U.S. population. To engage today’s students, school counselors must think innovatively in delivering school counseling services. Creative “nontraditional” counseling approaches, when integrated into traditional school counseling services at both the preventive and responsive levels, can offer needed support and guidance to students from a variety of backgrounds. The expressive arts — visual arts, movement, drama, music and writing — offer countless ways to promote the academic, career and personal/social development of students, which are goals of a comprehensive school counseling program.

Although research in this area is new, the results of available studies are encouraging. For example, according to research conducted by Michael Mason and Susan Chuang in 2001, students participating in an after-school arts program showed increases in self-esteem, social skills and leadership. In another study conducted by Katherine Smithrim and Rena Upitis in 2005, student participation in a Canadian schoolwide arts education program correlated with engagement in schoolwelcometrategies that facilitate student engagement in school and learning. When the idea of including more expressive arts activities is suggested to school counselors, however, they often cite lack of time, training and talent as obstacles. It is important to realize that school counselors can include expressive arts in a counseling program without an inordinate amount of extra time — and the benefits might well be worth the effort involved. Additionally, school counselors need not be accomplished expressive artists themselves to introduce creativity into their counseling programs. In her book Art Therapy for Groups, Marian Liebmann suggests that practitioners experiment with different media and get to know what it is like to work with those media. If possible, try out an expressive art activity on your colleagues at a district counselor meeting or a professional development workshop. This can provide you some idea of possible difficulties, help you smooth out potential logistical problems and demonstrate the benefits of the activity.

School counselors can also work exploration of expressive arts into their self-care routines. For example, participate in an art therapy workshop. Take a beginning drama or dance class. Pull out those old poems you wrote for that college literature class and write a new one to express how you’re feeling today. These activities can get your creative juices flowing and help you to unearth your talents.

Instead of watching that favorite TV show, mine the Internet and your local library for information on art therapy, play therapy and art education programs. Each of these areas is rich with activities that school counselors can adapt for a range of ages and a variety of academic, career and personal/social counseling goals. Following are some examples of activities to get you started.

Activities for academic development

The expressive arts offer a wide variety of options to promote academic development. Adapt the following activities for individual, small-group or classroom counseling.

  • Provide an underachieving student with old magazines to make a collage of the things he or she does well. Relate the student’s strengths to school subjects.
  • Have students in a small group create a rap song using information they are learning for class. Discuss ways the students can use the song to study.
  • Have individual students draw an ideal study area or have a group of students actually create a model study place. Help each student consider individual learning style and reflect on sensory input, assessing for noise in the area (hearing), lighting (sight), comfort (touch), distracting odors (smell) and snacks for studying (taste). Also ask students to consider resources and necessary space for different tasks.
  •  (This activity is done in collaboration with teachers.) Help teachers initiate groups to work cooperatively on a study project. Each group takes a portion of the academic content and dramatizes the content to other students in the class. The counselor can help facilitate the dramatization.

Activities for career development

For creative career development activities, a good source is Career Counselling: Techniques That Work,edited by Kobus Maree. The expressive arts can engage even young students in thinking about future careers.

  • Lead a game of Career Charades in which students act out careers as other students guess the career. Young children can “swat the job” with a fly swatter from a list of careers on the board when they have guessed the career.
  • Have students write a poem about who I am and what I like,or have them make a drawing (with shapes, symbols and/or pictures) about themselves and reoccurring enjoyable activities in their lives. When students have finished writing or drawing, help them identify qualities and preferences or common themes in the stories and how these relate to career interests.
  • Have students interview a person in a career of interest. Then ask students to create a visually appealing brochure to encourage others to pursue that career. This can be accomplished with art media or a computer graphics program (if available).
  • Get the family involved in student career exploration. Have students interview family members about jobs they have held as well as their “dream jobs.” Using the information gathered, ask students to create a career family tree on a poster using assorted art materials (markers, string, magazine cutouts and so on).

Activities for personal/social development

School counselors possess special expertise in personal/social counseling. Many of these counselors already have discovered the value of moving beyond talk and using expressive arts to allow students to express and explore personal thoughts and feelings as well as to negotiate social relationships. Those counselors who have not made use of expressive arts — or who want to learn more — may want to check out Play Therapy With Adolescents, edited by Loretta Gallo-Lopez and Charles E. Schaefer. The book provides rich examples of activities that can be adapted for group and classroom counseling. School counselors might want to try the following ideas.

  • Have students make a shoe sculpture with old shoes. Ask the students to bring in five found objects (stones, bottle caps, feathers and so on) that represent them, or provide the students with a collection of objects from which to choose. Have each student glue objects to his or her shoe to create a personal sculpture that answers the question, “What is it like to walk a mile in my shoes?” When complete, have each student share a description of his or her sculpture.
  • Give students a news article (one article per every four to five students for classroom counseling) of a serious current event. Ask the students to create a drama about the people involved in the event (for example, victims’ families, police officers) that focuses on their perspectives and feelings.
  • Have a group of students collaborate on painting a mural on large paper for a classroom wall or directly on the wall (with school permission). The range of topics for mural painting is unlimited. The collaborative work can promote a sense of community, which is important in any school setting.
  • (This activity is used in collaboration with teachers.) Peruse the class readings for the students’ language arts class. Design an expressive arts project (for example, poem, collage, skit or song lyrics) in which students depict how their lives relate to the characters and/or themes in the literature.
  • Provide students with throwaway cameras to take photos on a topic related to a school resource or problem. (You might be able to get a local business to contribute some cameras.) Help students work together to select photos that appropriately represent the focal topic. Then ask them to create a book by formatting the photos and writing accompanying captions.


To get a better understanding of the richness of expressive arts, school counselors need only to choose from the wealth of activities available and then try some out. An expressive arts project can facilitate student empowerment through self-expression, and a shared art experience can promote community building.

The beauty of expressive arts is in their potential for enhancing self-expression, communication skills, cooperation, problem solving and creativity — all of which are important counseling goals. The broad choice of media can also appeal to students’ different learning styles, whether auditory, visual or kinesthetic/tactile. Moreover, when expressive arts are used in conjunction with other areas such as multicultural curriculum, service learning or classroom readings, they can demonstrate the role of school counseling as a larger part of the school mission. And that may be exactly what school counseling needs — to move from its oftentimes relegated status as an adjunct service to center stage in the schools.

“Knowledge Share” articles are based on sessions presented at American Counseling Association Conferences.

Patricia Van Velsor is associate professor in the Department of Counseling at San Francisco State University. Contact her at

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