Healing Inside the Art Classroom

by Gabriella Vallejo, Art Education

Abstract: This paper is focused on how the art classroom can help children understand their own personal traumas. Art is discussed as a healing tool within the classroom, as a way for children to focus on understanding themselves as people, and as much more. In addition, this paper explores empathy in the art classroom and how it can facilitate for children a better understanding of themselves. The paper addresses children understanding themselves, using self-expression, grasping and using empathy, and finding inner peace. The paper further looks at how an art educator teaches children not just the typical school curriculum but also how to comprehend one’s own behavior, social skills, and identity. For healing from trauma more specifically, these additional lessons are essential, as the healing process cannot begin without children first understanding themselves internally by listening to themselves and then recognizing these feelings in others and expressing them through art.

art education, empathy, trauma, healing tool

In school, children often worry about their grades and social lives as two main focus areas; meanwhile, parents may focus on their children’s wellbeing overall, which teachers also tend to care about, along with their other responsibilities as educators serving children in the classroom every day. The art classroom specifically can provide an opportunity for some children to get away from the stress of other classes. Beyond school’s curriculum, children have to be taught to learn and understand social behavior, to develop a work ethic, to understand themselves as individuals, and much more. In this paper, I will hone in on a particular aspect of this additional curriculum and consider how art education can help children understand their trauma, use art as a healing tool, and understand empathy and its benefits beyond the art classroom for children.

For art education to be used with children to understand their trauma, they would have to look into themselves on a deeper level first. To heal from trauma, they would have to initially understand themselves enough to see that they need help, which in turn might encourage them to speak with their teacher or their peers about their feelings. Even if they can’t understand their feelings entirely yet, sometimes just reaching out to a community or trusting other can be helpful. Listening to their bodies can be a great step toward understanding their trauma and how to heal from it. For example, Fuller (2020) states, “listening to how the body responds may provide key moments of learning and opportunities to absorb information, which can generate possibilities for new ways of understanding and learning” (p. 90). If children can understand themselves, how they think and process, then that knowledge can become an opportunity for them to comprehend and learn from their own bodies as a key step forward in the process of understanding and healing. Once children can understand their body and mind, then they can progress to the next step of using art to deepen their self-awareness. Again, according to Fuller (2020), “Students use art to reflect on then the past from their present perspectives so they may understand how to move through and past the embodied challenges of both. Within these affective communities, a true sense of agency could emerge” (pp. 101-102). For children, looking back into their past with the help of art to understand themselves is a great way to work through their trauma. In this case, art acts as a healing tool, which can benefit them as a person, as it gives them an opportunity to explore their feelings and understandings. For example, creating works of art can help children begin to heal without the pressure of talking about their traumatic past.

For art to be used as a healing tool for children, they have to understand themselves and be able to express this in a form of self-expression. In turn, once children can comprehend traumatic incidents in their lives, then inside the art classroom they can put these feelings into their art as a way of expressing themselves. According to Heise (2014), “focusing not on art therapy but art that articulates and celebrates the individual and their collective assets and strengths. This approach enhances meaningful artistic creation and creates a foundation for steeling as a cumulative positive construct for fostering resilience” (p. 29). This perspective strengthens the case for art as a tool to help children explore their inner selves, make themselves stronger, and find themselves. Even if children slip through the cracks of the education system, they can be checked on and helped through art. On this point, Reeves (2020) writes, “Art education can be helpful to children that fall short of mandated intervention and cannot receive special services as well as support and benefit all children using therapeutic art processes” (p. 22). Children can still access a helping hand in the form of art whether or not they qualify for other forms of therapy or interventions. Individually or inside the classroom, children can draw out their feelings and have a sense of control during troubling times. In turn, art enables children to express their feelings and thoughts instead of keeping them all tucked away inside.

Children’s feelings and emotions can be very complicated for them to understand and express, and empathy is one in particular that might present a challenge. Empathy is a very important emotion for children to understand. As Hayes (2015) describes in an example of work by Frida Kahlo, empathy is depicted as the feeling that “we may subconsciously seek out another’s pain in order to understand our own” (p. 4). School is typically children’s first interaction with others their age. As they become peers and socialize, children need to learn to understand their own emotions and those of their peers from a young age. According to Bowen & Kisida (2023), “arts education broadens students’ understanding of other cultures and history; supports social-emotional development, such as facilitating self-expression and emotional growth; generates prosocial/interpersonal skills, such as empathy and acceptance of others; improves school engagement, connectedness, and culture” (p. 626). That is, art can be used to strengthen children’s learning in an emotional and academic way in addition to helping students understand empathy by exploring empathy and the practice of acceptance through art. Hayes (2015) discusses Frida Kahlo and the emotional weight behind her wounded deer painting: “Kahlo sets up a dialogue with the viewer about personal trauma, suggesting that we may subconsciously seek out another’s pain in order to understand our own” (p. 4). Such a sentiment seems to perfectly capture empathy and the process of trying to find similarities among oneself and others. If children are able to see empathy in examples of other artists’ works, they can then learn how to put themselves in others’ shoes, to understand better, and be able to relate through looking at or creating art themselves. When children employ and explore empathy in art class, they can, in turn, express themselves without judgment or worry and show their art about how they feel to others also free from worry or fears of judgement. For example, they can learn to offer helpful and positive critiques of each other’s artworks, without being rude, which would enrich their artistic craft and the learning experience.

Art as a healing tool can also be helpful not just inside the art classroom but in school in general and even outside of it. What children learn inside the art room can bleed through their other courses at school because empathy can be used anywhere and everywhere in life. For example, Krieger (2023) writes, “It turns out that art enrichment affects expression and emotions and the ability to experience empathy” (p. 78). This statement shows how art can be used as a tool to help children understand empathy, which in turn can facilitate healthy social experiences and relationships as children learn to recognize themselves in others.

Ultimately, the art educator’s job, then, gains an additional curriculum because of the link between art and emotional understanding. That is, they teach children these skills of socialization, of personal reflection, of understanding themselves, of helping them learn how to heal, and so much more. As Marshall (2014) writes, “We help students find peace of mind as they express their feelings, participate in self-reflection, and learn about the endless reservoir of imagination within them—thereby experiencing more faith and trust in themselves and others” (p. 37). As an art teacher, enabling learners to be in tune with their inner feelings and thoughts is a key objective. For children to have a sense of clarity within them and to showcase their self-knowledge through their behavior and within their work is exactly what is needed to prepare students for their lives beyond the classroom.

Throughout this paper, my main focus was on how art education can enable children to understand their trauma with the aid of art as a helpful healing tool, to recognize and activate empathy through art, and to learn about themselves through artistic expression. As children have to deal with trauma both within and beyond their school lives, identifying the art classroom as a judgment-free place for self-expression is important. Children need a place to feel safe as themselves, and the art room provides a location where children can create art to catalogue their feelings, cultivate other forms of self-expression, and connect to contemporary artworks as a way to foster empathy.


Bowen, D. H., & Kisida, B. (2023). Investigating the causal effects of arts education. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 42(3), 624–647. https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.22449

Fuller, K. (2020). Healing trauma with art and the affective turn. Journal of Cultural Research in Art Education, 37, 90–103.

Hayes, S. (2015). Trauma and memory: Healing through art. Journal of Art for Life, 7(1), 1–20.

Heise, D. (2014). Steeling and resilience in art education. Art Education, 67(3), 26–30.

Krieger, E. (2023). On “perspective(s)” and empathy in art education. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 57(1), 74–84.

Marshall, L. (2014). Art as peace building. Art Education, 67(3), 37–43.

Reeves, A. (2020). Healing trauma in the art classroom. Journal of the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters, 97, 19–30.

Citation Style: APA