Art therapy and teaching through art can contribute to wellbeing of students

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The doctoral dissertation focuses on school factors that affect the subjective wellbeing of school-aged children and how art can contribute to the wellbeing of students. The aim was to identify the school factors that affect the wellbeing of students and describe the potential of the arts to contribute to said wellbeing through art therapy and teaching through art.

The first therapeutic intervention intended to improve the wellbeing of students through art was conducted in 2003 at Tallinn University Health Research Laboratory on high school-aged girls. The participants said that the therapeutic process aided by the arts (music, drawing) helped them with self-discovery and stress relief and described the experience as interesting and useful. Vibroacoustic therapy offered a pleasant bodily experience as the low frequency sounds cause physical sensations. The music the researchers used helped the participants focus on their thoughts and had a calming effect. Drawing was said to be relaxing and helped them discover themselves. The aforementioned art-based components contributed to the wellbeing of the students by improving the general functioning of the girls.

From 2014, schools have started hiring creative therapists. The number of creative therapists working in schools was the highest during the 2017/2018 school year. Five of those therapists with whom the schools had signed employment contracts participated in the research. School executives were also involved. In order to support the students, the therapists used individual preventive and curative measures, psychoeducational groups and therapeutic recreation (healing, recovery, refreshment and mood support) programmes. They used evaluation of art therapy, which helped them track the aim and effectiveness of the therapy, and consulted and trained teachers, support specialists and parents. Through interviews with therapists and school executives, six categories describing the specifics of art therapy in schools emerged: active and creative, various forms of working, therapeutic lessons, calming and relaxing effects, therapeutic relations and support during adjustment. These categories highlight how art therapy differs from other support services provided by schools.

Based on the example of Randvere School, the dissertation describes music-based teaching activities. The music-based activities used by teachers can be divided into five categories based on their goals: 1) restorative and transformative activities that support students in self-regulating; 2) activities aimed at listening, focusing and remembering, which develop cognitive skills; 3) activities that simplify learning and pique the interest of students or integrate a variety of topics; 4) music as a reward; and 5) socialising activity. Teachers pointed out that applying arts (music) in teaching does not require artistic training. The important part is that the teachers themselves enjoy making music. Teachers thought that the potential of music to improve the wellbeing of students was connected to it being refreshing and emotionally and relationally supportive.

The doctoral dissertation connected two fields of research: research on school factors that affect the wellbeing of students and research describing the potential of the arts to improve the wellbeing, focusing on art therapy and teaching through art. The therapeutic approach as a support service in schools is gaining popularity, which is why it is extremely important to properly describe the fields of work of art therapists in schools; equally vital is describing the benefits of art therapy in achieving the school's educational goals as seen by school executives. Application of the teaching thorough the arts method is one of the possible measures to improve the wellbeing of students through teaching.

The bigger aim, however, is to introduce the opportunities of creative therapy in schools to the Ministry of Education and Research and to the heads of schools. Creative therapists apply a therapeutic approach in supporting the students at school and can help and advise teachers in teaching through the arts.

The dissertation was supervised by professor Eha Rüütel from Tallinn University. The opponents are associate professor Kristi Kõiv from the University of Tartu and professor Merike Sisask from Tallinn University.


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