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Discover: LU researcher using art to help marginalized youth deal with heavy emotions

Laurentian University researcher is helping youth connect with their thoughts and feelings using art and social interaction
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The impact of hardships and trauma experienced by young people can trickle down into many areas of their life. They might find it hard to make friends at school, sit still in class, and control their anger. 

Emotions and thoughts are hard to identify for adults, let alone for kids. However, through art and creativity, a research group at Laurentian University is helping kids learn how to express those feelings that are too hard to put into words. 

Dr. Diana Coholic, full professor in the School of Social Work at Laurentian University, and her research team have developed and tested an arts-based group mindfulness program called the Holistic Arts-based Program (HAP). In the 12-week program, HAP is designed teach kids skills and capacities, such as paying attention, self-esteem and emotional regulation through fun and engaging experiences.

In her book, Facilitating Mindfulness, Coholic explains that mindfulness is a holistic philosophy that encourages us to live in the present moment of our lives, and to be aware of our feelings and thoughts without negative judgements, so that we can make healthy and effective choices.

“What we're trying to teach them is self-awareness,” Coholic said. “If you have good self-awareness, if you're mindful, you have the ability to understand what's happening when a feeling starts to emerge, and you can make a choice about it. That's the real power of mindfulness — this ability to make a choice about what you're feeling rather than just reacting.”

Coholic and her team have studied the arts-based mindfulness program with over 300 marginalized youth that have experienced trauma, anxiety, and difficulties in school. In 2005, the team tested an initial version of the program with youth in foster care aged 8-12 years old. This program helped youth to better understand their feelings and make choices about their behaviour.

Starting in 2015, the Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded a four-year project to study the use of HAP with 11- to 17-year-olds experiencing difficulties in school. While they are still analyzing the data from this latest cohort, Coholic said that, anecdotally, “the youth feel better. Their mood improves and they learn how to deal with their anxiety.”

A strengths-based program designed for youth

There are three key components to HAP: art-based exploration, mindfulness practice and group work. 

“It's the combination of these that is creating the benefits we see,” said Coholic.

Additionally, HAP takes a strengths-based approach, focusing on the youth’s strengths and abilities. This supportive and encouraging environment facilitates the development of skills and capacities, such as confidence and resilience.

Coholic reflects on the story of one young girl who entered the program after seeing more than 10 practitioners. She was not functioning in school, she was socially excluded and labelled as a difficult child. 

“Nothing has worked for her,” Coholic said. Knowing her background and struggles, they brought her into the program, and she flourished. “It's incredible to see what's happening … it's amazing to see the transformation.”

With HAP, they purposefully build a sense of group belonging and cohesion to promote the youth helping each other.

“They come here and it's a very normalizing experience for them because they are meeting other youth that have similar problems and that is so powerful to meet youth who have had a similar experience, because maybe they have never found that in their life outside the group.”

Facilitating authenticity

Coholic said that with HAP, they are “breaking down barriers and giving these kids exactly what they need to self-reflect, learn and have fun.”

HAP is built around what youth need rather than adapting a program that was initially designed for adults. Youth who have participated in the program have said that, during HAP, they can be themselves, something they feel they can’t be anywhere else in their life.

Art is a powerful way to engage youth because the creativity is an enjoyable experience. Despite the popularity of mindfulness programs, Coholic said not many people are using creativity to teach it.

 “I think [art] is just a natural medium for young people to express themselves.”

Parents have reported that the youth who participated in HAP are still doing the activities at home, which suggests that if a program is fun for kids, they are likely to continue to develop their strengths in their own time.

What’s next for HAP?

Coholic hopes to study the program in schools soon. “I think it's important to be where the kids are.” 

The program is already making its way into the community in some capacities. Through placement programs, students have brought HAP to the Rainbow Board for a short time and a graduate of the Interdisciplinary Health master’s program at Laurentian University is currently a teacher who does HAP with her students. 

Coholic was also invited to Grey Bruce County to train people from schools and mental health agencies on HAP.

“My intention as a researcher has always been to train people up in the program so they can keep it going because, as a researcher, there is a limit to how long you can be doing your research,” she said.

While the latest four-year study is coming to an end, Coholic wants to continue the program in some capacity. 

“There are very few places in the community where youth can go to get something like this,” she said. “[Youth] want places where they can be authentic, where they can join with other young people, and they can enjoy themselves. We need to offer services that youth want rather than always trying to fit youth into this box.”

Mindfulness at home: The Thought Jar

Purpose

This activity will help you explain mindfulness to kids. This activity is also good to do at the end of the day with your kids to encourage them to reflect on thoughts and feelings that were overwhelming or distracting throughout their day.

What you need

  •  A jar and a lid
  •  An assortment of beads
  •  Water

Directions

  1. Fill a jar up halfway with water.
  2. Ask everyone participating in the activity, either a group or individual, to think about their day, what they felt, and what they thought. 
  3. Encourage each person to pick up some beads. Each will represent a thought or feeling. 
  4. Take turns dropping each bead into the jar, one by one, saying out loud what each bead represents.
  5. Once everyone has put their beads in the jar, attach the lid. 
  6. Encourage everyone participating to shake and swirl the jar.

Discussion

As the beads are swirling around in the jar, it is hard to pick out one singular bead. This is similar to when we have many thoughts and feelings cluttering our mind — it can be very overwhelming. 

If you stop shaking the jar, all the beads settle to the bottom. This represents a mind that is focused and calm — this is a mindful mind. When you can be self-aware, you can calm the mind and start to be able to identify each thought and feeling rather than have them overwhelm you. 

When you can identify your feelings, it is easier to make a choice about how to react in the moment.

You can learn more about Coholic’s work on her website, DianaCoholic.com

Victoria Banderob is a science communication student at Laurentian University.




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