Thinking Creatively in Family and Youth Work

Photograph of a teen girl painting a picture.

Everyone needs a moment of inspiration from time to time.

In this issue of NCFY Reports, we celebrate the value of creativity in family and youth work. From arts therapy to innovative staff practices, there’s plenty of room for imaginative, self-expressive activities in this field.

We begin with a look at evidence-based arts therapy, and a practitioner’s case for why “simple” tasks like painting and drawing can help rewire the traumatized brain. Next we hear from youth-serving programs in Seattle, Boston and New York about how designated creative time has helped build rapport with the young people in their communities. Lastly we talk to youth workers in Hawaii and Pittsburgh about the value of filmmaking for helping at-risk young people express themselves and prepare for careers.

Alongside these features we have a bullet-pointed guide for how to bring creativity into the staffroom, and a slideshow featuring artwork by some of the Seattle teens profiled in the second article.

How does your organization keep things alive and humming? How does an outside creative hobby or an arts-focused youth program enrich your work? Tell us these things and more on Facebook and Twitter.

Calm Through Creativity: How Arts Can Aid Trauma Recovery

It takes a lot of effort for the brain to deal with trauma. Whether because of post-traumatic stress disorder or the many adaptive behaviors that victims use instinctively in threatening situations, the traumatized brain is constantly on high-alert, particularly its lower regions, where survival instincts originate.

Simple artistic activities like drawing or sculpting clay can soothe those lower regions, which is why arts therapists argue that their methods can help trauma victims calm down and release some of that mental tension. These evidence-informed therapies use creativity to raise victims’ awareness of their physical and mental states and build resilience and a sense of safety. Counselor and author Cathy Malchiodi, who has pioneered Trauma-Informed Art Therapy and Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy, claims that the use of music, art and other creative activities grant victims a means of expressing the effects of trauma even after therapy ends.

When the lower-brain’s instincts are over-activated, they can inhibit people’s ability to perform higher cognitive functions until they have started healing from trauma. “Teens who are stressed may have difficulty answering questions about their drug use, or about making goals and plans for the future,” Malchiodi says. However, as she and other researchers (including child psychiatrist Bruce Perry) have found, these effects can be reversed with therapies that rebuild the brain from the ground up.

Nancy Gerber, Director of the PhD Program in Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University, explains that expressive arts support trauma recovery, especially for those victims who were traumatized or seek treatment at a young age, because they engage the regions of the brain that develop earlier in life. “A lot of kids in adolescence struggle with language,” she says. “They know how to talk but they don’t always know how to talk with emotional intelligence. The idea [of arts therapy] is that images are a form of cognition, a way of knowing. They develop very early in our lives: little kids point at things before they have a word for them. These images provide a history for the early life, and when we grow up we don’t have a word for that.”

Simply put, arts therapy helps trauma victims reconnect with that image-based part of the brain, a process which calms the parts of the brain that have been overworked by trauma.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: Getting in touch with the “lower brain”

Traumatic stress manifests differently for different people; victims may be withdrawn and incommunicative, or wild and confrontational. (In therapeutic terms, this is referred to as “internalizing” or “externalizing” one’s feelings.) In her previous work at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, mostly focused on adolescents, Gerber included drawing in every young patient’s intake process. She would then share the drawings with staff when they met to decide on a treatment plan. It was particularly useful for those young people who couldn’t easily express their experiences verbally.

“The art provides a different dimension that most of us don’t know how to say,” Gerber says. “A picture can tell a story about our internal life that isn’t accessible in words.”

 Malchiodi begins her therapy by observing her clients to infer what kind of activities would help them best. Some may benefit from therapies that help them loosen up, such as movement activities with music. Others need to do something that will help calm them down and focus, such as drawing or painting.

In one treatment, she gives individuals a rubber duck and asks them to build a safe place for it using feathers, paper plates, leaves, fabric and other materials.

“This highly sensory experience, where you can actually feel the nest, pond, or whatever you build, engages the lower parts of your brain, whereas simply drawing a safe place or depicting goals require higher cognitive areas,” Malchiodi explains.

Step 2: Becoming more expressive

For young and older people alike, the experience of traumatic events can be difficult to express in words. So Malchiodi uses the first step to get them feeling calmer and more creatively expressive. Then she engages them in storytelling activities that use higher cognitive areas. For example, she might ask, “If you could draw a bridge that starts in the past and goes into the future, show me where you are on the bridge,” or to depict one’s family in any way they choose to depict it.

Gerber says that expressive arts therapy allows victims to deal with trauma in the same deeply emotional way that they experience it, which in turn prepares them to address it more fully. “They no longer had to act out,” she says of her clients. “They could have conversations about how they saw themselves and the world.”  

Malchiodi saw similar results in her young people. “Trauma memories are sensory memories,” she says, “meaning that people feel them in their bodies and react with their bodies.” Creativity can help them make that leap to full understanding and expression.

An Art Exhibit by Homeless Youth Displays Their Love of Music, Their Creativity and Their Humanity

The entrance sign for the Music Is My Life exhibition.
A sign greets visitors to the Music Is My Life exhibition at Molly’s Café at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. "The goal of the exhibit is to bring these drawings and stories to the public in order to create a locus for community discourse and action," says Jill Palzkill Woelfer, the exhibit's organizer.

Throughout 2012, dozens of young people entered YouthCare in Seattle and Covenant House Vancouver and started drawing. They'd been asked to design fictional music devices that could help homeless youth, and came up with an array of invented instruments that express their experiences of homelessness.

More than 120 of those drawings have been collected as Music Is My Life, an exhibit currently traveling through galleries in the Seattle area. The branchild of Jill Palzkill Woelfer, a youth worker and doctoral student of information studies, the exhibit is “an investigation of the role of music in the lives of homeless young people.”

Here, Woelfer shares some of the drawings from Music Is My Life, as well as pictures from the exhibitions. See all 129 drawings, with accompanying stories, at the Music Is My Life website, or follow the exhibit's tour on Facebook.

Creative Coping: Using the Arts to Foster Youth Engagement and Resilience

A young man experiencing homelessness sang at his drop-in center’s talent show and got a boost of confidence for his audition at Berklee College of Music. A young woman says that picking the songs to play at her mother’s funeral helped her finally say goodbye.

Youth-serving organizations across the country rely on creative outlets like music and art to promote healing from trauma. The arts give teens a healthy way to express themselves and to process emotions like sadness, anger and fear. They also spark discussions about the skills and experiences youth need to pursue creative careers.

We spoke with three youth workers about how and why to make music and creativity an everyday part of trauma-informed programming.

Provide Easy Opportunities for Expression

At the drop-in center at Seattle’s YouthCare, music is a noticeable part of the culture. Young people can sit down at the center’s piano or pick up a communal guitar whenever they please. They can also ask staff for informal music lessons or sign up to perform at youth-led concerts.

Jill Palzkill Woelfer, a doctoral candidate at The University of Washington Information School, suggests that keeping fragile instruments out in the open and encouraging young clients to play demonstrates trust and makes teens feel more comfortable. 

Woelfer recently surveyed more than 200 youth in Seattle and Vancouver on the role of music in their lives as part of her dissertation research on homelessness, music and digital technology. Nearly all of the young people Woelfer spoke with found ways to listen to music daily—even when they couldn’t meet basic needs like food and shelter.

“Young people’s emotions with music can be quite deep and sort of visceral. Letting them express themselves with music in whatever way they feel comfortable is really powerful.” Agencies that provide a space for clients to hear or create music, she says, are giving youth a familiar tool for coping with difficult circumstances at their own pace.

At Boston’s Bridge Over Troubled Waters, getting creative has been made easier for youth through a “Art Expressions” group that meets a few times a month to paint, draw and even make sculptures from discarded books. And attending the group has benefits beyond the artistic, helping some youth to feel more comfortable seeking advice from drop-in center counselors, says Transitional Day Program and Youth Shelter Team Leader Claire Winship.

“Creative activities help youth build trust and a sense of confidence,” says Winship. “Showing youth that they can still be themselves and do their anime or sketch their sketches is what builds rapport and gets them to come back” to the program.

Youth also bonded with staff and each other creating an entry for the 2013 Family and Youth Services Bureau mural contest, in which they won first place.

Connect Youth With Creative Mentors

In New York City, the Reciprocity Foundation channels creative passions even further, working with runaway and homeless youth to identify careers that make them feel energized and passionate—including creative fields like entertainment and fashion. Reciprocity staff match students to mentors and tools they need to pursue their career goals, such as editing software and sewing machines to create a portfolio.

Co-founder Adam Bucko says past students have gone on to work with fashion designers or to land work at television networks. He adds that helping youth discover their passions compels them to view their lives in the long-term despite the many obstacles they face in the present.

“Kids are often told to do something because it’s a good stepping stone, but they aren’t interested in stepping stones that aren’t connected to an end goal. If you’re a young person and you want to make something out of your life, being connected to a dream is what gives you energy.”

Action!: Filmmaking Fosters Professional Skills, Teamwork and Self-Expression

Lou (not his real name) was shy and a little younger than his peers on set for Hawaii Student Television. But Robert Olague, HSTV’s founder and executive director, knows only one way to treat young people on a set, so he handed Lou a camera and showed him the basics. By day’s end, Lou was sitting comfortably with the older teens, eating pizza and celebrating a job well done.

The next day, Lou arrived early and rushed to work. His mother told Olague it was the boy’s birthday. “I told him he could stay at home, but he only wanted to come here,” she said.

Hawaii Student Television is one of many programs across the country aimed at offering young people the opportunity to learn about filmmaking in a professional yet youth-friendly setting. Since cameras are so ubiquitous these days, even in at-risk teens’ lives, these programs can show young people how to translate that familiarity into an employable skill. And for young people with difficult home lives or traumatic pasts, filmmaking can offer the chance for positive team experiences and personal expression. 

Even if youth don’t go into film production, Olague says, “The disciplines from this business—show up on time, take instructions, pay attention—are relevant anywhere. It’s a great education.”

Personal Vision and Group Effort

In collaboration with local professionals, HSTV youth work on projects ranging from short educational films to television commercials and video spots for federal agencies. In addition to earning a paycheck, young people get hands-on film set experience and daily mentoring from career filmmakers.

JuWanda Thurmond, youth programs manager for the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, has seen similar results in the annual filmmaking workshop she facilitates for a dozen-odd youth from the museum’s teen volunteer roster. It’s a collaboration with the One Minutes Foundation, which sends UNICEF film crews all over the world for five-day workshops with young people, resulting in 1-minute videos that are entirely creatively driven by the youth themselves. Thurmond’s participants have used their 60 seconds to create everything from family histories to reflections on body image.

“They can take videos on their phones, so it might not seem like such a big deal,” Thurmond says, “but the editing process—cutting down hours of footage, deciding whether to add music—that’s where the surprise came in for them.”

While the videos are personal visions, the quick turnaround and collaborative nature of filmmaking necessitates teamwork. Though they often don’t know each other at the outset, Thurmond says by the end of the week many youth are hugging and exchanging contact information, pledging to keep in touch.

Finding a Film Crew Near You

Even if your community lacks an organization that helps youth take their first steps in the film production field, chances are, professional guidance and equipment is relatively nearby.  Try reaching out to community organizations that have access to studios, cameras and professional expertise, such as:

  • Film production companies
  • Local and county news stations
  • College, university or high school film programs
  • Public access television stations
  • Libraries
  • Local filmmakers
  • National programs like Beyond Media

Olague says the uninitiated should take advantage of the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking and find some like-minded professionals who are willing to welcome young people into the field.

Robert Olague has seen the value of that collaboration firsthand. “We listen to these kids on set, take their ideas seriously,” he says. “And the knowledge that they’re heard, that there’s an adult out there who wants to work with them, that’s worth its weight in gold.”

Four Ways to Nurture a Creative Staff

In 1996, Swedish psychologist and researcher Göran Ekvall uncovered 10 elements of a creatively-supportive climate, including challenge, trust and openness, playfulness and humor, freedom, debate and risk-taking. The more these factors are present in a workplace, the more creative the behavior of staff, says Paul Reali, co-author of “Big Questions in Creativity” and “Creativity Rising.”

“A creative workplace produces higher engagement, higher performance, higher retention, and higher rewards,” she adds.

And creativity isn’t just required for generating ideas. Developing and implementing those ideas also takes some innovation.

“We are all creative thinkers,” says Amy Frazier, an organizational and leadership development consultant, teacher and writer. “A creative employee has the ability to be open to families and their experiences. It will signal to youth you are open to who they are and empower them.”

Thinking creatively can benefit any youth-serving organization, whether by helping staff connect with families, create new programs or raise funds.

Here are a few ways to get your staff involved:

  1. Give permission. There are many ways that permission to be creative can be provided, or withheld, says Reali. Permission requires more than verbal support. Foster a climate of creativity by providing resources—people, dollars, time—for employees to pursue their ideas. And be sure to greet occasional mistakes or failure with support and encouragement, not punishment.
  2. Mix it up. Variety is stimulating, and a forced change in perspective can generate new thinking, Frazier says. Encourage employees to adapt their workspaces to their liking, or hold meetings in different places, at different times, in different ways. (Consider standing meetings and even walking meetings.)
  3. Move around. We often don’t consider how our bodies contribute to thinking, Frazier says. It’s important to get up and move every 20 minutes to stay refreshed and keep your brain open to thinking. Go for a walk, dance a little, interact with your coworkers.

    “Playfulness goes hand in hand with creative thinking,” Frazier says.
  4. Measure and nurture. Once you’ve established a climate that strongly supports creativity, Reali suggests regularly taking stock of that climate so it can be continuously nurtured and strengthened.