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Primary-school-based art therapy: exploratory study of changes in children’s social, emotional and mental health

McDonald, A., Holttum, S. & Drey, N. ORCID: 0000-0003-0752-9049 (2019). Primary-school-based art therapy: exploratory study of changes in children’s social, emotional and mental health. International Journal of Art Therapy, 24(3), pp. 125-138. doi: 10.1080/17454832.2019.1634115


AIM: This exploratory mixed methods study aimed to inform future research by investigating if teachers and children from one primary school perceived any changes in children’s social, emotional and mental health difficulties following art therapy and if so, what the children perceived as helpful about the sessions. METHODS: The study included 45 children and 10 class teachers within one UK primary school. The researchers analysed routine questionnaires from teachers and a children's evaluation interviews, triangulating these with data from a teacher focus group. RESULTS: The findings show significant and medium effect sizes for positive teacher-rated changes in children’s overall stress, conduct, hyperactivity, and procsocial behaviour and a large effect on perceived impact of children’s difficulties on their lives. Teacher-rated emotional distress and peer problems showed small changes that did not reach statistical significance. The positive changes were corroborated by the teachers' and children's qualitative reports. Aspects of art therapy which children found particularly helpful were; making and thinking about art; expressing, thinking and learning about thoughts and feelings; and sessions being fun. CONCLUSION: The study highlighted perceived positive changes and no negative changes in children’s SEMH difficulties. However, future research is necessary to examine clinical effectiveness. Plain-language summary In this article we describe a research study which aimed to explore if teachers and children perceived any changes to children’s social, emotional or mental health difficulties after the children attended art therapy within their primary school. We were also interested in learning from the children if they thought anything in particular had been helpful about their art therapy sessions in order to inform future research and the development of this particular approach to art therapy. The art therapists asked the class teachers to fill out a Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaires at the beginning and end of art therapy. The class teachers also attended a focus group so we could learn more about their general observations of the children before and after attending art therapy. The art therapists also interviewed the children to learn if they perceived any changes since coming to art therapy and if so, what in particular they thought had helped bring about these changes. We found that statistical analysis of the questionnaire scores mostly agreed with what the teachers and children said and that there was generally some positive change to the social, emotional and mental health difficulties the children had been experiencing. The teachers also let us know that some of the children still had residual problems. The children emphasised that making and thinking about art along with expressing, thinking and learning about thoughts and feelings had been particularly helpful. It was also important to the children that the sessions were fun. In conclusion, the teachers and children in this primary school perceived art therapy as helpful to the children and that it merits further research in order to develop the approach used by the art therapists and to see if it is effective in larger research studies including more children, schools and art therapists.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in International Journal of Art Therapy on 02 Jul 2019, available online:
Publisher Keywords: Art therapy, primary school, school-based, children, mixed method research, mental health
Subjects: L Education > LB Theory and practice of education > LB1501 Primary Education
R Medicine > RJ Pediatrics > RJ101 Child Health. Child health services
R Medicine > RM Therapeutics. Pharmacology
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Nursing
[img] Text - Accepted Version
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