NYC Students Find Refuge Through Expression in Art Therapy

Eight-year-old William lives with his family in a Bedford Stuyvesant housing project. His parents — who emigrated from China — are often absent, and William spends much of his time alone playing video games. He rarely plays outside, as he feels unsafe in his neighborhood.

Based on his limited support at home and his school observing aggression and a lack of self-esteem, William was referred to Maria Sossi (Steinhardt ’11), an art therapist in the NYU Art Therapy in Schools Program. While school counselors and art teachers have long played central roles in schools, art therapy has emerged as an important tool in supporting students in distress.

While William was initially apathetic and even resistant at the beginning of his therapy, he became more confident and motivated in creating art. Using metaphors, he started drawing and narrating stories of characters who were vulnerable to danger, but devised escape plans to rescue them.

One story involved a baby shark who did not know where his parents were. William sculpted a shark and cave, complete with a comfortable bed, nightlight, and treasures. By creating a secure home for his shark, William fulfilled his need for the same — channeling his desire to be independent, strong, and self-reliant. Through expressing his feelings, William became more well-adjusted and less depressed.

The NYU Art Therapy in Schools Program offers free art therapy to at-risk students in New York City public schools like William. NYU Steinhardt art therapy students work closely with art therapists in four schools, providing individual and group art therapy sessions to students in need.

Family challenges, violence, immigration, and illness are a few of the many factors that can disrupt a child’s academic performance and social interactions, and can be addressed through art therapy. For instance, a fourth grader created drawings, sculptures, and a quilt made of clothing with his art therapist to help process the recent loss of his mother to cancer.

“The symbolic images that are generated can express feelings and ideas that are often too powerful or confusing to communicate verbally,” said Marygrace Berberian, director of the NYU Art Therapy in Schools Program and clinical assistant professor of art therapy at NYU Steinhardt. “Art helps to organize the chaotic nature of internal worlds. Once an image has been created, discussion can help the students understand and integrate new ways of dealing with their concerns.”