Creative Arts Program
Knowledge Circle Practice Profiles

Overview

Practice focus

The focus of this creative arts program is the provision of activities in settings that help to retain and engage participants as an adjunct to more formal therapeutic approaches. The commitment of the facilitators and their ability to foster trusting relationships with and among the children is another feature of the Program.

Delivered by

A Child Sexual Assault Counsellor in a private practice and a Senior Lecturer from the University of New England, NSW.

The information provided for this Promising Practice Profile was supplied by the Senior Lecturer at the School of Rural Medicine, University of New England, NSW.

Service type

The Creative Arts Program was designed to enhance the recovery process for children aged 4-18 for whom there had been an allegation of child sexual assault or for whom the allegation had been substantiated. The children and their families all live in a small rural town in NSW and were from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. The Program used creative arts classes as an adjunct to therapy, in a similar way to an occupational therapist working in a hospital setting.

The Program is not delivered exclusively for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as it has been designed to be inclusive of all children and families. However, the Program is underpinned by culturally appropriate and strengths-based approaches that have been shown to be suitable for the Aboriginal children who had attended the Program.

Location(s)

The Program is delivered in a small country town in NSW. Due to the sensitive nature of child sexual assault and the risks associated with confidentiality, the name of the region has not been disclosed.

Description

Literature shows that people have believed in the healing power of the creative arts for centuries. There is evidence to suggest that creative arts therapies can be used to help traumatised children to heal by regulating their emotions and experiencing a sense of mastery. The facilitators of the program had worked with children over many years and observed that the recovery from sexual assualt is a slow process for a child. The creative arts classes were established as a means to enhance the children's recovery by facilitating their involvement in an activity that is enjoyable in a non-threatening environment with other children who had been through similar experiences. The aim was to instill a sense of mastery, build stronger relationships with other children and learn to trust the adults, including the male teachers. Non-offending parents were also offered a short respite from looking after their children and, over time, they were able to fell less anxiety as they saw their children growing in confidence.

The Program was designed to be inclusive of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children, with specific aims to:

  • enhance the children’s recovery by giving them an opportunity to express their feelings through expressive play;
  • build the children’s self-confidence and sense of mastery through achieving simple tasks;
  • support the non-offending parents and reduce their anxiety about their children by seeing them growing in self-confidence; and,
  • offer teachers the opportunity to learn about the signs and symptoms of child sexual assault and to gain confidence in their ability to help children in difficult circumstances.

Free extra-curricular creative arts classes were offered on a weekly basis to children who were attending (or had recently attended) the Child Sexual Assault Service. The 2-hour classes were facilitated by experienced creative arts teachers at suitable venues such as the local school. A children’s counsellor attended all the classes in order to reassure the children and their parents, and to monitor their recovery process. The Program used clay modelling, African dance and drumming, mosaics, and Aikido martial arts techniques. The counsellor and the teacher discussed the progress of each child after each class, and filled in a questionnaire for each student.

Resourcing

Until August 2011 the NSW Department of Community Services (DoCS) funded a Child Sexual Assault Counselling Service through a local Women’s Centre. Approval was received from DoCS and from the Management Committee to conduct a 'Creative Arts Program' with children aged 4-18 who were currently in therapy or who had completed therapy within the last year.

The Program ran from 2007-2011 and a pilot research project was conducted from July 2008 to June 2009. During this pilot, the classes were offered free of charge to thirteen students, two of whom were from Indigenous families. The main costs of the Program were for teachers' salaries, the counsellor and the materials used in the classes. The researcher provided her time free of charge.

There were no conditions attached to the funding although a full report was produced and the findings were published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art Therapy (ANZJAT).

Funding was withdrawn from the Program and has since been closed. However, funding to re-establish the Program is being sought from the NSW Minister for Community Services.

Practice

MOST promising aspect

The Program facilitators believe that the use of creative arts classes, as an adjunct to therapy, shows promise for delivering better recovery from child sexual assault among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families cannot afford extra-curricular activities for their children. Attending free creative arts classes, with other children of all ages who have had similar experiences, may help to make the children feel special and to reduce the level of anxiety, distress and isolation that they experience. The older children are provided with an opportunity to mentor younger children, and participants enjoy being allowed the freedom of expression, which is not always encouraged within the formal school system.

Other promising aspects

The qualitative evaluation of the Program demonstrates its promise in delivering positive outcomes. It is readily adaptable for use with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and their families because the approach draws upon culturally appropriate and strengths-based ways to enhance the recovery of children from child sexual assault. This is achieved by identifying activities that children enjoy and encouraging their participation in these activities to build greater confidence and skills that can be adapted to other activities.

There is some evidence to show that various creative arts therapies are suitable for working with children who have experienced trauma and this project both draws on this evidence base and contributes some new evidence. The Program offers the children an opportunity to learn new skills in a safe and confidential environment. It is innovative by including children of both genders across a wide range of ages while offering the children an opportunity to mentor or be mentored by each other.

Many of the children would not normally be able to attend after-school activities due to prohibitive costs, so the Creative Arts Program was delivered free of charge. The Program is potentially sustainable in the longer-term as it involves only one counsellor and one teacher to be present for two hours every week during each term.

Another strength of the Program is its inclusive nature. Children were able to participate regardless of age, gender, or racial background. They gradually learned that they had all shared similar experiences and, as a result, they formed a close-knit group and were supportive of one another. This helped the Indigenous children feel more accepted and less isolated.

Evidence base and opportunities

The Creative Arts program reflects a 'graduated' approach that enables particpants to focus on creative and social activities as a soft entry pathway to address more sensitive and intractable issues at a later stage or in more formal settings. As an adjunct to more formal therapeutic services, the Program's participants engage in creative arts activites in safe, comfortable and non-stigmitising venues. These environments are known to help retain participants over the course of the Program and participants are able to build supportive peer networks with others who have shared similar experiences. In combining this capacity to facilitate supportive relationships with the consistent prescence of committed and skilled counsellors and teachers, the Creative Arts Program is able to build the necessary trust that is essential in achieving program objectives.

A critical feature is the planning and management of publicity for the Program, where the confidentiality of the children and families were to be highly guarded from others in the community. Preparing the parents and children for this required careful consideration and strategies to protect participant's confidentiality was embedded into the program structure through ongoing consultation with participants and facilitators.

This combination of approaches does not require a great deal of resources, and an opportunity exists to adapt the Program for use exclusively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in remote communities. This would need extensive consultation with local Elders and Aboriginal Community Service Workers. However, the experiences of the developers in establishing the Creative Arts Program is highly valuable for others who wish to undertake a similar approach. In this respect, the Program developers recommend that funding be sourced to extend the project to other disadvantaged communities and that a large scale, quantitative research project be undertaken to evaluate the extent to which creative arts activities can enhance children’s recovery from child sexual assault.

Cultural relevance

Involvement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders

The Program was developed by an experienced local counsellor who lived in the small country town in NSW for most of her life, and has been working as a Child Sexual Assault Counsellor for eighteen years. She has strong connections with local Aboriginal families, Aboriginal health workers and the local community. Through her work with Aboriginal children and families over many years and as a local community member herself, she is trusted and respected by the Indigenous and non-Indigenous community.

During the Program's research period, two Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children attended the Creative Arts Program along with eleven non-Indigenous children. These children were not treated differently in any way. However, they benefited from the opportunity to feel accepted within the class environment and were given the opportunity to express themselves and their cultural heritage, particularly during the clay modelling and mosaic classes. During the clay modelling classes, the teacher often told stories of other First Nation People because of his own cultural background.

Cultural practices and materials

The Creative Arts Program has used clay modelling, African dance and drumming, mosaics, and Aikido martial arts techniques. However, activities and materials could be successfully adapted with any combination of creative arts that would be specific to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices.

Adaptability

The facilitators believe the Program could easily be adapted for use exclusively with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in remote communities, provided there is extensive consultation with local Elders and Aboriginal Community Service Workers. For example, the particular Creative Arts classes offered could be made more culturally appropriate, and the teachers would need to be chosen carefully for their sensitivity to issues surrounding Indigenous child sexual assault. The venue for the classes would also need to be considered so that they are delivered in a safe and non-threatening environment. Whether the program should be offered for all children within the community is a primary concern so that children are not made to feel stigmatised in any way.

In delivering the Program there were several issues that needed careful management should the program be adapted for use elsewhere. These include discussing sexualised behaviour openly within class, and any challenging behaviour that requires firm boundaries. The issue of touch requires careful preparation for all those involved in the Program, and a need to control the publicity for the Program was a critical issue in order to protect the confidentiality of the children and families involved.

Evaluation

Evaluation status

During the pilot period, the Program underwent an external/independent evaluation, which is publically available. The evaluation was qualitative in nature and based on three sources of data:

  • observations of the children’s progress made by the counsellor in conjunction with the teacher, after each class;
  • the views of the non-offending parents about their children’s recovery process; and,
  • the views of the creative arts teachers.

Interviews were conducted with three creative arts teachers, ten non-offending parents during terms one and two, and nine non-offending parents during term four, making a total of 22 interviews conducted.

Link to evaluation

Hunter, S.V. & Rosevear S. (2011) Evaluating a creative arts program designed for children who have been sexually abused, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art Therapy, 6, pp.39-­‐50.

Effectiveness

Demonstrated outcomes

The Program was very popular with children, parents and teachers. There were many benefits for the children, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, which made the classes popular with the parents. The children:

  • grew in self-confidence;
  • demonstrated improved social skills;
  • formed trusting relationships with both male and female teachers; and,
  • experienced a reduced sense of isolation from knowing that other children had had similar experiences to their own.

Both the parents and the counsellor believed that most children made significant progress in terms of their recovery during the project. It is possible that the number of disclosures of previous experiences of child maltreatment increased during the project, although it is very difficult to know whether or not these disclosures would have been made during the normal course of therapy. It was also true that external events in the children’s lives had a greater impact on their recovery than either attending therapy or attending the Creative Arts Program.

Other evidence

The counsellor has continued to work with the Program's participating children and ran the program in 2010 and 2011 with a further two Indigenous children being involved. Her observation of the children suggests such a program enhances the ongoing recovery for all children. The counsellor's presence at every Creative Arts class was crucial to the success of the Program, as was the weekly monitoring of the progress of every child participant.

One of the unforeseen benefits of the Program was that it offered Indigenous and non-Indigenous children the opportunity to develop positive and accepting relationships between one another, despite racial difficulties in small country towns. This had enormous benefits for all the children, given the isolating nature of child sexual assault. Unlike a normal classroom, the counsellors noticed that the accepting and inclusive environment enabled Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children to blossom and grow in self-confidence and self-esteem.

Furthermore, teachers benefitted from the Program after having observed the ongoing recovery of the children as a result of their support. The teachers were all keen to remain involved in the Program, and believed that they had benefited from their involvement with these children and from the knowledgeable counsellor. They were able to take this knowledge back to their own classrooms and feel more confident in their ability to help children who have suffered in this way.

Replicability

The pilot study suggests that the Creative Arts Program could be used successfully in other rural towns and remote communities, to enhance the recovery of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous children from sexual assault.

 

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