Creative Ways to Help Students Manage Their Emotions: A Q&A from Rayne Lacko and Lesley Holmes

By Rayne Lacko and Lesley Holmes, coauthors of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery

Integrating art and creative projects into your classroom curriculum is a great way to help students gain self-awareness of their emotions, discover safe ways to express difficult feelings, and make proactive choices toward setting and meeting goals. Art comes in many forms, and all persons are inherently creative.

In June, in a webinar through edWeb, Rayne Lacko and Lesley Holmes discussed ways to remove the roadblocks to establishing a flourishing creative environment in your classroom. Watch the webinar recording, “Creative Ways to Help Students Manage Their Emotions,” then read on for a bonus Q&A with Rayne and Lesley.

Creative Ways to Help Students Manage Their Emotions: A Q&A from Rayne Lacko and Lesley Holmes

Q: How can teachers emphasize more SEL and less on high-pressure/high-stakes standardized testing?

A: Every school has its unique objectives and goals. Standardized testing has, for many educators, become high stakes indeed. As we mentioned throughout the webinar, emotions-based creativity can in fact complement and enrich academic learning from a variety of perspectives. For example, the process of journaling one’s authentic point of view using the words and imagery of the student’s choice—and having that journal entry seen and empathized with by peers—builds the confidence and skills to write more compelling academic paragraphs. Further, memorizing groups of facts, dates, formulae, or other important data by setting it to music or connecting it to a series of dance moves improves memory and helps the student release tension and feel more at ease. Using time management techniques creatively helps less organized students avoid procrastinating on outstanding tasks and instead make time for studying.

For many students, taking tests can be stressful. By managing the emotions or personal issues that may be distracting a student from focusing, while also actively building stronger peer bonds within the classroom, students can approach test taking with more self-confidence, the ability to focus on the present task, and a sense of belonging, which motivates the student to contribute to the requirements asked of the entire student body.

Q: What if you are teaching an art class where you have to grade students’ work?

A: We love art teachers! Thank you for raising an important difference in approach. Art class offers students a creative place to learn and cultivate myriad skills from brush work, light and shading, perspective, and color theory to photography, printmaking, and etching, to art history and beyond. Specific instructions are given to create desired results; skills and knowledge demonstrated through completed assignments and handed in by a specified due date lead to an earned grade.

Comparatively, emotions-based creative activities are unique to the student in that they may be entirely different from what anyone else in class is doing. They are founded on what the student is feeling in the given moment, and may reflect a trauma, victory, worry, or fear the student is playing out in their head. How they choose to express it—whether through music, movement, breath, drawing, collage, poetry—is personal to the student, and doesn’t need to be “graded” because it’s simply a manifestation of a thought, not a demonstration of a learned technique or concept.

How a student feels about a quarrel with a parent or a friend who moved away is valid; no grade is necessary, only acceptance that the feeling exists. That said, the practice of making oneself vulnerable enough to share a piece of one’s inner landscape builds the kind of confidence and self-assurance to approach an assignment in art class with authenticity. It also inspires greater enthusiasm for using the skill sets art class offers to put one’s unique and singular stamp on their assignment.

Q: How does what you are sharing differ from art therapy? Can anyone lead teens in this or should it be someone with a counseling background?

A: We are unabashed fans of art therapy. It’s important to note that we are not therapists, and educators do not need counseling training to enjoy the significant benefits of working with our journal and activities. Helping teens to express themselves requires offering a safe space to create. What students need is a trustworthy adult who shows up and dedicates time to guiding them through the creative activities and peer discussion. Many young people do not have adults they can rely on, and your reliable presence is itself a huge relief and source of inspiration.

Support consists of making statements that show your understanding, acceptance, and concern. Support can also be expressed by making eye contact or smiling. Focus on providing comforting presence, excellent listening skills, and safety through integrity.

Q: What to do with introverts?

A: Thank you for your sensitivity and inclusion of all personality types. Creative projects are a goldmine for introverts, who typically enjoy exploring their inner landscape. They are interested in what makes them tick and can be inspired by creative prompts and enjoy working independently. During Circle Time, your students have an opportunity to share their creative activities, what they’re going through, and reveal their talents. The practice of the Rule of Kindness ensures that their peers’ response will be constructive, positive and affirming. Sometimes this is the first time an introvert might have of being truly heard, understood, and appreciated. From our observations, this experience is empowering. It bolsters self-esteem and the confidence and enthusiasm to share again in the future. We’ve witnessed introverts experiencing powerful shifts in their desire to share their creations with the world outside the classroom, whether it’s trying out for a play or band, or entering a writing or art contest. The trust and camaraderie discovered when a group of students, regardless of their background or personality type, share similar emotions is empowering and the foundation of Circle Time.

Q: How would you use or adapt Circle Time in a non-artwork setting?

A: Circle Time can happen in any classroom, and isn’t inherently about art, but rather what a person is feeling or experiencing in their life. It is a dedicated time to allow a student to show what they’ve created and allow others to respond. Circle Time is not a meeting to pinpoint only struggles. It’s equally as important to spend time focusing on good things that happen. This helps young people acknowledge how dark feelings can be transformed to light feelings through creativity. This way, students learn how build their lives to go the way they want. As we pointed out in the webinar, it isn’t mandatory to share; but when a student does gather the courage to show their art, profound positive transformation is possible.

Q: How do you guide a student to draw freely? (Example “I don’t know what to draw.”)

A: This is a common issue, shared by young people and adults alike! We’ve featured a few activities dedicated to this type of resistance in Dream Up Now. (In the journal, please refer to the emotions sets, I Feel Indecisive / I Feel…Decisive (pp. 153-157); and I Feel…Argumentative/ I Feel,,,Chill (pp. 160-164).

First and foremost, always ask for more art.

When you encourage a student to continue making more art you are essentially saying, “I see you, I accept you, and I want to know more about you.”

Q: What were the 3 things to remember? 

A: 1. Creative activities are tools to express ideas and feelings (that may not otherwise be shared).

2. Emotions are impermanent and every emotion is valuable.

3. Everyone is an artist.

Q: What do you say to a student who always says their drawing is bad?

A: Whatever art piece a student has created is a representation of their personhood. Sometimes the most resistant student is sitting on what is to them the most significant, poignant art. Or, the student may have adopted an unwillingness to share their authentic self because their ideas, feelings, or artwork were criticized in the past by people whose opinion greatly mattered to them.

The more closely it is guarded, often the more powerful the piece. However, once it is shared, others in the group have an opportunity to truly see the student and give them the support—understanding—and acceptance they may have worried was an impossibility.


Join Free Spirit on edWeb! Visit to explore practical, effective ways to integrate social emotional learning, inclusive teaching practice, and higher-level instruction. As a community member, you will receive:

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Rayne LackoRayne Lacko is a Young Adult author and an advocate for the arts as a form of social and emotional well-being. A teen-writing mentor, she cohosts a youth creative workshop, an annual writing camp, and a teen arts showcase. Through her work, she inspires young people and their families to use creativity to stimulate positive change in their lives and communities. Rayne lives near Seattle, Washington, with her spouse and two boys (a pianist and a drummer), a noisy cat, and her canine best friend.

Lesley HolmesLesley Holmes contributes her expertise to several educational and arts nonprofits benefitting children, teens, and older adults in and around Los Angeles. Her work promotes alternative therapies, music education, literacy, and food as a pathway to healing. A lifelong chef and baker, Lesley is a Los Angeles native who enjoys early morning hikes in the Hollywood Hills where she lives with her two teenage daughters.

Dream Up NowRayne and Lesley are the coauthors of Dream Up Now™: The Teen Journal for Creative Self-Discovery.

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