How did you start out in this career?

I was trained as a fine artist at Pratt Institute, specializing in painting, figure drawing and pottery. I was an art student of the 1960s, loving every moment of days fully covered in clay and paint, meeting incredible and talented artists and friends who have lasted a lifetime. I graduated with a BFA and a NY State Art Education Teaching License and proceeded to teach pottery and sculpture at schools like Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. I was so fortunate to be accepted into a Master of Arts Program with Philip Pearlstein at Brooklyn College, an experience like no other for a figure painter, especially in those years that focused on representational art from life. When I was hired to a teaching position at Kings County Hospital in the early 1970s, I was thrown into a relatively new field—Special Education—treating hundreds of kids who were sick and hurt—and who found themselves transferred into our hospital school, a common occurrence in NYC in the 1970s. For years, I helped to run an astounding educational program that taught me how to teach by using an arts-based core curriculum.  I was encouraged to immerse the kids, often who were in the hospital for years and became wards of the state, in multi-media activities to teach “other”—it turned out to be extremely effective as a teaching tool as well as facilitating pervasive joy in the children who desperately needed to be happy.

I had many children at this PS 401 Hospital School who learned to read, write and do math through art-making…an example was to teach fractions through the process of mixing primary to secondary colors and their values; kids who had never understood the concept learned fractions quickly by mixing paint. Overall, this experience as a young teacher made me curious about the many “out-of-the-box” ways that children learn as I gleaned the value of cross-disciplined teaching.

After taking off a few years to marry and have my two beautiful sons, it became apparent that much of the methodology I had been trying to use would soon be fully explained by scholars in the field of Arts and Cognition throughout the 1980′s—scholars of the cognitive processes involved in the creation of ideas like Howard Gardner who wrote Art, Mind, and Brain, and Kreitler & Kreitler on The Psychology of the Arts—brilliant, seminal books that led the way to unique courses of study about the powerful role that art plays in cognition and learning. I decided to take the plunge and do a doctorate in this field that held huge fascination for me and answered so many of my research and clinical questions.

My family lived in Bridgewater, New Jersey—and in 1983, I was fortunate to meet Dr. Helane Rosenberg at Rutgers University and be admitted to an innovative, cross-disciplined doctoral program—right near my family—that enabled me to study and get to soccer practice on time! Ultimately, I did all of my coursework and Doctoral Qualifying exams in both fields: Art and Special Education. Eventually, I wrote my dissertation (and received the The Best Dissertation Proposal of the Year Award in 1987) as a researcher for the Guggenheim Museum’s Learning to Read through the Arts Program.

That in-depth, profound research led me to the decision to open a clinical practice in New York City in early 1991, at which time-with dual licenses in Art Ed and Special Ed and a doctorate, I began to see children ages 3 and up who were experiencing problems with attention, language, developmental delay, and other academic challenges along with affective behavioral problems. The therapeutic process had begun—and as always, I used the skills I honed professionally as an artist and educator to support the foundation of my clinical work.

What does Arts-based Sensory Integration work mean? What do you do in your practice?

Arts-based means just this: using multi-media and Immersion in the fine and visual arts—projects like painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery, creative software, building mobiles, mosaics, unique and creative games, readiing, writing, and illustrating stories—as a VEHICLE to facilitate cognition in children with special learning needs. I utilize the structured, organized planning of multi-media projects to teach OTHER. A child cannot organize himself or see how to structure and plan an activity? We take primary colored paint, apply it to a box, mix white to it to make a light value, apply it to a box, mix black to it to make a dark value, and apply it to a box. After 9 boxes there is a canvas of primary colors and values in a pattern that facilitates improved motor planning, visual motor and visual perception skills, provides attention and focus, and makes a cognitive connection to information and new vocabulary. Lots of learning takes place in this little painting project…over time, it generalizes into many different learning and academic paradigms.

Can you give me an example of arts-based sensory work?

Using a plethora of multi-media enables me to desensitize children in the use of materials; if a child can’t stand clay on his hands and picks it off, he can’t do a clay project. We start out with touching the clay with just fingertips, and washing it off. Then we feel it when it’s cold, and warm. Then we squish it and make a hole in the clay, and stop. Now we will use our cupped hands and make a ball by transferring the clay from palm to palm. It’s slow and steady, and before long, this child who couldn’t stand the feeling of clay on his hands is digging into 50 pounds of clay and building a pot! If he can’t push the clay—say he has low tone—I work on fine motor skills, visual motor, and motor planning—all by pinching the clay, or rolling coils and throwing slabs. As he learns new vocabulary and uses new tools like extruders and garlic presses to make clay spaghetti, I have a child who couldn’t touch the clay now happily and successfully making pots—in a highly structured three-step activity—a child who has just learned to listen and implement the sequential tasks necessary to closure and success.

Do all the kids do well in the arts projects? What if my child doesn’t like art?

They all do well because I make sure that success is built in…this is not to say that everything is beautiful or that everything works well. Often I insert mistakes on purpose, so that they have to be thought through and dealt with. It’s the journey and the process that is every bit as valuable in a learning paradigm as is the final product. However, these are children, so I like to make sure that they have pride in their work and get to bring most all of their work home to share with their parents. Don’t forget, we read, write, play games, do puzzles, use software, and lots of other creative activities as well as fine arts. Every child does between 2-6 things in each 45 minute session, so we build endurance, attention, focus and deal with transitions, as well. Art is a powerful source of learning, and learning while having fun—what a concept!

Who works with the children in your practice? Do you have a staff?

I personally see every child in my practice in a 1:1 therapeutic session; the children work with me individually. Every so often, I will put together a small group of children who benefit from working interactively with another child or two.

What is the goal of the therapy?

Children (ages 3-14) learn HOW to learn, how to approach and think through a problem, how to motor plan and implement tasks to completion and success.The key is in the strength of discipline: it is at all times highly structured and organized so that variables like working memory, auditory processing, expressive and receptive language, sequential and organized thinking, visual perception, motor planning, and even accountability become generalized to other learning and school paradigms. I would have to describe myself as a Learning Specialist of the core elements—the very foundation—of learning. I am convinced that there is huge power in art-making for teaching “other”; the therapeutic process is productive, interactive, and enduring.

My goal for each child is that they meet their personal, individual potential and build on their strengths and gifts as well as improve their weaknesses or challenges. Success begets success.