There are a plethora of mental health therapies available in this day and age and with research, one of emerging great value is Art Therapy. Art therapy can be defined in many ways, but the simplest way to define it is an application of the visual arts in a therapeutic context. Art Therapy can treat anyone who feels overwhelmed or pressured by the hectic world we live in. There are a wide range of benefits that one can experience through art from improving self management, decreasing depression, cognitive behavior, addressing past trauma’s, reducing stress and anxiety, mitigating symptoms and so much more.
I am overjoyed to feature Sophia Saad, a New York City-based licensed art therapist and special educator with over 10 years of experience in special education and emotional development. Sophia is passionate in addressing “the whole child,” she actively researched and studied methods to help children confidently address social, emotional, and cognitive challenges. Sophia’s unique alchemy refers to both art therapy and special education to help children find joy, confidence, and relief in their struggles.
Saad Art Therapy incorporates Art therapy and mindfulness for all children seeking social and emotional support. Her clients are supported and guided into developing a greater sense of self, increased confidence, and mental clarity.
Read my interview with Sophia below to learn about her special gifts and remarkable work she shares with the world.
Hi Sophia, we are thrilled to learn more about you. Can you share a bit on your background and education?
My background is in emotional development and special education. I studied early childhood (special) education and psychology at New York University as an undergraduate and later received my Master’s degree in Art Therapy from the School of Visual Arts. Many people ask me if I am an art therapist or a special educator. I am both a board certified (ATR-BC) and licensed (LCAT) creative art therapist and certified special educator. Without giving up either field, I chose to create a practice that combines and complements both, offering a unique approach to emotional, social and cognitive growth.
What inspired you to get into the field of Art Therapy?
Special education actually led me to art therapy. As a student at NYU, I read about their art therapy program and contemplated changing my major. I stuck to education, and right out of college I started working at Stephen Gaynor School, an independent, special education school for children with learning differences. In the classroom, I used art as a way for students to express their knowledge, understand and express emotions, and form connections and build relationships with others. It was apparent how much children benefitted from having a creative outlet in which they did not need to rely on the use of language. I started playing around with the idea of incorporating art therapy into the classroom and applied to the Art Therapy program at SVA. At the end of the program, I ended up where I started. I returned to Stephen Gaynor as a classroom teacher while simultaneously creating, and leading therapeutic art classes for the Early Childhood students. Which, I still do today. I always had the mindset that I would return to teaching and bring art therapy into the school system. My ideas and goals evolved over the years, but the need for art therapy for children only became more apparent.
When did you have the calling to work with children with special needs and what do you feel most drawn to about working with children with special needs?
In a way, I went in blind. I did not have that much experience with children with disabilities. I was inspired to explore the field because my sister and cousin both had learning disabilities and my father’s aunt had down syndrome. When I chose this path, it was because of an innate feeling and deep interest in special education. Over the years, as I gained more experience, I was drawn to helping children feel valued, heard, connected to, and most importantly see themselves other than and more than their disability. I had a professor at NYU, I don’t remember his name, but I will always remember one question he asked us, “Can the child not learn or not learn because of the way you are teaching?” This always inspired me to create learning experiences that were tailored to my students’ needs and learning abilities.
Do you have an Artist background?
Yes, in a very loose manner. I grew up painting and took various art classes throughout my life, mostly in figure painting and drawing.
But I never consistently practiced enhancing my skills. As much as I care about the aesthetic quality of my work, over time, the process became more important to me. I focus more on the emotional outlet it serves me.
What is the process like with an Art therapy session with you?
Because of my experiences in art therapy and special education I was inspired to create a holistic, “whole-child” approach to mindful development. Therefore, an art therapy session is very individualized. For example, for children struggling with reading development, I offer therapeutic tutoring (tutoring combined with art therapy or yoga).
The process in a typical art therapy session is to get centered, create art, and then process the artwork/session.
This could be a quick verbal/visual check-in or conversation, such as adding words or pictures to their feeling jar (e.g., a worry jar), mindful breathing or diving into the art directive (activity).
The art activity can be client-directed, which means the client chooses the medium and what they want to do with it (e.g., clay, paint, sand, doll making, comic books, stop motion) or I provide a directive. For example, for a child who struggles with insecurities or has perfectionist tendencies, we could explore and reshape the concepts of vulnerability and mistakes through splatter painting, abstract art or finding imagery in scribble drawings.
Each client approaches the art-making process differently. Some clients are more verbal than others and speak directly about their feelings, challenges or successes. Other clients talk about their artwork and the process, and some clients do not talk at all.
First, clients clean up the art space. This helps them feel ownership and responsibility for the workspace and materials. Setting up and cleaning up helps clients develop executive functioning skills as they learn to organize their workspace in an efficient manner and then take it apart. This is a very useful step for children with learning differences and ADHD.
Then, clients have time to reflect on their work, the process, and express any feelings that arose during the session. This might include me making observations of the client’s artwork or process and asking direct questions that are answered or merely considered.
Clients are then given time to re-center by engaging in breathing techniques to regulate their energy and feelings or a form of meditation or quiet time (i.e. glitter jar). Breathing techniques, along with other strategies are encouraged as tools to be used outside of the session to regulate one’s emotions and energy.
What are the benefits of Art therapy and how do they differ from talk therapy?
Art therapy allows clients to express themselves through a creative outlet without the pressure or vulnerability of (verbal) language. Talk therapy is a field that has been around for decades and is proven to be beneficial. However, in talk therapy clients are hesitant to discuss their feelings and challenges or are unsure how to articulate them, how to verbally express themselves. In an art therapy session, a client is given the opportunity to work through a metaphoric means (i.e. the artwork or art process) to gain social, emotional, and cognitive insight and express oneself in a more articulate manner.
What are some of the highlights you can reflect on that you experienced with your profession?
I’ve worked with many different clients. However, I specialize in working with children with social and emotional challenges and learning differences. Each client is unique; their clinical needs and goals, but I am a big believer in the correlation between self-esteem and positive social, emotional, and cognitive development. Over the years I’ve seen my clients and students realize that they were able to create and complete a project, express and acknowledge their anxieties, understand their feelings and express them in a pro-social manner or acknowledge their learning differences and confidently take risks in the classroom, rather than shying away from making a mistake. The highlight is watching my clients and students develop a greater sense of self and become more successful in social and academic settings.
A little about you now? Can you share a bit on your practice and devotion to self-care?
My self-care routine is simple. It took me a long time to create a sustainable routine because I used to over exert myself. I practice yoga weekly and engage in some form of physical exercise once or twice a week. I walk a lot and listen to music. When I am stressed I need to paint- acrylic paint is my go-to medium or draw with charcoal pastels. It has taken me years to find a good work-life balance, so keeping that in check is really important to me. I try to only answer emails on my computer and reading a book on my way to work has helped me turn off my work-brain and enjoy my personal time.
What feels most JOYFUL in your life momentarily?
Opening my own practice, Saad Art Therapy, was a big career change. I was extremely hesitant to leave a job that I loved and felt secure and comfortable in. I feel most JOYFUL that I took the risk and that I am enjoying the challenge of bringing my vision to life.
Sophia Saad works with children from ages 4 years old to Tweens. She specializes in emotional development, children with anxiety, social issues, learning disabilities, and difficulties with executive functioning skills. You can find out more by linking HERE.
Photos in this story by Allegra Blinken