Audrey Di Maria - Mentor Teacher

By: Audrey Di Maria

Audrey Di Maria

November's mentor teacher is Audrey Di Maria MA, ATR-BC. Audrey is an art therapist who works at the Paul Robeson School for Growth and Development, a psychoeducational facility managed by the District of Columbia Department of Mental Health, Community Services. The art therapy program at the Paul Robeson School helps children deal with the emotional issues often associated with LD and/or ADHD.

The Paul Robeson School serves children, ages 5-12, whose emotional problems are too intense for local school-based accommodations. Says the school's director, Harriet Crawley LICSW, "Our goal is to have the children back in a regular program, with accommodations, in their base school within two years. Recently the children who are applying for admission to our program have been presenting with more complex emotional issues so the transition seems to be taking longer. Given the high level of support and structure provided by our school, children who cannot make the adjustment may have to be referred for residential placement."

Audrey has been teaching and working at the Paul Robeson school for nearly 25 years. In 1997, she received the American Art Therapy Association's Clinician's Award" for her work. She is certified art therapist. Currently she is Secretary of the Art Therapy's Credential Board. She also is Adjunct Associate Professor in The George Washington University's Graduate Training Program in Art therapy.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the important philosophy of your program?

Inspirational mural in Paul Robeson School

Inspirational mural in Paul Robeson School

Our program is devoted to helping children with emotional problems and learning disabilities find a path to success by working to achieve goals. The 9' x 20' "I Can Achieve Anything" mural on our school wall tells the story. The sun helps the children see how many different professions can be part of a bright future; each of the 17 rays lists jobs within a field such as Business, Technology, Sports, and Health. The mural also depicts family members and other people in the community (teachers, ministers, policemen, doctors) who can help a child move along the path to success, from pre-school through college and beyond. Our school's namesake, Paul Robeson, serves as a model for our children. An award-winning athlete, writer, musician, scholar,artist, and lawyer who spoke 22 languages, the degree and range of his achievements sets an example for our children to follow.

What is art therapy? (see related articles at the bottom of this page)

Girl painting

Art therapy is a psychotherapeutic discipline that utilizes art materials as a means of facilitating the expression of thoughts and feelings that an individual might find difficult to verbalize. The goals of art therapy are formulated in accordance with each individual's needs, resources, and interests, and may include increasing communication, developing self-control, building frustration tolerance, and promoting self esteem. Emphasis is placed upon the creative process, rather than upon the finished project. Trained and skilled in art therapy techniques and interventions, the art therapist, who may serve as a primary or an adjunctive therapist, encourages individuals to express personal concerns through the creation of art. The work produced can be viewed as a tangible record of progress made toward meeting treatment goals, as well as an indication of where further intervention should take place. The art work may not only be a source of pride for its creator, but also serve as a springboard for increased verbal communication.(From the "Guidelines for Assignment of Clinical Privileges for Art Therapists, DC Department of Mental Health.")

Training for Art Therapists

White House Commission on Complementary and Alternative Medicine Testimony on Art Therapy Training and Credentialing

Are there specific programs or assessments that you use to determine if art therapy will help a child?

Yes; there are a number of art therapy assessment procedures, such as the Diagnostic Drawing Series, the Ulman Personality Assessment Procedure, and the Person Picking an Apple From a Tree. I use a modification of a procedure developed by Edith Kramer, which involves having the child create a drawing, a painting, and then a clay sculpture. The drawing task affords the greatest amount of structure and allows the child to alter his image at will. The painting task introduces the challenges not only of manipulating a more fluid, less readily controllable medium within a larger working space, but also of utilizing color, which allows for a freer expression of feelings. For those children for whom the "loosening" experience of painting has been too confronting, clay can provide an opportunity to regain a sense of control. Art therapy can help meet a wide variety of goals listed on the Individualized Education Program. (see related articles at the bottom of this page)

Are there special techniques that you use with children that have LD and or ADHD?

Children with ADHD are often distractible and impulsive. Although initially they might want to use lots of materials at the same time or to mark on a series of sheets of paper, quickly dismissing each in turn, we help them to focus upon a single project at a time. This might involve reviewing with the child what he wishes to accomplish that day. Once the priority is set by the child, the art therapist can help him to maintain focus on that project. We might begin with short sessions, especially for the younger children, and lengthen the time as they develop their ability to attend. Projects usually become more complex as the children begin to feel more secure about using art to express their feelings.

In my work, I have found that children who have learning disabilities often respond best to three-dimensional materials that allow them to "construct" art in a very hands-on manner. So, in my art therapy room, I have a range of building materials such as large chunks of Styrofoam, wood, spools, cardboard tubes, sheets of foam core, and, of course, clay.

"Adaptations and Suggestions for Teachers and Art Therapists who Work with Children with Learning Disabilities"

Poster created by an art therapist

Art therapists created posters to help children understand the effects of AD/HD

Is there one technique that you can describe that works well to help children transfer what they learn in art therapy to "life in the real world?"

a. Many of our techniques are designed to help a child to better understand the events that occur before, during, and after an episode of "acting out" behavior. These strategies are built loosely around Fritz Redl's concept of the Life Space Interview. In one art therapy technique (see related articles at the bottom of this page,) for example, children are asked to draw pictures in a sequence which enables them not only to visualize the chain of events that led up to the crisis (and its consequences), but also to explore alternative ways in which similar problems might be resolved in the future.

b. The school has a system of positive reinforcement that provides opportunities for the children to earn "Paul Robeson School dollars" for positive behavior - money which can be used to purchase items from the school store. A large painted "School Star" holds the photographs of those children who have met all their goals for the week.

c. Another mural on our wall depicts a series of stairs. Every September, each child's photograph is placed on the bottom step. As the children earn points for acquiring better social skills or exhibiting greater self-control, they are allowed to move their photographs to a higher stair. Every time they reach a new level, they have the opportunity to spin a wheel which allows them to obtain a special treat, such as more time on the computer or a snack with a staff member of their choice.

Why does art therapy work?

One of the 5 year olds with whom I used to work always called Art Therapy "Art Thirsty" - and, indeed, the children who have bounded, trudged, raced, stomped, or eased their way into my office every school days for nearly 25 years have been thirst-thirsty for opportunities to express themselves. Art therapy has offered the creative and amazingly resilient 5- to 12-year olds who attend Paul Robeson School a chance to communicate their worries, their questions, and their hopes in symbolic form and, in the process, to gain a sense of accomplishment and confidence. The array of art work that they have produced provides a durable record of challenges faced, problems solved, and goals met. Creating it - and working to understand what it may be able to teach them about themselves has helped the children to feel more competent- not only in their art-making, but in other areas of their lives.


A mirror on the wall over the sink where children wash their hands reminds them that they are "marvelous."

Clay figure

A clay figure reads about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Tommy G. Thompson and student

Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy G. Thompson, talks with one of our students.

Student painting with Di Maria

Painting with Audrey Di Maria


Children Create a Claytown

Reward wheel

Children are rewarded for positive behavior. By spinning the wheel, children can have an item from the school store or one-to-one time with a favorite teacher.

Children often come to their first art therapy session expecting to fail. They are afraid that they are going to "mess up" or that their art work is going to be compared unfavorably with that of other children. One of my first jobs, as art therapist, is to help them to see how special their own ideas are and, as they give form to those ideas, how extraordinary they are. The goal is not to produce uniform work, but to celebrate the diversity of each child's unique creation. This can help to raise the child's sense of self-esteem, fostering the development of a more positive self concept.

Problems encountered in the art-making process often parallel problems encountered in life. Addressing them when they arise in the art and working them through within the context of the creative process can help the child learn that areas in need of change can be targeted, that "mistakes" can be salvaged, that resources can be identified, that problem-solving skills can be developed, that areas of strength can be distinguished from areas of weakness, and that feelings of pride can be derived from successfully meeting goals that one has set. This process can help the child to increase his ability to control his impulses, to increase the level of his frustration tolerance, and to delay gratification. It can also help him to perceive himself as a person who "can" rather than as someone who "cannot."

Art therapy can offer children a safe place in which feelings that might be considered too difficult to talk about can be given graphic form, rather than acted out. It can provide a vehicle for the expression of a wide range of emotions, including uncomfortable or disruptive ones, helping children to better understand those feelings as a result of their efforts to more appropriately focus, contain, modulate, or channel them. For example, one can "splash feelings" onto a sheet of paper without hurting anyone and without feeling guilty or fearful of retaliation. When the work containing those emotions is attached to the wall of the art therapy room for further comment by the child, he is able to view it with a greater sense of objectivity. Thus, the art can serve as a stimulus to increased verbalization, such as story-telling or discussion of a more direct nature. Then, there is the richness of the imagery itself!

Are there special projects that your school has done that the children have really enjoyed?

This year we were asked to create a diorama for a 14'-wide case in the office of Tommy Thompson, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Entitled "Growing Up Healthy in the Nation's Capital", it depicts the Mall, from the Capitol to the Washington Monument and includes 45 clay figures, shown jogging, jumping rope, playing soccer, roller-blading, reading, , walking dogs, flying kites, planting flowers, and picnicking. One figure, created by a 6 year old, is a likeness of Secretary Thompson, riding his motorcycle to work. During each of the 8 years that Donna Shalala was Secretary of HHS, the children created handmade ornaments for the Christmas tree in her office. All of these events have reinforced the children's developing perceptions of themselves as creative, competent individuals who "can"!

Scenic diorama

Growing Up Healthy in the Nation's Capital: a, scenic diorama created for HHS by Paul Robeson School students.

Photos reprinted with permission

Audrey Di Maria (2001)