Art Educational Therapy

Art Educational Therapy

Where do the art therapy sessions take place?

Art therapy sessions are offered at Art Therapy Ottarsdottir studio.

Online art educational therapy is also offered over the Internet. The treatment takes place via Skype or Zoom in a location which is suitable for the individual. The client has simple art materials available, such as paper and crayons, while the session takes place.

What are the benefits of Art Educational Therapy?

Coursework learning is integrated into art therapy in art educational therapy (AET) through art making with the aim of processing emotions and facilitating coursework learning. Connecting the emotional and intellectual side of each individual in that way opens up an internal dialogue between those two parts within the person, which redounds to forming of a more whole empowered human being.

Who benefits from Art Educational Therapy?

Art educational therapy (AET) is for individuals who seek to enhance their coursework learning and process emotions through art making, the therapeutic relationship and learning.

Origins of Art Educational Therapy

Dr Unnur Ottarsdottir initiated art educational therapy (AET). The development of AET began around 1994 but its theory and methods were developed over the years 1999-2000, in relation to Ottarsdottir’s doctoral research which was conducted in an Icelandic secondary school. Unnur has written about the research and published the findings internationally in many of the world’s leading journals and books in the field.

What is Art Educational Therapy?

The same basic theories and methods are applied in art educational therapy (AET) as are generally applied in art therapy, in addition to a focus on education. Coursework learning is integrated into art therapy in AET through art making, and specific learning difficulties are observed in relation to emotional difficulties. The individual’s verbal expressions and actions are viewed as forms of expression including coursework learning. Emotions, experiences, thoughts and rational thinking are worked with in AET through art making, writing and coursework learning within the therapeutic relationship, with the aim of enhancing emotional well-being and facilitating coursework learning.

Coursework Learning in Art Educational Therapy

Traditional coursework learning subjects, such as mathematics, reading, writing, grammar, social studies, physics and chemistry, are worked with in AET. Aiming to facilitate coursework learning and enhance emotional well-being, coursework subjects are integrated into art therapy in AET through art making, direct teaching, coursework learning and discussion.

Psychological Aspects

Trauma and difficult experiences can impede coursework learning. Individuals who grapple with specific learning difficulties often experience complicated emotions in regard to their learning and schooling. Emotions that arise when individuals are unable to master coursework learning, the inability to keep up with peers and the experience of being “different” can make the coursework learning even more difficult. An individual’s self-confidence can also suffer because of specific learning difficulties. Such emotions are worked with in art educational therapy.

The Therapeutic Relationship

In art educational therapy (AET) the client’s artwork, emotions and thoughts are accepted as they are. The therapist endeavours to provide understanding and encouragement, for example in relation to the client’s coursework learning and difficult experiences. In that way, the art making process within the therapeutic relationship benefits self-esteem and emotional well-being, which in turn facilitates coursework learning.

Art Making

Art making is incorporated into art educational therapy (AET) within the therapeutic relationship in a similar way as in art therapy. In addition, coursework learning and emotional processing are intertwined through the art making. In AET a different medium is applied from what is customary in education, so that rather than mainly applying letters and numbers, the approach is to a large degree creative, visual and pictorial, which better suits many individuals who struggle with specific learning difficulties. Individuals who deal with specific learning difficulties often find it easier to engage with projects which include visual thinking rather than solely using words. Art making also brings creativity and playfulness into coursework learning, which in turn can make the coursework learning process increasingly manageable and more enjoyable.


Art education therapy (AET) is partly based on theories and methods concerning “writing-images”, where letters and images are intertwined. For many young children, reading and mathematics learning begins with play, which involves the process of writing-images during the period before they develop knowledge about the phonetics and symbols that make up the letters of the alphabet. This learning process of writing-images is spontaneous and takes place without formal education. In this way, children learn naturally and effortlessly through drawing images of numbers and the letters of the alphabet. In AET the individual learns coursework in a similar way, naturally and effortlessly, through art making.

Writing-images are seen as an essential foundation for studies later in life. These childhood writing-image methods are applied in AET for older students who are dealing with specific learning difficulties in order to strengthen the foundation that underpins their studies. Individuals with specific learning difficulties are offered the chance to playfully create writing-images in AET with the aim of reclaiming the learning skills rooted in the early stimulus of writing-images. The creation of writing-images, along with other pictorial creations made within the therapeutic relationship, can facilitate coursework learning and enhance emotional well-being whereby writing-images can be a path for emotional processing, like in art therapy in general.

Memory Drawings

Memory drawing is part of art educational therapy (AET). Such drawing can involve images on their own but words can also be connected to them in diverse ways. Memory drawing aids individuals in better memorizing various facts related to their studies, for example spelling, translations of foreign words and facts connected to coursework subjects. A quantitative study conducted by Unnur Ottarsdottir showed that, over long time periods, it is generally five times easier to recall drawn images of word content than written words. The study was the first comprehensive study that systematically compared the effect on memory of drawing word content and writing words. In addition to aiding memory retention, memory drawing can facilitate processing of emotions and difficult experiences in the same way as the art-making process within art therapy. The study was the first comprehensive study that systematically compared the effect on memory of drawing word content and writing words.  See further information here.

The Setting of Art Educational Therapy

The setting for art educational therapy is the same as for art therapy. The therapist is bound to confidentiality and he/she provides a safe space for the client, who attends the therapy sessions regularly over a certain period of time.

In AET, individuals can work to improve their coursework learning concurrently with emotional processing within the same AET session. This arrangement provides a practical solution while lessening the effort of attending therapy sessions and special education classes at two separate locations.

Art Educational Therapy


23-year-old male:

“I participated in Unnur’s art educational therapy 10 years ago when I was 12. The therapy was tailored to my needs and it helped me learn and feel better. In the sessions, I used drawings to learn coursework subjects and express my emotions. Later, I developed a method on the basis of what I learned during the art educational therapy, where I used a visual environment to help get a grasp of words, phrases and foreign languages. I’ve managed to learn a number of languages by using this method, despite being dyslexic.”

Comments by mother of an 11-year-old boy:

“My son is dyslexic and he has received art therapy with Unnur for a while. He is very happy with the sessions, and when she showed him how he could make art together with learning English, he was all smiles at the end of the session.”

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