Middle school can be tough on self-esteem. Social comparison becomes more intense and can lead to feelings of unworthiness that affect everything from healthy decision-making to academic performance. When I was in middle school, participation in team sports boosted my confidence and kept me on a positive path. As the manager of an afterschool program with a strong emphasis on the visual arts, I have had the opportunity to observe how creative pursuits can have a similar transformative impact on a young person’s life. 

At the beginning of the school year, after more than a year of remote learning, most of our afterschool program students experienced some degree of social anxiety or awkwardness. A handful of students, however, suffered much more intensely than others. I remember one of our students, an only child who had virtually no contact with other kids while school campuses were closed, was extremely insecure and struggled to communicate or even make eye contact with his peers.

He flourished in our visual arts classes though and, quickly, everything began to change for him. The vivid imagination and endless ideas that he had been unable to share in words began to fly out of him onto the paper, canvas, and screen. He started to get tons of positive feedback from his classmates. He developed friendships with other students with a passion for anime and comic books, across surprisingly diverse peer groups, and he no longer spent lunch and recess during the school day alone. 

Of course, engagement with the arts isn’t some kind of magic fix for every kid’s experience of marginalization. But I have seen with my own eyes, time and time again, how participation in the arts has connected the most unlikely kids.  And how it has inspired them to be more expressive and authentic in other areas of their lives…more willing to step outside of their comfort zones and try new and hard things.

I think this is especially the case in creative youth development programs like Oakland Leaf’s, where all activities have an integrated social and emotional learning component that promotes creative risk-taking, peer appreciation, and bridge-building across differences. And where all of our educators, including our art teachers, are trained in multicultural education, trauma-informed practices, and restorative justice.

by Jonathan Higgenbotham
Bret Harte Middle School Afterschool Program Manager