Scanlan Center for School Mental Health
Teacher working with student on art project

How to Foster Creativity and Mental Wellness in the Classroom

written by

Claire McCall

Teaching & Learning

I was lucky enough to bring my first trumpet home at age 9, intrigued with how the crafted piece of metal worked and how the buzz of my lips and the flow of air created came together to create beautiful music.

The guidance provided by my music educators led not only to the improvement of my technical abilities but to greater confidence in myself. Ultimately, they taught me how to how to express myself and communicate with others through the language of music.

Unfortunately, many students within the current educational system do not get exposure to the creative outlets and disciplines they need to grow and thrive.

Additionally, many children and adolescents with ADHD have creative instincts but struggle with academic work. Without providing creative activities in the classroom, teachers may be missing an opportunity to connect and understand certain students.

The book, Visual Thinking by Temple Grandin points out that the American school system has shifted from a ‘multifaceted curricula’ which offered programs like metal shop, art, and home economics, to one that is predominately aimed at improving test scores.

Unfortunately, this has led schools to cut these types of programs. A family member of mine who has dyslexia once shared with me that it was through metal shop, not traditional math courses, where he learned mathematical concepts and drafting skills. Without such an outlet, he would not have felt as confident during his K-12 educational experience. 

Other studies have shown the profound impact of creativity on students’ mental health and well-being.

In a study assessing the effectiveness of creative interventions in classrooms, children benefitted from organized, classroom-based creative programs. Notably, results showed significant improvement in areas such as hope, coping and resiliency, prosocial behaviors, self-esteem, and emotional and behavioral problems.

In 2015, Dr. Cathy Malchiodi cited multiple studies confirming that being creative can increase positive emotions, lessen depressive symptoms, reduce stress, decrease anxiety, and even improve immune system functioning.

So how can educators better facilitate the exploration and development of students’ capacity for imagination and creativity?

Here are 3 ways to help you cultivate creativity in your classroom: 

#1 Reimagine classroom activities.

A recurring theme in creativity research is the idea of shifting perspective. Some examples include sprinkling words like “imagine,” “create,” or “reinvent” into assignments, hosting a creativity fair that features students’ creative projects, or playing a version of i-spy that incorporates the senses to encourage young students to be inquisitive about the world around them. 

These may seem like small activities, but children remember how creative activities make them feel.

I still remember my 4th-grade class gathering around the teacher’s piano and singing the ‘Good Morning’ song every Monday at the start of class. I realize now that the collective and creative spirit of the activity not only boosted my mood but centered the class and transitioned us to the school environment. 

#2 Take a minute for mindfulness.

While finding one’s creative niche is important, learning to ground oneself and remain focused while involved in a creative activity is equally necessary.

This can be especially challenging for younger minds whose brains are still developing. 

Try the activity below to help students focus and reacquaint themselves with the present moment.

Tip: This may be a helpful technique after recess and lunch breaks when students are reacclimating to the classroom environment.

Here are some meditation activities and professional learning you can also try:

#3 Know your students and how they learn best.

Passive learning is a thing of the past.

How can you inspire students to be “active doers” and “problem-solvers”? Follow their lead by finding out what ignites excitement and passion in students. 

In an article discussing teaching creativity in the classroom, the American Psychological Association encourage teachers to have casual conversations with students about their interests and to tell students when they notice “creative competence.”

It could also be helpful for teachers to share how creativity looks different from person to person so that comparison is less likely to take place between students.

Additionally, think about how you engage students with learning differences like ADHD.

Studies emphasize that those with certain ADHD show higher levels of divergent thinking while convergent thinking abilities are similar to other students without this developmental disorder. 

And, while some adolescents and children with ADHD struggle in areas like creative imagery, creative expression is not directly impacted by attributes like hyperactivity and inattentiveness.

When a student is struggling with a creative project, complimenting their effort and asking how you can help is a great step towards a collaborative solution.

More resources on how to encourage creative thinking in the classroom:

Creativity comes in different forms and is expressed differently depending on who you are and how you have been raised.

There are endless possibilities and opportunities that can only serve to enlighten and broaden young minds. Create possibility! You are creative too!

Claire McCall is currently a Scanlan Center for School Mental Health Social-Emotional-Behavioral Health Workforce Trainee and Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at the University of Iowa College of Education. Claire’s research focuses on understanding how students with ADHD can cultivate and draw upon creative abilities as adaptive tools in and outside classroom settings.