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Children at a Washington Heights public school
Children at a Washington Heights public school prepare to put on a puppet show under the auspices of the Caring at Columbia program. The kids are instructed in the use of puppets to help them with social issues they face in their daily lives. Here, a group of fourth graders has created a show called “The Fight,” in which they have their puppets act out the problem of spreading rumors.
When child and adolescent psychiatric residents at P&S and artists at the Museo del Barrio, a Harlem museum dedicated to Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American art, started an experimental collaboration, their goals were simple. Art interns at the Museo, who were teaching art to community children, needed Columbia’s expertise in psychiatry to help develop effective teaching strategies, and Columbia’s psychiatric residents needed experience working with children in a non-institutional setting.
   “It was a natural match,” says Ian Canino, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry. “We had the child development people, and they had the art education piece.” Dr. Canino founded the program with Clarice Kestenbaum, M.D., professor of clinical psychiatry, about two decades ago.
  That idea has since become CARING at Columbia – “Caring” stands for Children at Risk: Intervention for a New Generation – a full-fledged psycho-educational program that focuses on teaching children healthy coping skills through art, while also training Columbia psychiatric residents to work with kids outside of institutional and private settings.
  Each CARING team consists of a psychiatric resident who takes the course as an elective; a creative arts therapist, who uses visual arts, drama, or music to implement the lessons; and a volunteer, who might have any background and an interest in working with children.
  Eric Alcera, M.D., P&S’06, a pediatric psychiatrist at NewYork-Presbyterian’s Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program, participated in the CARING program as part of his rotation and says it helped him gain insight into how children get their feelings out. “Kids do have the ability and capacity to express how they are feeling – it’s just a matter of tapping into it, whether through music, or art, or dance. Each has his or her individual strength and as you work with them this way it’s surprising how you can learn what’s bothering them and find ways to help.”
  The team implements nine lessons that progress from the simplest concept of self- acceptance, to building awareness and respect for cultural, ethnic, and religious differences in others, and finally to emphasizing community responsibility and involvement.
  This year, about 100 at-risk children from schools in Washington Heights and Harlem will participate in the semester-long, small-group classes that use art and a culturally inclusive curriculum to infuse students with self-esteem, a sense of social responsibility, and strategies for coping with stresses like family problems, community violence, and difficult emotions.
  “These are mainstream kids growing up in neighborhoods with a great deal of poverty and violence,” says Robin Snow, the primary art therapist and project coordinator. “We want to give them the coping skills to deal with these problems and help them understand that they are strong, but also that there are ways to reach out for help when they need it. We want to open them up to be able to talk to safe adults.”
  The small classes and individualized attention can prevent minor social problems from becoming full-blown psychiatric issues that may be much more difficult to treat later on. “So many kids need individualized attention, and it’s very hard with the set-up of schools to be able to provide that. If there are problems at home and no one to help, or even notice that the child is growing more isolated, that’s where we can come in,” says Ms. Snow.
  Caring at Columbia asks for no contribution from schools and is funded entirely by private donations. “Funding this program is an ongoing challenge, but we want to ensure that once a school accepts our program, it doesn’t cost them a thing,” says Ms. Snow. “We want to be able to offer support, independent of a school’s ability to pay, to kids who often don’t have much support in their lives.”