Expressing Emotions with Art: San Joaquin County Juvenile Justice Center


Once stark and colorless, the walls of the San Joaquin County Juvenile Justice Center have been completely transformed into a beautiful display of colorful creativity inspired by its very own residents. With the help of local artist Erin Elizabeth and in collaboration with the San Joaquin County Office of Education (SJCOE) and San Joaquin County Probation Office, the Juvenile Justice Center turned its walls into a canvas for students’ imaginations. The immersive art therapy program gives students an opportunity to practice interpersonal skills, exercise patience, and leave their artistic mark on the facility.


The Juvenile Justice Center offers a therapeutic environment that supports youth and helps them engage with their emotions in healthy and safe ways. Through their art therapy program, individuals at the site can learn new ways to express themselves through creativity.

“By having this program and bringing in the artist to work with students, the kids have an opportunity to see what it looks like to be calm, helpful, and inspiring,” said Doug Silva, a director of SJCOE County Operated Schools and Programs (COSP). COSP works to provide educational programs and places that support all students of San Joaquin County, academically, socio-emotionally, and through career development. At the Juvenile Justice Center, COSP operates two schools: one.Cruikshank and one.Camp.


The program at these sites is centered around a Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) model that teaches students about a special platform, which students know as CHILL: Calm, Helpful, Inspire, Listen, and Learn. Elizabeth utilized the terms of CHILL to encourage the students to illustrate what those terms looked like and how the motto resonated with them personally.

Taking the artistic representations created by the students in the program, Elizabeth transformed them into a larger-than-life mural painted proudly on the walls. The students also paint their own works of art on canvas.

They are featured in the one.Gallery, a showcase for the student art lining walls of the staircase leading to the COSP offices, on display for the public and staff to enjoy. And they do much more than paint during the art therapy sessions, Silva said. While painting landscapes, they also love engaging in discussions about nature and the outdoors. “The greatest benefit that the students get from putting their work on a canvas is the satisfaction and sense of electric positivity that comes from doing something that makes one feel good –even though one might not be in a good place,” he said.


Since the art therapy program began, overall suspensions have been down. It’s not just a behavioral change, Silva said, it’s a cultural change — for students as well as staff from SJCOE and the Probation Office. After taking a handful of art classes and contributing to the mural projects, one student said he looks forward to joining the art sessions. Not only does it change up his normal routine, but the student said he also enjoys the process of creating something new. “I like that you’re able to start off with something blank, then you can make it whatever you want,” he said. “It’s calming.”

Throughout the program, Elizabeth encouraged the kids to break away from any nervousness and to embrace their own creative processes. In this way, students could witness each others’ own unique forms of expression, support each other, and unite through the diversity of their art. “Painting gives my students the space and movement to express themselves in a healthy way,” she said. “My wish for my students is that they see the beauty that they already are, to heal and to forgive.”

The mural also serves as a reminder to the students and staff at the school. The beautiful artwork recognizes how unique and creative approaches can support emotional expression, collaboration, and learning. “The mural completely changed the environment at the facility,” Silva said. “It opened the door to what is possible here.”

District Name: San Joaquin County Office of Education

School Name: one.Cruikshank and one.Camp

County: San Joaquin