As they grow, we grow

Community art Counsellor, Ziyanda Magadla, writes about her journey and compares it to that of a participant she has been closely observing.

By Ziyanda Magadla
Visuals by Vasintha Pather


The impact of the group process and art counselling on the individuals in a therapeutic space.

The aim is to look at the growth and the positive results that the group process and art counselling brings out of the individuals involved. I wanted to share the little goodness that this work we do does to the individual.

Case Background

N is a young boy I met at Lefika La Phodiso when I did my first holiday programme in September 2016. N was in the ECD group, he was 5 years old when I met him and now he is 7 years old. He lives in the inner-city of Johannesburg (Hillbrow). I was a volunteer, just starting with my practical hours for the social auxiliary worker course that I was doing at Aganang. As it was my first time engaging with this work and I was a new member of the team I was often unsure of what to do and what was expected of me. N, as a regular in the Open Studio seemed to want to show me he knows and owns the space.

Holiday Programme September 2016

When I met N his behaviour was not good in any way. He was teasing and bullying other members of the group. He seemed to struggle with respecting the space and at some point was literally climbing the walls. He used vulgar language and comments towards everyone – including the facilitators. And he did not seem to enjoy being told what to do. He protested by running away or hiding under the couch. We wondered about his feeling of safety and his engagement with other older people.

As a brand new volunteer, with almost no experience working with children I felt really lost and confused. The volunteer training was there at the back of my mind but the implementation of it was really hard. I knew from the training that I had to reflect their behaviour back to them and observe them in order to better understand their behaviour. I struggled with reflecting and their behaviour made me want to run away instead of observing and finding out what it means.

N was a regular in Open Studio where I also became a volunteer after the Holiday Program. In Open Studio I was placed with the juniors and were no longer in the ECD group where N was. But in supervision I heard the observations of my colleagues and it seemed to corroborate with what I found in the Holiday Program. I was also still observing him and continued to reflect on his behaviour as I ran the pre-studio – where I engaged with both the juniors and the ECD groups.

What made me go back, was hope for change. And although I felt overwhelmed at times, I continued coming back and learning more. N also never stopped coming. All of this was a choice. Taken by both of us: No-one is forced to volunteer and no-one is forced to attend Open Studio. This seemed to really speak to growth in both of us – taking the opportunity to do something that is beneficial. Speaking to developing resilience and agency – some of the aims set for the programs of Lefika.

Holiday Programme July 2018

In the July Holiday Programme this year – almost a year after my last official interaction with N in pre-studio – I got the opportunity to co-facilitate the ECD group. N was attending this group which gave me a great opportunity to reflect on his journey. This made me reflect on my own journey – from starting at the holiday programme, almost two years ago, to volunteering in Open Studio, doing the Community Art Counselling Training, facilitating on the National Dialogues and completing my social auxiliary work course. Back to where I started at Lefika, now in a different capacity, but with the same group.

The theme was “Accepting and respecting”. The moment N stepped in the room I felt somewhat fearful, because I know what he was capable of. But, after the experience in Open Studio and the training, I knew at that moment that I had to put my counsellors “hat” on. I had couldn’t treat N according to what I know about him, but hold him in mind with unconditional positive regard. A concept developed by humanist, Carl Rogers, that says that basic acceptance and support of a person regardless of what the person says or does is beneficial in the context of client-centered therapy.

Day 1

As N entered the space he greeted everyone – something that the N that I knew wouldn’t do. He was also very calm and paid attention to instruction. N’s ability to express himself also has grown markedly. On the first day he was able to sit down like the other kids and did his check-in without hesitation. N still struggles with expressing himself in English, but was confident enough to not stay silent and try. We introduced the theme and read a story which was talking to the theme. The group members had to identify when the boy in the story was accepted and respected and when he was disrespected and not accepted. N was participating and concentrating fully in this activity. He even managed to point out things in the story that he wouldn’t like other to do to him. That was a very good moment for me to observe. His ability to “take in” the story and to “give back” how it relates to his live was really inspiring.

Day 2

On the second day he come early seemed to be excited. He offered to bring the other kids downstairs to the room where we were running our sessions. To me that was amazing because he was giving himself responsibilities which when we first met he was not able to commit to. He wanted to start when we were doing the check-in and at some points in the session he showed signs of leadership for example wanted to show others how we do things in the session. He become a little bit aggressive to one new girl while we were introducing ourselves in the session. At that point I knew what to do although before our training, I wouldn’t have known how to deal with this. I was able to reflect it back to him and also remind him of our theme and what he said he didn’t like other people to do to him. He quickly managed to calm down and apologized to the new girl. The ability to regulate emotion quickly was a definite shift in his emotional development. Before when I would confront him, he would deny it or say that the person deserves it. This time he became humble and able to think about his words and his impact on others and it seems like his capacity for empathy greatly increased. I also noticed my own capacity to be present in the moment and diffuse the situation greatly increased. I also noticed how I was able to keep my counsellor’s “hat” on and not step into a punitive or teacher role.

N often struggles to express himself verbally but when we created the words of “respect and acceptance”, and the words of how you feel when you are disrespected he created a lot. And he put a lot of effort into the creation. He was able to ask for help when he needed my help, which suggests his increased resilience. He was also able to create with the group, where in the past he mostly seemed to do his own thing and disturb others who are concentrating.

Day 3

On the third day we decided to go to the playground to explore trees since we were planning to create a big tree with the rest of the week’s creations. We were all building the tree together as a team. This tree was to be the culmination of the week’s creation. I was very relucted of going with N to the playground because of my first experience taking the group out to the playground. N and his “crew” carried matches and they nearly burned the playground down. From the Community Art Counselling course I learned that the way you feel about a participant must not affect the whole team or group, so I decided to keep that fear to myself and not share with the other facilitators what I experienced. Because I was so insecure I decided to act like I am playing with N trying to make sure he is not carrying any matches on him or anything else that could put us in a tight situation. Luckily I found nothing. N offered to lead us to the playground, since he knows the way as he has been going there since he started at Lefika. When we were in the playground he really participated. N noted the different trees and how they are unique from each other. I was impressed by that because I imagined him running around and not participating like in the past. I then learned that the work we do does have an impact and can change a person. As much as it changed N, it has also changed me. If I had treated him according to my expectations, it would have affected his growth negatively and I wouldn’t have experienced the “new” mature and responsible N. When we went back to our room we asked them to draw trees that they want their tree to look like. One girl said that she doesn’t know how to draw trees. Before I could answer or reflect back to her, N responded by saying “it doesn’t have to be those trees outside, that was just a clue. You can draw your imaginary tree. It can be any colour or any shape”. This nearly made me cry. I was so emotional to hear it coming from him and him encouraging someone else. He was sharing, and reminding others of the rules. When he noticed someone breaking the rules he would say “sharing is caring” or “close the cokies when you are done using them” and “respect others and their space”. He shifted from being irresponsible to being very responsible.

Day 4

On the fourth day we were building the tree and starting to finish it off. N seemed very excited with the building of the tree and he expressed that he loves painting. We started sharing ideas on how the structure will look like. We used the trees they drew after exploring the playground. N was so active and very handy. The ideas they came up with were brilliant and massive. This made me wonder if we were going to be able to pull it off. I then shared my concerns in the group and N started singing to us. He sang the song by Bob Marley, “don’t worry, about a thing, ‘cause every little thing is gonna be alright”. The whole group started singing along. I got a sense comfort – especially thinking where it came from. We then started painting the tree and every individual had to choose a suitable space to paint on the tree. N painted his part very quickly and started on painting the other members spaces. One of the facilitators reminded him of our theme and how we should ask for permission to enter one another’s space. As I was observing his reaction it seemed like he understood and immediately apologized and asked for permission. At some point one of the kids had a very small brush and was struggling to finish painting. A facilitator offered to go fetch a paintbrush for him, but N offered his paintbrush since he was already done. That’s one thing that the old N wouldn’t do. We worked as a team and before we knew it our tree was standing.

During the whole Holiday Programme, N seemed to have related more to the male facilitator and started to call him “uncle”. I was wondering what this means, but I think he appreciated the fact that there was a male that he could relate to.

Day 5

On the fifth and final day we decided to do drawings about endings and what the group members gained during the week’s programme. N independently took the paper, distributing them to the members of the group, putting chairs around the table and started on his drawing. When we come back to the circle to reflect N wanted to start. He expressed how sad it is that the week is ending and he that he learnt how to respect others. Importantly he also reflected around his own personal boundaries saying that if someone does something wrong to him, he must tell his teachers.


There are many theories that support our work but the idea of resilience from positive psychology stood out for me.

It says that through early relationships and supportive environments, children can learn a variety of personal resources which directly contribute to the development of their psychological resilience over time. We measure resilience through looking at the following:

  • Positive self-image
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Self-regulation
  • Adaptability
  • Faith / understanding the meaning and one’s purpose
  • Positive outlook
  • Skills and talents that are valued by self and community
  • General acceptance by others

The environment

Our aim at Lefika is to create safe spaces. This is also supported by Positive Psychology that says environments which provide structure and safety have effects on the development of individual psychological resiliency.

Factors such as good public safety and availability to health care impact the development of a community’s resilience. Namely, the greater the social care, the more positive is each individual’s perceived value of their place in the world.

What I have learned

  • How to be reflective about myself, my feelings and my behaviour in the therapeutic space
  • How my personal issues/worries/ideas can influence my engagement with participants
  • How to be empathetic and listen
  • How to take time before responding in order to be sure I respond in the correct way


We plant seeds, they develop roots and grow as we water them to be beautiful flowers.




Theory of Change

Lefika La Phodiso’s model of practice is a tangible and evidence-based approach in addressing the deficit of mental health services, offering a range of rare skills through our Community Art Counselling Training and skills-based Open Studio programme, creating employment and making quality services available when needed. We acknowledge that psycho-social transformation isn’t a once-off process and therefore an in-depth phased approach is used. Lefika La Phodiso’s theory of change, with specific focus on the journey of a Community Art Counsellor, can be described in the following steps:


Participants take part in a year long Community Art Counselling course that incorporates theory, practice and experiential learning.

They re-discover their inner resilience through studio practice and individual therapy.

They develop their inner resources and become better able to share and actively process their internal worlds.

They have increased empathy and ability to regulate emotions (Participants affected by trauma, now have the tools to self-regulate, observe and understand what is happening).

They develop skill to express their emotions in a healthy way.


  1. Participants form and sustain healthy relationships
  2. They develop a sense of belonging
  3. They discover shared values.
  4. The group becomes more active and form cohesive and sustainable connections that strengthen family and community structures.
  5. Participants become proactive citizens with the intention to contribute to their community.


  1. Participants apply their training through the facilitation of Art Counselling groups in their communities.
  2. A community-based continuum of care is created.
  3. Participants become social activists.
  4. On-going supervision and debriefing strengthens practical implementation and ethical practice.
  5. The training includes a social entrepreneurship module which aims to enable participants to become social entrepreneurs.
  6. This in turn increases the access to mental health interventions for their communities.
  7. Safe spaces in which creativity and containment engender psychosocial transformation is created.


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