Painting teaches kids social, emotional skills

With arts, an Ocean View man is teaching kids how to make good decisions, regulate their emotions and think positively.

John Donato, 55, has taken his art curriculum to over 50 schools in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Ohio, and to Delaware Family Court. He paints with acrylics. Entirely self-taught, his art is colorful, whimsical and often features animals and sea life. Though his work is popular with adults, it also appeals to children, which is likely part of the reason he does so well with them.

Donato has worked many times within the Indian River School District, but just recently finished his first project at George Washington Carver Academy in Frankford. The academy will host a mural project unveiling and community night Oct. 2 to showcase artwork by Donato, school staff, students and their families.

Donato grew up in southern New Jersey and attended the University of Maryland, where he studied advertising design, before moving to southern Delaware. For many years he worked in corporate training and community development, where his artistic skills were useful but never the focus of his work. It wasn’t until recently that he began to consider himself an artist.

In 2007, when the Great Recession hit and his wife became pregnant with their first child, Donato was laid off. He had been painting for a few years, strictly as a hobby.

“There were just no jobs that would have allowed me to stay in the area,” he said. “Some local artists said my stuff was interesting, so I made the decision to pursue it. I decided I would become an artist.”

Within the first few years of his painting career, he was asked by a New Jersey elementary school principal to create a mural. He accepted, and his work was well received. Word spread quickly and job offers started coming in.

“Right from the first mural, this light went on, and I said, ‘Wow, this could be a really interesting way to continue to do art and share it with people,’” he said. “The way it turned out, it was really an opportunity to do something educational. Not just putting artwork on a wall, but more about the goals of the schools, their curriculums.”

Donato started working on art lessons that simultaneously taught children complex ideas and skills, like controlling anger, overcoming sadness or something as simple as the importance of kindness.

“It allows them to feel those things rather than just read about them. Everything is designed to present challenges that they have to overcome or learn from or adapt to,” he said.

In Donato’s work with the Indian River School District, sometimes the students help him create a mural, while other times he works with groups or individuals on smaller paintings. Sometimes school staff and student families are involved, and sometimes Donato’s projects take place after regular school hours. It all depends on the needs of the school.

Carver is a special school in that its students are there specifically to develop behavioral skills that allow them to function successfully in a school environment.

“Primarily, we’re working with students with different learning styles and needs and individualizing our program to meet those needs,” said Carver Academy counselor Whitney Price. “We want them to learn coping strategies, emotional regulation and conflict resolution skills … to help them to either go back to their home schools or eventually graduate from our program.”

Price was able to obtain a grant from the Delaware Community Foundation. Donato was at the Carver Academy for four months working with individuals and groups of students on projects including a mural. Price is already working on securing another grant to bring Donato back to help more students.

“We have a social-emotional learning curriculum that we use, it’s called Positive Action,” she said. “For example, unit one is all about self-concept, self-awareness … and that sort of thing, so [Donato] mirrored that curriculum with the painting. [The students] really enjoyed working with him and getting to know him.”

“We achieved some really groundbreaking results at Carver,” Donato said. “You could really see it working in those kids. Like this one girl, she was having a really bad day, acting out, really angry. It was all over something that had happened at home the night before. But by the time she left me, she was smiling, she was having a good day.”

Find out more about Donato’s work at artsmack.com.