The Art of Communication: Interpreting Student Drawings
Originally published June 2022
By Rachel Greenroy, PhD, SSP
In recent years, and specifically in response to school shootings carried out by students, the mental health of students and the accountability of school systems are being scrutinized. Oftentimes, and after the fact, it has been found that school shooters have been communicating their thoughts in unconventional ways—such as through sinister drawings, particularly in journals.
As a school psychologist for a public school district, I know that teachers are currently under an increasing amount of pressure to recognize the signs of these potentially dangerous students. I am often on the receiving end of scenarios in which a teacher’s concern has sounded the alarm; they’ve encountered a student’s questionable drawing, and the student has been identified with needs beyond the scope of the general classroom setting.
If teachers were to keep these concerns to themselves, they risk failing to provide the student with early intervention. Furthermore, fast forward ten years, and if the student becomes involved in a violent school attack, then the teacher is indirectly and/or directly blamed for failing to identify an at-risk student.
Trust me in saying that I understand the importance of taking alarming pictures seriously. But before referring students for a special education evaluation, or inferring the worst-case scenario, there are steps that teachers can take to support their understanding of such illustrations.
In this article, I would like to outline some of those steps, while focusing on the significant relationship between art, social emotional development, and communication. The goal is to help educators interpret their students’ drawings and better understand what can indicate a potential threat. In addition, I would like to explain how intervention can begin prior to reaching this point—in the early years of education, when students first start scribbling and colouring.
Students’ Changing Relationships with Art
During a child’s early years, art activities such as drawing and painting have a tremendous impact on their overall development. In fact, art is a great way to support literacy, social emotional development, and critical thinking skills. For these reasons, pre-school teachers actively encourage their students to scribble, draw, and engage in a variety of art activities.
As children get older, they start drawing with intent. Their scribbles become a way to organize their perceptions and turn them into a reality. All of a sudden, art offers a creative way for children to freely express themselves and to reflect.
By the time students enter elementary school, teachers begin to connect those scribbles and drawings to actual words and meaning. Often this is done by asking students to use illustrations to support their writing. While making these connections serves to deepen students’ literacy and writing skills, it can also create unfamiliar territory for them since, from an early age, they have learned to associate creativity with freedom.
Soon after, students are no longer encouraged to draw out their emotions; however, many of them still utilize this skill. This is typically when educators begin to take note of, and start asking about, potentially alarming drawings.
During adolescence, when drawing as a form of communication has almost disappeared, the social demands of children increase and they begin to experience new and more complex challenges. Although social interactions that demand effective communication take precedence, some children lack the confidence to verbalize their thoughts and needs, and continue to rely on drawings to express themselves. Often, this means those same children also struggle to fit into a peer group and end up isolated and angry, with some tragically resorting to violence.
How and When to Take Action
In a time where social emotional development and mental health matters are considered to be just as important to a student’s well-being as academic skills, it is believed that all drawings should be taken seriously.
Here are several tips to help teachers support their budding artists, writers, and communicators:
- Seek clarification, have discussions, and document. If a student has drawn something questionable in response to a writing prompt, and they turned it in with full confidence, then it’s likely the student was simply doing as they were asked to do. However, don’t assume. Ask questions.
- Establish a safe connection and begin a dialogue by asking the student to tell you about the drawing. You can then follow up with questions such as, “Where did you get your idea from?” or “What is your favourite part of the drawing?” and “What title would you like to give your picture?”
- Even if you find a concerning drawing that isn’t linked to an assignment, ask questions. Talk to the student and gain a better idea of what their drawing represents. Try to understand their perspective. And be sure to always document and monitor the situation. If it occurs again, then reach out to the school counsellor.
- Refer the student to a social skills group. Many times, students can participate in these kinds of groups with their school counsellor. Some, however, do require direct and more intensive interventions in order to support their social emotional development.
- Share your concerns with the student’s parents or guardians. Open communication between teachers and families also supports student development.
- Be sure not to discourage students from drawing. It is a great way for children to learn how to express themselves and communicate. The two concepts go hand-in-hand.
- Give children the chance to journal and draw. Providing them with a designated time and space to do so is an easy way to promote mindfulness and positive emotions.
- During circle time, have children share their drawings. Then provide them with an opportunity to ask questions about their classmates’ artwork. Talking amongst their peers helps children to voice their thoughts and curiosities, while also eliminating any feelings of shame and secrecy.
- While understanding red flags in students is important, it is equally important to know the history of your students. Get to know them and their families. Look through their cumulative records.
The key to ending student violence is prevention, and part of that involves understanding how students think and feel, and what their communication skills and preferences are. From a developmental perspective, I believe at-risk students arguably have underdeveloped communication skills and often have their needs misunderstood.
Perhaps the connection between art, thoughts, and emotions needs to be discussed more openly and freely in the classroom, as a way to better support children who have trouble putting their feelings into words and lack the confidence to use their voice. Connecting art to communication is an important concept that schools should actively encourage, in order to promote social emotional development and help to prevent tragedy.
Rachel Greenroy is a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology for a school district in Texas, and part-time Adjunct Professor for Texas Woman’s University.