In the following, Katlyn Morris explores mental health and anxiety in modern classrooms, the need to break rigid thought-patterns and alternative methods to encourage creativity in children.
BATTLING ARTISTIC PERFECTIONISM
More and more children are spending most of their time either in school or at home. Worse still, they spend more time in front of screens than outside.
While working in an elementary school during my studies, I fell in love with teaching students. I helped with a multitude of subjects, but my favourite was always art. For most of the last decade, I’ve worked as an art teacher trying to encourage students to take up drawing.
Anxiety disorders accounted for half of all mental health diagnoses in children between the ages of four and 17 in the second Australian Child and Adolescent Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
The education system and its emphasis on academic achievement places great pressure on children and adolescents, and this can take its toll on their mental health.
One problem consistently seen in educational settings is perfectionism — children are under such pressure to perform well that they fear trying new things that they’re not sure they’ll be good at.
This is often seen in art, since they can see that their output doesn’t accurately represent what they were trying to depict. This can result in feelings of failure, making children more reluctant to draw in the future.
Practise and failure are a vital part of the learning process, so it’s important that this fear is reduced as much as possible.
FOCUS ON THE PROCESS
When perfectionism gets in the way of children practising art, it can be helpful to move away from trying to draw or paint real objects or landscapes for a while.
Focusing on representational or figurative art can help them explore style and technique without worrying about whether they’re creating the perfect work.
Waldorf schools often work with wet watercolour paintings for exploring art because precision is impossible on wet paper. When the paint meets the wet paper, it spreads, and it’s impossible to make anything look perfect.
This can be a useful way of exploring colour and symbolism without the stress of perfection, and is valuable for young people of all ages.
Pastels work to a similar effect, and abstract collage can work well for younger children.
EMBRACE HUMOUR AND VARIETY
Rigid thinking — the idea that there is only one way to get it right — is a warning sign of perfectionism, and often leads to young people feeling dissatisfied and disappointed.
Clinical psychologist, Dr Tom Nehmy has found there to be a link between perfectionism and common mental health problems such as depression and anxiety.
Helping children to see that there is no one right way is a helpful tool in battling this before it becomes a mental health concern, and humour can be used to help.
For example, if the task is to draw a dog, the focus can be shifted onto all the possible ways you could draw a dog — from realistic to surreal. The core skills and techniques needed to draw the dog can still be taught, but the focus could be shifted onto drawing humorous depictions or abstract representations.
This removes the idea of failure and instead focuses on the infinite possibilities of art, encouraging the child to try a variety of approaches.
THE POWER OF DISCUSSION
Parents and teachers are often warned about the dangers of over-praising, and indeed, this can be a problem for children, who then set their expectations of themselves too high.
Also important, though, is encouraging an open dialogue about a child’s attitude to their artwork. If a child declares that they’re rubbish at drawing, rather than praising the drawing or telling them they’re great at art, a more useful approach is to ask them if that way of thinking is helpful.
Most children will recognise that it’s not, and this will open an opportunity for looking at what would be helpful. Practising and making mistakes is an important part of getting better at something, and discussing this with children will give them the courage to keep trying and improving.
Perfectionism is a serious problem for children in a highly pressured education system, and it’s often seen in creative subjects like art.
By emphasising the importance of the process, rather than the product and encouraging open discussion, we can help children move away from rigid thought patterns that can lead to anxiety.
Did you know parents are the also most important teachers? As a teacher, there’s only so much we can do with a large class, but at home, a parent can instil a love of art that will last a lifetime.
The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents | Health.gov.au
Overcoming toxic perfectionism in teenagers | Sydney Morning Herald
Perfectionism in kids can be unhealthy — here’s how to respond | Dr. Jodi Richardson
The Education System: Constructing Human Minds | TOTT News