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Drawing the Ideal Safe School: an optimistic approach to returning to school

Since UK schools closed to manage the COVID-19 pandemic one big question has dominated educational conversations: How are we going to support all these young people back to school?

Everyone back to school

Logistical priorities aside – what about the young people who feel safer and happier at home?

I’m a senior educational psychologist and a specialist in Autism. So, I’ve often worked creatively with parents and partners to ease young people back towards school attendance – when this idea is emotionally overwhelming all round.

Often the bedrock for an effective approach comes from a few clues offered by the young person. But how do we find these tiny ‘tells’ that can be used to the young person’s advantage?

Drawing the ideal school technique

The challenge of getting all the nation’s young people happily re-settled in school certainly calls for the best tools in the kit. The most effective tools are neat, portable and reliable in a crisis. That’s why I’ve turned to my ‘hero’ psychological theory – George Kelly’s (1955) Personal Construct Psychology (PCP) – as we head towards what may be a bumpy time for many young people and families in September.

I’m a pragmatist and so a strong theory that is practical is always appealing. It gives a framework for novel approaches. Inspired by a conversation with the innovative psychologist Heather Moran, a colleague and I developed the Drawing the Ideal School Technique. We asked young people with an ASD about important features of school for them, as specific provision was commissioned locally.  You can also read the original ‘Drawing the Ideal School Technique’ paper.

This structured drawing technique – led by a trusted adult has proved to be an irresistible combination. Research has shown that the combination of drawing and talking together with a child is a powerful way to find out their perspective (Coates and Coates, 2011, Knighting et al, 2011). I’ve used this content-free drawing and talking approach in many ways to ask young people: ‘What would be your ideal school?’  Over time – and through my doctoral studies – young people have shared some startling insights.

Sometimes it has been easier to share what is not ideal – like the child who shared that the bike racks at school were terrifying to him. A new route into school was quickly sorted. Next, planned glimpses of the bike racks were added into his routine, until they became an accepted feature of school life which did not provoke anxiety.

Ethan’s ‘interesting centre’

A Godzilla fan that I know – ‘Ethan’ was aged 7 by the time he was ready to think about going to school. Ethan’s first school experience in his nursery year had not gone well. Even the word ‘school’ was off limits at home – but ‘centre’ was acceptable.

Step by careful step we edged towards Ethan drawing a ‘centre’ which he would not like to go to – which he labelled ‘school’, and one that he would like which he called ‘An interesting centre’. Ethan became excited about the ‘interesting friends’ he would make there and ‘chasing games’ he would play. Not everything in the next few weeks went as smoothly as that magical afternoon. But Ethan did make a successful transition to his “interesting centre”. At his review early this year he told me “this is an amazing place to be”.

Variations on a theme

The ‘Ideal’ concept has been a flexible approach for me in a variety of situations – as long as I anchor it in PCP principles. I’ve found that young people about to be parents have engaged with group work to ‘Draw their Ideal Parent’. In preparing for adulthood we’ve also used a ‘Drawing the Ideal Job’ approach to help young people consider the important elements of a future career.

Drawing the Ideal Safe School

At the end of May 2020 it was a thrill – and the jolt that I needed to get going with an idea – when I saw recent guidance from the British Psychological Society suggesting that activities such as drawing the ideal safe school can increase feelings of being involved and reduce anxiety.

The Drawing the Ideal Safe School tool is the result of this ‘call to action’. Throughout June I’ve been using a community psychology approach to trial and develop a tool for young people who are anxious about returning to school. Consultation with parents/carers and young people has been at the heart of this work. The feedback generously provided means there’s now a self-contained ‘Drawing the Ideal Safe School tool’ available for widespread use. Parents/carers advise that this has all the guidance they need to use this independently at home, to prepare their young people to return to school with more confidence. I hope that you’ll consider sharing this with families in your community.

Positive futures

Since the COVID-19 crisis began to bite deep I’ve been invigorated by the many communities which I’m privileged to be part of. I have hope and optimism that – if we all play our part – then we can successfully support our young people back to school and on into positive futures.


Coates, E. & Coates, A. (2011). The subjects and meanings of young children’s drawings. In Faulkner, D. & Coates, E. (Eds) Exploring Children’s Creative Narratives. (pp. 86-108). Routledge: Oxon.

Kelly, G.A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Norton. (Re-printed 1991, London: Routledge).

Knighting, K., Rowa-Dewar, N., Malcolm, C., Kearney, N. & Gibson, F. (2011). Children’s understanding of cancer and views on health-related behaviour: a ‘draw and write’ study. Child: Care, Health and Development, 37, (2), 289-299.

Moran. H. (2001). Who do you think you are? Drawing the Ideal Self: a technique to explore a child’s sense of self. Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry, 6, 599-604.

Williams, J. & Hanke, D. (2007). ‘Do you want to know what sort of school I want?’: Optimum features of school provision for pupils with autistic spectrum disorder. Good Autism Practice, 8, (2), 51- 63.

Williams, J. (2014). Developing the Ideal School Drawing Technique to gather the views of children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Unpublished DEdPsy Thesis, University College London.

5 Comments so far:

  1. sue cabourn says:

    welcome any ideas to help in our school

  2. Dr. Michele Perry-Springer says:

    This has been refreshing to read, amongst all of the guidance and procedures it feels good to talk more positively about what we can do to support child and young people (CYP) back into school. Helping CYP and their families to engage in positive thinking about school at this uncertain and worrying time is going to be really helpful. I do hope that schools are able to then help the CYP see something of the ideal school in what they are offering, because this piece of work will need schools to reflect on how they do ‘safety’ not just the physical but also the emotional. Thanks Jane!

  3. Dr Tara Hunt says:

    Thank you for sharing such a useful and practical tool. No doubt as we move forward all professionals will need to update their ‘toolkit’ – no doubt this one will be in mine! many thanks Jane

  4. Lex Poole says:

    This is a double sided win for me. Firstly as a Counsellor working in schools and secondly as a parent. I was lucky to have this shared with me early on and have used it very successfully with my daughter who receives 1:1 support in school. She is unable to access a space in school due to the pandemic and restrictions on support but is very much keen to return. It gave us plenty of opportunities to talk about any worries and concerns and explore the differences that may be in place on return. A really useful and simple tool for parents to be able to do with their child. It was especially useful as my daughter loves to draw so I was able to chat to her about her drawings and write notes on what they were in order to get a view of where her head was at.

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