The Study Protocol


We often see children at 5 who have already developed coping mechanisms for dealing with the frustration that can come with having intent to represent but not the ability or confidence to do so. They may have had the desire to draw what they know or see at 3 or 4,  but may not have had the tools, techniques, or control they needed to realize their intent. Without support, many children develop work-arounds to allow them to cope with the emotional discomfort of frustration.  They may only draw what they know how to draw; or make multiple attempts to draw what they have in mind and then, dissatisfied,  ball up, throw away, and give up; they may fuss or cry in frustration or ask an adult to draw it for them; may just give up and call the drawing what it looks like; or they may have stopped drawing altogether. None of these strategies helps the child learn that she can make her ideas visible or helps her learn how. This is where the “study protocol” comes into play. 

The Protocol

We invite the child who has declared intent to represent  to take a stab at drawing what she wants to draw. If she is not satisfied, she puts a number 1 on the attempt and puts it aside, rather than throwing it away. We tell the children every try is too important to their learning how to draw to throw it away. The child tries again, using whatever support she needs (it doesn’t take long before children are asking for pictures to use as referents or the help of a teacher or another, more experienced, child). If she is still not satisfied with that attempt, she puts a “2” on it and tries again, and so on, until she is satisfied. Eventually children use the study protocol on their own…making multiple attempts, asking for referents when necessary, and using tools and techniques learned along the way. We keep all attempts as well as the final one, honoring them as the drawing teachers.

The protocol gives the child emotional space to try and fail. And it gives her cognitive space to learn when and how to seek help, whether she simply needs to talk through the task with another child or an adult or seek a visual referent (such as a photograph or drawing) or even find a physical example to study.

The Study Protocol In Action

M tries to draw a poodle. She seeks out a teacher, because she is dissatisfied with her attempt. The teacher knew that there were multiple possibilities for where the process fell apart for M. Did she not have a complete enough mental image of “poodle?” Did she need emotional support to supplement her confidence or persistence? Was there an issue with motor control? In order to understand M’s process a bit better, the teacher sat down with M and asked, “What does a poodle have?” If M had had a deep enough understanding of “poodle” but needed to “borrow” control or confidence, she might have been able to proceed with the teacher’s presence only. If she knew what a poodle has but couldn’t seem to make the shapes she had in mind, the teacher could have helped her practice the shapes she wanted to draw on another piece of paper, supporting M’s efforts both cognitively and emotionally. In this case, conversation with M revealed that she needed a more complete mental image of poodle. So she and her teacher did an image search online. M chose a drawing of a poodle that she thought would help her best. They printed it out (these days we’d be doing the search on an iPad…no printout required), and with the printout in front of her, M tried drawing the poodle again. The teacher was able to withdraw at that point, and M drew a poodle that satisfied her.

M, having declared intent to draw a poodle, was dissatisfied with her first attempt. Using the study protocol, M sought out a drawing to use as a referent. Here she begins her second attempt.

M, begins her second attempt at drawing a poodle. Her first, labeled with a “1” is  top, right. The referent M is using is bottom right.