When a child draws a picture of a witch on a broomstick it can reveal a preoccupation with phallic symbols. Equally, it could indicate a fondness for Harry Potter.
So Anne Fry and Jane Sarmezey, educational psychologists for Suffolk and Norfolk councils, preach caution when interpreting children's drawings.
Addressing the Association of Educational Psychologists annual course in London, they highlighted various ways in which children's inner concerns can emerge through their artwork. Ms Fry said: "Drawing is an emotional expression. It may be the key to how a child is feeling."
Educational psychologists often ask children to draw a range of pictures, depicting themselves or others. Ms Sarmezey said: "This is a way to elicit the voice of the child. Really, they are drawing themselves and the paper is their environment." When they ask children to draw pictures, they offer them a range of coloured crayons or felt-tip pens. "Dark colours can reflect negative feelings," said Ms Fry. "That is cross-cultural. Yellow is a universal colour for conveying positive feelings. But it is important to talk to children about how they are feeling as well. Why did they colour this person in red?"
Often, educational psychologists will ask children to draw a picture showing every member of their family performing a task or action. This can be very revealing. For example, if children depict themselves kicking a ball at someone, it can suggest they are harbouring pent-up anger.
Ms Fry highlighted the importance of the size of each figure. "It may be that the bigger figure in the picture is more dominant," she said. Ms Fry also checks to see whether children have given every figure on the page hands and feet. Limbs can represent resilience: they reflect the ways in which people cope with their environment.
Where figures are positioned on the page reveals the child's attitudes towards them. Occasionally a child will draw one family member on the reverse of the paper, indicating that they are trying to reject that person.
Other children will draw every member of the immediate family apart from themselves, suggesting that they feel somehow isolated or overlooked.
"Compartmentalisation of different figures could also be separating themselves off from members of the family," said Ms Fry. "And children might put figures around the edge of the paper or underline a person."
The drawings can provide insight into any trauma experienced. Scratching over the eyes in a picture could indicate that the child had witnessed traumatic events. Scarring on the forehead might reveal intrusive thoughts.
And a disconnected head or off-centre neck could suggest that the child is trying to keep thoughts away from the body.
It is not merely the end product of a drawing session that can be interpreted. "It is important to look at whether the drawing is developmentally appropriate," said Ms Fry. "But it is also the process. It is a good opportunity to observe the child's motor skills, their ability to concentrate and their changes in expression while they are carrying out the drawing."
Ms Sarmezey said that care should be taken when examining pupils' drawings.
"You must ask the child about the drawing," she said. "Talking about what they are doing depends on their verbal ability. You may need them to point to important things in the picture.
"It is interpretation, not analysis. However, it gives us a window into their emotional world."
TAKE CARE WHEN INTERPRETING DRAWINGS
It is not reading tea-leaves. Psychology is about hypothesising and re-hypothesising, based on the information given. Pictures only raise questions. They do not provide answers.
Talk to the child, their teachers and their parents, in order to gain a broader understanding of what the child is trying to depict.
Put things in context. If a child draws a picture of a clown, for example, it may be purely because he or she was at the circus recently.
Remember the child owns the drawing. Respect their privacy if needed.
As a teacher or an educational psychologist, you are in a position of power. Do not exploit that power, even unwittingly.
Our new research page aims to promote interesting and innovative research of interest to all school staff. I would like to hear from anyone who is working on a project or publishing a paper that they think is relevant for TES readers. Please get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.