Pat Moores director and co-founder of UK Education Guide looks at how visual aids can help to enhance understanding when working with international students and their mental health.
Much is talked about the cultural challenges that international young people face when they first arrive in the UK, but the challenges are particularly acute for international students entering the UK education system at a young age. There is a minimum of 27,000 children under the age of 18* whose parents live outside the UK and are studying at UK schools and Boarding schools.
It is difficult to argue that the challenges facing these young people aren’t greater than the international students entering the UK education aged 18 and above.
Many of the young people entering UK Boarding schools not only have to deal with acclimatising to a new culture, new food, new friends, surroundings and a new education system, but also with the fact that in many cases, English as a second or even third language.
“Helping very young children explain emotional distress when they don’t have a full grasp of English can pose particular challenges for schools and colleges”
One helpful approach is using visual aids to support this work. Cambridge Academic Performance offers a mental health occupational therapy approach to students who are struggling. Liz Parker, director of CAP says many students take a number of months to improve their English. “therefore within our sessions, we also use hand-drawn pictures to illustrate the points that we are making,” she says.
“Using stick drawings can illustrate complex points quickly and easily and increases the power of sessions immensely.”
Liz provides the example of a Chinese student who had suffered from bullying by teachers and students in his earlier years, and via the use of visual images he was able to explain this.
He showed, via images he drew, that in class he sat with his back to the wall, at the back of the class, carried weapons when out at night and did not form friendships. Liz then drew a picture of his heart locked inside a strong box with a big padlock on it.
“This picture captured what he was doing emotionally in order to protect himself and he understood this immediately. The picture also highlighted how much his awareness was being filtered by the way he was locking the world out,” she adds.
“We went on to work together for nine months and he changed radically over this time. Having a visual image to work with meant that we could add to it and change it as he changed.”
Capturing complex patterns of behaviour can also be quickly and effectively unlocked via the use of visual imagery in ways it would be hard to describe using words-even if English was your first language.
“For example, how easy would it be to discuss perfectionist behaviour without the use of imagery?”
A stick person sat on a unicycle, balanced on top of a tall building, juggling several balls (this clearly communicates how fragile and unstable this particular student’s life was becoming). The ball juggling was unavoidable, but helping the student to realise this was more achievable with her feet on solid ground-was a key aspect in helping her develop better coping mechanisms.
Imagery and metaphor are powerful tools for enhancing understanding when working with international students and can provide the foundation for insight and the motivation to set new goals and experiment with new strategies.