How Drawing Helped Me Cope with My Learning Difference

By Trevor Romain, author of Bullying Is a Pain in the Brain

How Drawing Helped Me Cope with My Learning DifferenceI remember the very first time I experienced the power of art in learning. It was in my special education class at primary school in South Africa. I was in second grade. Although nobody knew it at the time, I was at the beginning of a difficult struggle where my symptoms of dyslexia and ADD intersected with education. For some reason, I felt the need to carve my name onto my school desk.

Because I was born in the last century, my desk was one of those old-style, clunky wooden desks with a lid, an inkwell, and a seat that lifted up and down. I carved my name with the compass I had been given in a rectangular tin that also held a small ruler, a setsquare, and a protractor. Who gives a mischievous second grader a compass?

The problem was that I could not spell, and so I spelled my own name wrong. Trever instead of Trevor. The reaction I got to my little piece of art was nothing short of amazing. The teacher got all animated. The kids oooohhhed and aaahhhed. The kid who bullied me never let me forget the spelling mistake. And, I found myself sitting in front of Mr. Puxley, the principal.

“Wow,” I thought. “Drawing can get you noticed.”

The spanking I got made me realize that desk-carving with a compass would not get me noticed in a way I really needed.

Still, I never forgot the reaction to my art, and encouraged by my parents, I continued to draw—but mainly on paper and in notebooks. I did realize, however, that if you draw on the wall, it should definitely be behind the couch.

All through school, I was spanked or called out for doodling while my teachers were talking. What people did not realize in those days is that the action of doodling actually calmed my overactive brain, and I retained more information while doodling than I did when not doodling.

I actually taught myself how to retain information by drawing little sketches of points I wanted to remember. For example, if I wanted to remember when General Custer died, I’d draw a picture of a tombstone with a cavalry hat with an arrow through it on top of the grave. Then, I’d write the date 1876 on the tombstone. I would draw a frame around the picture and put it in my mental Rolodex. So when the teacher asked when General Custer died, I’d flip through my mental Rolodex, and there it was, clear as day.

Doodles were much easier for me to remember than words in a textbook. I drew flow charts of historical events so I could remember them more easily. I filled my textbook with little icons, which often got me into trouble. (It’s interesting that in today’s electronic world, icons are being used instead of words for applications like Word, iTunes, and Facebook.)

To this day, I still sketch small pictures next to things I need to remember. (Much to my horror, some of my grocery lists have been framed by my friends and hung in their kitchens.) These little drawings are invaluable in helping me retain information. I fill journals with things I’ve seen and places I’ve been to remind me of the experiences I had. Drawing even helps me remember more than taking photographs of the same places.

I doodled and drew cartoon strips every day as a kid. I loved it so much that I filled countless journals with ideas and characters. When I was in tenth grade, I approached the art teacher and asked him if I could take art as an elective because I wanted to go to art college. He told me I was not talented enough. He said that doodling and cartooning was not art.

So I stopped drawing. (Although I continued to draw flow charts and icons to help me get through school.) When I tried to go to art college, they would not accept me because I did not have a high school art portfolio.

After that, I did not draw for years and years. I only started again when I was in my thirties and writing children’s books. Today, I have illustrated over fifty of my books, and I draw every day.

I include cartoon-style illustrations in my self-help books for the same reason I drew General Custer’s hat. Kids tend to remember visuals, which act as triggers to recall the information being presented to them.

Even in adulthood, I still sometimes struggle with the effects of my learning difference. But, I have found that doodling and coloring often help reduce the stress and anxiety I occasionally experience. I am happy to say that research is now showing that coloring and doodling can have similar effects on the brain as meditation.

Author and illustrator Trevor RomainTrevor Romain is an award-winning author, illustrator, and motivational speaker. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been published in 18 languages. For more than 20 years, Trevor has traveled the world, delivering support and stand-up comedy to thousands of children. He has been the keynote speaker at numerous education and mental health conferences and has appeared regularly on national and international media outlets. Trevor is the former president of the American Childhood Cancer Organization and is well known for his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the United Nations, UNICEF, USO, and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which he co-founded. Trevor lives in Austin, Texas.

Trevor’s Free Spirit books include:

Bullying Is a Pain in the BrainCliques Phonies and Other BaloneyStress Can Really Get On Your Nerves


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1 Response to How Drawing Helped Me Cope with My Learning Difference

  1. Norah says:

    Trevor, Thank you for sharing your story. You were ahead of your time with your doodles and icons. Figuring out how the world works and what is and is not acceptable is difficult for any kid. It is great that you were able to figure out some strategies to help you remember. I was sad for you and frustrated with your high school art teacher who refused entry to art at school, and therefore at college. It is not fair that one person can make such a difference to the life of someone else. You showed them though! Good on you. I wasn’t aware of your books but I’ll be checking them out. I can think of a few children who would benefit from reading them. 🙂

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