A psychologist working with Compassion-assisted kids explains how their art offers clues for how to help them.

For Brazilian child psychologist Stella Santos, the first signs of trouble often surface in school. The inability to concentrate. Struggles learning to read and write. And most of all, not getting along with others. Abuse, neglect and bullying manifest themselves in different ways.

By the time children arrive in Santos’ office at Crianças do Reino Child Development Centre, some of these Compassion-assisted children are struggling deeply.

“They arrive here very aggressive,” Santos says, “because they see a lot of it in their houses and their communities. Everything is solved with violence.”

But others struggle in a different way. Some, she says, “are very shy, very silent and sad. They are just crying.”

So Santos begins to look behind the scenes, an especially difficult task when little ones can’t articulate their struggles as an adult could—or are too afraid to. That’s when Santos pulls out sheets of paper, crayons and pencils and lets the children tell their hidden stories through their drawings. It can be a lengthy process.

“We’ll talk about anything. About sports, football, about class.”

And then a child will draw.

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In Latin America and the Caribbean, where adolescents face the heaviest burden from violence, nearly a third of all murders are estimated to be gang or crime-related.*


She spreads out art on the table from her files, pointing out key elements in some of the drawings. Homes with no doors. Closed doors with no handles. Or tiny windows high on the walls. She picks up one particular drawing.

“The door is closed … and the window is closed with bars up very high. It means that there’s something that … can’t be put out now. There are things hiding that she can’t talk about yet,” Santos says.

The details associated with specific names are confidential, of course, but the artwork is covered with Santos’ post-session notes that reflect the realities of one community in which Compassion ministers. Gangs. Drug trafficking. Physical and sexual abuse. Even the physical challenges of impoverished communities. Santos wrestles with them all. What does this symbol mean? Why did she draw that? What is this child facing that needs to come out into the light? Each element in the artwork is a potential signpost that helps Santos know where to probe and whether the child is ready and able to share his or her struggles.

The role of the child psychologist is a new one at this Compassion child development centre. But it is an acknowledgment that poverty and its effects have real-life psychological impacts. Impacts that weave Santos’ psychology degree with the way God has hard-wired her.

“I was born with this kind of love in my heart,” Santos says. “I don’t know why. I think it’s God.”

Based on the intensity of need in the children she sees, God’s love, skillfully applied, is exactly what the doctor ordered.

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See Stella Santos’ notes about one child’s drawings:

A) When the rains come to her neighbourhood, there isn’t a storm system or pavement to handle the runoff. This child draws the mud that surrounds her home.

B) The routine and the pleasant are here. There’s a heart on her mango tree.

C) The washtub for doing laundry finds its way into her picture.

D) There are images here that need to be explored. This is “the monster that comes at night.” Does it refer to gangs in the street or something closer?

E) Somewhere between the monster and her house, there is blood … an intense image for a small child.

F) This little one has Jesus over her home.

*Children in Danger: Act to End Violence Against Children, UNICEF UK, 2015.

Words by Paul Moede

Photos by Orfa Cerrato and Rosette Mutoni

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