Things fall apart: what can we do when nothing seems to work?


Mentoring in an art institution seems to be a particularly vulnerable line of business. You devote yourself to a small number of students each year, give your energy and creativity to their wellbeing – and with some of them, it’s as if your meetings had never taken place: each session you start from more or less the same position – listening, planning, discussing, encouraging, urging, going over the same ground after another more or less fruitless few days – and the unconditional positive regard starts to wobble.

Some time ago, a UCA mentor was agonising about this, over a student who never did anything that the two of them had ‘agreed’. Indeed, never did anything at all. What could she do? Here are some of the suggestions that were gathered together for her.

This article is adapted from Patoss Bulletin article, 26:2, Winter 2013

Published on 23rd May 2019 | Written by Ray Martin | Photo by Rick Mason on Unsplash

Why isn’t the student engaging? It may be worth starting with the presupposition that every student, at some level, wants to do the work.

Is their self-esteem so low they cannot get going? If they believe that whatever they do, it will always, always be a failure and an embarrassment, why would they do anything at all? (Old Korean saying: if you sleep on the floor, you cannot fall out of bed.)

Ronald Barnett (2007: 6) claims, ‘The student’s being in the world is more important for her learning than her interest in developing knowledge and understanding in a particular field.’ This ‘being’ is quite possibly at its most intense in art education (Austerlitz, 2008), and it comes as no surprise that an art student may anguish at many stages of her course. One largely art-focused institution, certainly, claims figures for use of their counselling service are far higher than the HE national average. However, it is clear that HE students, particularly dyslexic students, across all subject areas are often in considerable difficulty (Carroll and Iles, 2006).

Is the student ‘caged in chaos’ (as Victoria Biggs puts it)? A dyspraxic student, for example, away from a home that organised his life may be completely overwhelmed by the loss of structure. Amanda Kirby (Dyscovery Centre workshop, 2009) suggests that you may even need to start by going to his room, labelling the drawers and helping him put his clothes into these labelled drawers, socks in the labelled sock drawer, etc.

Who is in charge of the plans that you have ‘agreed’? Were they imposed on the student? Does the student in any sense own them? Does the creation of a plan need rethinking so that the student can own it?

It may be useful to be future-focused. Not what went wrong, but what are you going to do now, keeping your language positive: what you want, not what you want the student to avoid. Thus, ‘don’t panic’ tends to be counterproductive while ‘stay calm’ may offer positive results.

At the same time, if you want to confront ‘wrong’ and fear of failure, accepting ‘wrong’, recognising its value may be a good place to start. The art director Paul Arden is good on this: he has, for example, one section of his book It’s not how good you are entitled ‘It’s right to be wrong.’ He claims: ‘The person who doesn’t make mistakes is unlikely to make anything.’ For Joseph Chilton Pearce, ‘To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.’

A great many successful people in other fields see ‘failure’ in positive terms too and offer useful thoughts. For example, ‘If you want to succeed, double your failure rate’ (Thomas Watson, founder of IBM); ‘You’ve got to be willing to fail’ (James Burke, CEO, Johnson & Johnson).

Michael Gelb and Tony Buzan have some stirring statements from the sports world, including, ‘I don’t care who you are, if you’re one of the great stars of all time, making millions of dollars, or some Little League kid, someday you’re gonna stink.’ (Walter Hriniak, batting coach of baseball’s Chicago White Sox team). ‘I’ve never been afraid to fail,’ says the legendary basketball player Michael Jordan. And there are always the Ancients: ‘It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare; it is because we do not dare that they are difficult.’ (Seneca, c.4BC-AD65)

Strategies that could help

Plus 1 (originally from Jane Mitchell of CALSC)

Here you make a task so small that the student can trust themselves to do it. Maybe start with, ‘Do five minutes work this evening. No more. That is all you are going to do.’ The likelihood is that the student will taste success for the first time. They will enjoy the taste and they will want some more of it.

When one teacher used this strategy for moving the paper that had been accumulating in her flat over several years, threatening to overwhelm her completely, her esteem round the task was so low that all she felt she could possibly do each day was move five pages: she couldn’t even trust herself to file them. After several days of success in moving five pages, she realised she could manage 10 a day. Sometimes she did 20 minutes of moving, but always with the idea that she would do her daily 10 pages, whatever happened. Black bin bags were filled and taken out. Success – after three years of trying.


Find something the student will agree to do today – maybe very small – and then ask them to think about a present. Flowers? An ice cream? Spend a bit of time enjoying the thought of the present. Ask them if they would like to email when (not ‘if’ – keep all language positive) they have completed the task and are off for their present. Reply with a congratulatory email as soon as possible.

And while you’re at it, reward yourself too. How is your self-esteem and sense of worth while you are struggling to support these troubled and troubling students? Jenny Foster suggests useful ways to look after the teacher. As she points out, if a teacher is in a demoralised state, she may be part of the problem.

Block busters (adapted from Julia Cameron)

  • Make a list of your anger/resentment around a creative project.
  • Make a list of your fears around the same project.
  • Ask yourself if this is all. Are there any really silly fears and anger left? Write them down too.
  • What will you get from not doing the project?
  • Visualise yourself having completed the project. Make it multisensory – sight, colour, sound, movement – and enjoy it.

The Wow! List (adapted from Nina Grunfeld, for building self-esteem)

My achievements What qualities did I need? Where else could I apply these qualities?
  • To begin with, list five of your achievements and fill in the other two columns.
  • Then feel proud on a huge scale. Enjoy it completely and fully.
  • Add other achievements when you remember them or when you first make them happen.
  • Keep this list where you can see it often.

It is important that the student chooses the language to express his/her ideas about their achievements. You then have, in good NLP fashion, a vocabulary to call upon that has particular meaning/resonance for the student. In times of trouble, you can remind a student of the strengths they have demonstrated, using their language. Indeed, you can weave the words into discussions on projects and plans in quite a profligate manner.

Walt Disney’s creative strategy (from Robert Dilts)

This can be useful with students who are sabotaging their ideas before they have had a proper chance to explore them. Such students are closely linking the ‘dreamer’ and the ‘critic/spoiler’, where Disney divides creativity into three separate parts that take place in three separate places thereby separating dreaming and spoiling physically as well as mentally:

The dreamer. First position is you the dreamer who works as if anything is possible. This is big picture, longer-term thinking, focusing on generating the elements of a plan or idea.

The realist. Moving into the second position (in a different space), you the realist visualise/consider how the dream can be realised, seeing the chunks or stages of its completion in a kind of storyboarding process.

The critic/spoiler. In the third physical position (again in a different space), you the critic/spoiler consider the potential difficulties or weaknesses of the plan (and very definitely not the weaknesses of you the dreamer or you the realist). You the critic/spoiler ask yourself what is good about the plan, then what’s missing, what’s needed.

This thinking then loops back into you the dreamer (in the first physical space), who can, with the new knowledge, dream again.

Wall plans

Since the procrastinators very often enjoy the stress and buzz of starting too late and aren’t about to change, at least make sure they can see all the tasks laid out on a chart so that they have a clear picture of when procrastination must stop.

Flexible plans

Making a week’s plan with movable stickers. Some students feel they are in a straightjacket with a fixed plan. (Like being asked to choose a week’s menu in hospital: how do you know what you want to eat on Thursday?) These movable stickers could be colour coded for different projects or for urgency. (In a busy office, one graphic designer-turned-lecturer used red stickers for danger, orange for moving into danger and coded down to cool colours for ‘that can wait’.)

Using goals

(Any goals – one student who was stuck wanted a goat.)

Work back from the goal to find out what the first step is to reaching it. Keep working back till you really have the first step. This might be buying a pencil. Deal with the first step only. Would student like to buy a pencil? (It may, of course, turn out that actually they have to go to the bank first because they haven’t got any money. So first step: go to bank. Would student like to go to the bank?)

The goat student felt the very first step was to move something from inside a cupboard and put it on top of the cupboard so that he had space for the project he hadn’t started. He wanted to be accountable for this, and it was decided that he would email that evening to say that he had made the cupboard space. He went on to produce a great film for his degree show from this first step. Maybe he has the goat too now.

Visualising success

Make it multisensory and get the student to run the movie until they are the person in the movie. You do not need to know the content. It may be easier for the student if you don’t. But note any positive words they use around the visualisation and maybe use those words when appropriate. Avoid talking – unless hypnotically – when they are visualising: you don’t want to interfere with the visualisation feel-good process. Bring them out of the visualisation slowly. Then set short-term goals with the student. (There is a view that this kind of work can be wasted – a student gets all the fun of feeling successful without having to do anything about it. The short-term goals are designed to counteract this possibility.)

Feeling good/confident/in control (whatever the right word is for the student)

What is it like when they feel good? (One music student now prepares for presentations by getting into her feel-good place at the beginning of a concert. If someone is, for example, a competitive runner, you might ask them how they feel/how they compose themselves at the beginning of a race. However, you don’t need content.) Where does the good, confident feeling come from? Where is it in the body? Does the feeling have a colour? Weight? Temperature? Texture? Shape? (from neuroscientist Alan Watkins’ Patoss workshop, 2007). Some students are really good at this; some think it a little strange, so it is probably best to move on quickly.

Ray Martin is a dyslexia tutor, mainly supporting art and music students. She also teaches on PGC and MA courses specialising in creative teaching and is the author of articles on NLP, supporting students, mindfulness and transitioning into university for Autistic Spectrum students.


Arden, P. (2003) It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be. Oxford: Phaidon

Austerlitz, N. ed. (2008) Unspoken Interactions: exploring the unspoken dimension of learning and teaching in creative subjects. London: University of the Arts

Barnett, R. (2007) A Will to Learn: being a student in an age of uncertainty. Maidenhead: McGraw Hill

Biggs, V. (2005) Caged in Chaos: a dyspraxic guide to breaking free. London: Jessica Kingsley

Cameron, J. (1992) The Artist’s Way: a course in discovering and recovering your creative self. London: Pan

Carroll, J. and Iles, J. (2006) An assessment of anxiety levels in dyslexic students in higher education. British Journal of Educational Psychology. 76(3), 651-62

Dilts, R. (1994) Strategies of Genius. Capitola: Meta Publications

Foster, J. (2002) Target Self-Esteem. Edinburgh: Barrington Stokes

Gelb, M. and Buzan, T. (1994) Lessons from the Art of Juggling: how to achieve your full potential in business, learning, and life. London: Aurum Press

Grunfeld, N. (2006) The Big Book of Me: become your own life coach. London: Short Books


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