How therapeutic storywriting can help troubled children deal with their emotions
Therapeutic storywriting groups encourage pupils with behavioural, emotional and social difficulties (BESD) to process difficult feelings through storywriting. Research shows that the intervention develops emotional literacy and also improves writing skills.
Ten-year-old Nina was a withdrawn anxious child who had difficulty focusing on classroom tasks. She summed up what therapeutic storywriting is about when she described her group session as a place where “you can imagine your own characters and put yourself in their shoes. You think about them and not yourself.” Emotionally anxious children like Nina can easily become uncomfortable with a direct discussion of their difficulties. By encouraging the projection of pertinent issues onto story characters, pupils are less likely to feel emotionally overwhelmed.
Therapeutic storywriting uses metaphor in stories, written by both pupil and teacher, to support pupils with BESD. Children’s intuitive ability to describe their inner worlds through story metaphor can be quite remarkable; evil giants, abandoned animals and haunted towers stand in for their personal fears and anxieties.
Nine-year-old Liam used animal stories to write about his feelings of persecution. Liam was described by his SENCO as having “a short fuse” and when he lost his temper he could kick out, throw furniture or refuse to move. He had been excluded several times for aggressive behaviour and the SENCO explained that while the other children felt bullied by Liam, he actually considered himself to be the victim and would never take responsibility for his actions.
Almost all of Liam’s stories written in the group had a victim/bully theme. One story is about Dino, a fifty-year-old dragon who lives in a cave that is too small and is terrified that he will be killed by soldiers if he tries to find a bigger, more comfortable cave. Liam’s story continues: “Three days later Dino saw no soldiers anywhere. So he flew out slowly. All of a sudden someone shouted, ‘Kill the dragon!’ and a zillion arrows came from the left and a zillion from the right. It was absolute chaos. Luckily, Dino managed to fly away. He found himself a beautiful cave and he lived happily ever after.”
While we usually think of dragons as angry, scary creatures, in Liam’s story Dino is clearly the victim. When talking about his story to the group, Liam said that fifty-years in dragon time meant Dino was the same age as himself. He also mentioned that while Dino managed to find a better cave, “he didn’t know he could fly until he tried”.
While the educational professionals running therapeutic storywriting groups are encouraged to bring psychological mindedness to their work with emotionally troubled children, they are not expected to become therapists. The training stresses that at no time should the teacher make a direct interpretation of what the stories might mean in relation to the child’s actual life, but instead confine comments to the story characters and plot. For instance, in Liam’s story the teacher might comment on how scared Dino must have felt with all those arrows coming towards him but would not mention the actual things in Liam’s life that s/he might know were making him feel persecuted. This ensures that confidentiality issues are minimised and that the approach is appropriate to use in an educational setting.
How the groups work
Therapeutic storywriting groups normally consist of six pupils identified by the school as having BESD. The model is most suitable for pupils at KS2 and early KS3. A course of sessions usually runs over about ten weeks and each session lasts for about an hour.
There’s an initial mindfulness exercise to settle the pupils before beginning writing. Everyone then has a turn to say how they are feeling and these words are written down and placed on a “feelings ladder”. In this way, the teacher provides the children with an extended emotional vocabulary which they can internalise and begin to use to think about their own feelings.
Following the relaxation and sharing of feelings, there is time to brainstorm ideas around the new story and then everyone, including the teacher, writes their own story. Time is allowed for everyone in the group to share their story and the teacher uses active listening skills to reflect on the content of these stories. Children are also encouraged to share ideas for each other’s stories. While this sharing is in process, the children are encouraged to illustrate their stories. This both deepens the story meaning and helps those children who find it difficult to sit still when listening. The opportunity to discuss stories helps pupils develop their peer relationships. Eleven-year-old Laura said the group had helped with her friendships because “I’m normally bossy. It’s helped me to talk and listen to other people. I’ve got a lot more friends now.”
The teacher’s story
A key element of the therapeutic storywriting model is the teacher’s story. The teacher chooses the theme of his/her story to reflect emotional issues present in the group and incorporates suggestions from the group. Laura, who had difficulty settling down to writing in class, said that having the teacher also write made her feel a lot more comfortable because “it doesn’t make you feel like some big human camera is watching us.”
Writing a story in this way can be a new experience for teachers and while some can initially feel a bit anxious, they usually quickly become engrossed in their storywriting. One teacher attending the training was surprised at how much the pupils had empathised with the feelings of the characters in her story, saying that “they love it – that it’s for them and that it’s got their ideas in it. It makes it something special”.
Therapeutic storywriting draws on Bion’s idea that anxiety needs to be sufficiently contained in order for thinking to take place. Emotional containment is provided by the teacher in a range of ways, including the use of active listening skills, attention to beginnings and endings, continuity and consistency of sessions, as well as ensuring that the group is a place of safety for all the pupils. The stories themselves also provide a container for difficult feelings which might otherwise be acted out. Eleven-year-old Mike thought that his stories had helped him manage his angry feelings better: “It’s really helped because I have an anger problem and I can make a story around how I feel. I can write my own story – it’s just me and the paper.”
Research and dissemination
Research commissioned by the South-East Region SEN Partnership shows that therapeutic storywriting groups help pupils process difficult feelings, develop social skills and improve pupils’ writing. Such groups have been used in over 500 schools and the model has recently been included in the YoungMinds in Schools project funded by the Department for Education.
Dr Trisha Waters is the founding director of the Centre for Therapeutic Storywriting and author of Therapeutic Storywriting. She is the consultant trainer for the DfE funded YoungMinds in Schools project.
All pupil names have been changed to protect confidentiality.