Meet the trainer: Rachel Dann

Story Links supports the mental health of pupils whose behaviour patterns are related to attachment anxiety. It is a parent partnership intervention in which the educational professional facilitates the co-creation of stories between parent/carer and the child.

The story metaphor is kept in the animal or fantasy genre to be non-threatening to the parent who is gently encouraged to respond empathically to their child’s internal emotional world within the story metaphor. The co-created story is then typed up and sent home for the child to read to the parent and is also used as a reading text in school during the week. In this way the co-created story becomes a positive attachment object- reminding parent and child of a mutually enjoyable experience within the school environment.

A 2-year research project at the University of Chichester found that Story Links reduces pupil anxiety, improves parental engagement with their child’s learning, reduces exclusion from the classroom and improves pupils’ reading.

Dr Rachel Dann (RD) is a Chartered Educational Psychologist and a Health Professions Council registered professional as well as being an Accredited Trainer in the Story Links intervention for the Centre for Therapeutic Storywriting.

Here, Rachel chats to Elizabeth Holmes (EH) about her work with parents and pupils.

Elizabeth H: How did you first come across the Story Links intervention?

Rachel D: One of my schools came across it and I volunteered to go on the training and then cascade it to other staff. I have always been aware of how Therapeutic Storywriting and Story Links have grown through word of mouth and snowballed because they work. I think my understanding has changed over time. The more you think about it the more you can see overlaps with other methods. I have always looked after children with developmental traumas. The more specialised I have become, other interventions that I might once have used have dropped off but Story Links and Therapeutic Storywriting have always been a constant. Even children with high levels of dysregulation can engage in stories.

EH: What is it about Story Links in particular that works so well?

RD: The magic is in watching a teacher and a parent tuning into a child they have switched off from, and reconnecting. It is magic. Something shifts in the foundations of the relationships. As a facilitator the best thing is realising you’re not central here. Push your chair away from the table and watch the developments unfold. There is nothing else that could replace Story Links – it is  unique. I am trained in different approaches working with children, families and schools and I don’t think there is anything else that can hold all these three elements at the same time.

EH: What are the challenges?

RD: The logistics within schools can be challenging. My strategy is always to build relationships over time. I’ve seen Story Links work with parents who you wouldn’t think would engage but they do. You have to be comfortable with holding the group. You have to go with what happens. You don’t know where you are going when you start. You can’t rush. Small steps can lead to magic. Story Links starts with the child. Trust the process and hold the space. There is a Jungian concept that people will take themselves on a journey towards emotional health and wellbeing and we have to facilitate that. What a privilege! We can help parents to parent and to provide solid foundations for the child.

EH: What is to be gained from the investment in this intervention?

RD: The hesitation I sometimes hear when it comes to running Story Links is that it seems like a resource-heavy intervention. Ten weeks with a facilitator, member of staff and parent in the room with the child seems intensive. But it is time well spent as it produces so much energy that is felt elsewhere in the school and in the child’s life. There is a preventative element too in that you are preventing further distress. Some of the simple and unimportant aspects can make a massive difference.

EH: And all this happens from the stability of meeting regularly and calmly in familiar surroundings?

RD: Creating the therapeutic space – same people, same room, same time – is very important and powerful. Being able to sit with uncomfortable emotions has a ripple effect. We are moving the children from reaction to reflection in a non-threatening way. So, although this can be very powerful, it is safe. People can be anxious about moving out of the metaphor (Story Links work with story metaphor) but either they stay in metaphor because that’s where they are developmentally or they start to see themselves in the story which can be very positive. The story gives children the language to start to talk about themselves, their feelings and their situation.