Helping children to move beyond reaction to reflection

The therapeutic and the academic in Therapeutic Storywriting

The fairy tale offers fantasy materials which suggest to the child in symbolic form what the battle to achieve self-realisation is all about, and it guarantees a happy ending.
– Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment

The child who is at risk of permanent exclusion can be locked into a personal real-life story not of their writing, with apparently no pathway out and no happy ending that they can imagine. Frustration and bewilderment might be played out in the classroom and at home day after day, while the child experiences a world that does not appear to understand them. For the child stuck in this anxiety-inducing reality, their emotional reactions are often habitual and of a nature that does not serve them.  

Our future depends on stories. As the world advances, literature has the ability to ground us – in our humanness, our imaginations, and our enlightenment.” 

Pawan Mishra

Therapeutic Storywriting offers children the opportunity to move from emotional reaction to reflection. They extend their emotional vocabulary and re-story their experiences though imaginary story characters.  There is both a therapeutic and an academic dimension to the process. Through using their literacy skills, children can find a way into both the story they write in the Therapeutic Storywriting groups, and the story they are living.  

Externalising reality

The story metaphor in a child’s writing may be set in fantasy or in external reality. As Therapeutic Storywriting: A Practical Guide to Developing Emotional Literacy in Primary Schools explains, “Story metaphor set in fantasy uses the language of myth, magic and dreams. Story metaphor set in external reality uses everyday contemporary situations such as the classroom, a family holiday or a football match.”  

Children in Therapeutic Storywriting groups are given an opening sentence which includes a named character, a story setting and a particular emotion. The child then continues in whatever way they choose.

Growing, experiencing, reflecting

As the child develops their literacy skills through story writing they explore how their character feels and acts. As they write, they are thinking about and reflecting upon what their character is experiencing. This can help the child to think more clearly about their own feelings and to draw on a broader range of vocabulary when expressing what is happening in their life. As their skills of reflection develop, so too does their understanding and self-awareness. Their reflections can help them to move forwards, taking them past troubling events that may be holding them back and preventing them from being fully who they are.

Making sense of experiences can help us both assimilate them and move on from them. But this can be overwhelming, particularly for children, to do head on. Working with story metaphor provides an emotionally safe way for them to come to terms with difficult past experiences.

Pawan Mishra wrote, “Our future depends on stories. As the world advances, literature has the ability to ground us – in our humanness, our imaginations, and our enlightenment.” Through Therapeutic Storywriting we can help that grounding and nurture children as they progress from reaction to reflection.