An alternative approach to narrative therapy for children with additional needs

Social Worker Rebekah Pierre discusses the development of ‘Gymtherapy’ to allow children to tell their own story.

27/03/21

An alternative approach to narrative therapy for children with additional needs

If you were asked to select just one word to describe what separates human beings from all other animals, how would you respond? Reason? Consciousness? Humour? The term I’m searching for is an action common to all cultures: storytelling.

It is a ritual so ubiquitous that we almost don’t notice. We consume stories daily, both when we consciously seek them (networking with colleagues, scanning headlines or watching films) and when we do not (as victims of ever-invasive marketing).

We also seek to create our own stories, giving meaning and purpose to life events through our own narratives. As narrators, we hold positions of power.

For many children who encounter social care, however, the idea of telling their story, in their own words, is an alien concept; many have been excluded, marginalised or even demonised within the narratives of their lives.

It’s almost as if they are handed a ready-made script, without being given the opportunity to have any kind of say in how their character is portrayed. If all your life you have been labelled as difficult and non-responsive, is it not easier to ‘play up’ to this familiar role, rather than improvise?

Narrative therapy
As social care professionals, many of you will be au fait with narrative therapy, which works to redress the impact of harmful stories which have been projected onto children and young people.

Narrative therapy posits that ‘the problem is the problem, the person is not the problem’ (White and Epson, 1990). The practice is known to involve the ‘re-authoring’ or ‘restorying’ of conversations’ (Morgan, 2000), providing scope for service users to reject certain storylines whilst developing their own.

Although the technique cannot erase the chapters of the past, it affords children more control over how these chapters are told and illustrated. The practice aims to shift perceptions, particularly for those who are ‘stuck in problem-saturated stories’ (Shapiro and Ross, 2002). So far so good.

Narrative therapy encourages service users to speak up, validating voices lost in the overbearing orchestra of life. But what happens to those children who do not have a ‘voice’ in the traditional sense of the word?

Growing up as the older sibling of an autist and being introverted myself, I have always understood verbal communication as just one avenue of sharing stories.

Words have often failed me as I have tried, fruitlessly, to verbalise complex emotions such as loss or anxiety. For as long as I can remember, I have always found it far easier to express my thoughts and emotions in more abstract ways, such as through movement and music.

Which is why, when entering social care, I was shocked to find that direct work often relied on verbal communication. The key ingredients seemed to be words, worksheets, and ‘w’ questions (who, what, where, when, why?).

Whilst this method of working can be highly effective for adults when garnering information to create assessments or building rapport, I was painfully aware that for many children and young people, conversations can seem verbose and irrelevant.

More importantly, for those with SEN, autism, selective mutism or for those whom English is a second language, verbal communication is not even an option.

Direct work
To diversify direct work methods, I developed ‘Gymtherapy’ – a programme which utilises movement as a way of increasing social-emotional wellbeing in children and young people.

Gymtherapy embraces the objectives of traditional direct work, providing opportunities for self-expression, safeguarding education, and low-level therapeutic tasks, through non-traditional outlets. Within sessions, narrative therapy is applied to choreography, which is used as an alternative vehicle for story-telling.

Where narrative therapy may elicit a sentence ‘I was angry when…’ choreography allows for something more expressive – a red ribbon slicing through the air, a banging drum or stamping feet.

We all have visceral responses to daily events – increased heart rates when we feel anger, butterflies in our stomachs when we’re anxious. Evolution has left an indelible footprint on the way in which we process emotions, and relics of our primitive lives still linger.

Whilst many of us have the good fortune of not being chased by ravenous mammals, we still produce adrenaline in myriad situations, no matter how tame they may be in comparison. Human beings are complex concoctions of the social, emotional, spiritual and physical – yet social work often overlooks the former; a grave oversight, given that one third of primary school children in year 6 were classed as obese in 2016-2017 (NCMP, 2017).

That physical exercise is directly linked to mental health is unequivocal, with benefits including reduced depression, stress and anger, as well as generally improved mood (Koivula and Uutela cited in Pierre, 2018). Rather than interpreting movement as a disruption, a symptom, or a bout of fidgeting, Gymtherapy harnesses the innate energy which children and young people bring to sessions. Because narratives rely on momentum and motion.

Every children’s author knows that it’s hard to tell a story without pictures – but they often forget about movement, without which not even the pages can be turned.

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