Using the Words and Pictures approach to life story work

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 39 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker. Here, she shows how using words and pictures as part of routine social work can make it possible to explain complex situations to very young children.

Lisa is six when the ninth social worker arrives. Mum said the first one was her friend but he always made her cry. Another one said she wanted to keep Lisa safe, but she already knows how to cross the road. After that one Mum and her boyfriend had a massive fight and Lisa got really scared. Lisa knows not to tell social workers about the fights in case she has to go into care like her big sister.

A pre-visit letter

The new one sent Lisa a letter. Lisa has never had a letter before.  She keeps it in her pocket. When Precious arrives, she is in a red car, just like the letter says.

Download an example of a pre-visit letter here.

Using words and pictures

Precious is a bit silly. When they play football, she pretends to be Marcus Rashford. Precious has special Jenga with questions on every brick like ‘what are you scared of?’. Precious is scared of spiders. One brick says, ‘what do you know about social workers?’. Lisa tells her what Mum’s boyfriend says. Precious gets the pens out and does some drawing to explain why she is there. Turns out she knows all about the fighting.

Her job is making sure no-one is hurting Lisa or making her scared. Precious has to go to a big meeting about Lisa and her family. Lisa’s Mum comes in at the end and they show her the pictures.

Starting to explain before you step through the door

Is this life story work? Yes!

Precious’ letter prepares Lisa for her visit, showing she is important and giving her some sense of mastery in an unpredictable world.

Precious had helped her Mum work out what to say too and discussed the work she was going to do, recognising the complexity of negotiating children’s trust.

By making Lisa laugh, Precious reduces some of the power imbalance; she shares knowledge about herself to build rapport. Play and drawing act as a ‘third thing’ between adult and child, keeping their hands busy and avoiding the need for eye contact, making frightening stories safer and easier to put away at the end of the visit.

Precious enters Lisa’s world on her terms and treats her as an expert, addressing her questions and worries first, explaining her role, confidentiality and what happens next. Precious conveys a sense she knows about secrets and scary stuff in families, is ready to listen and able to bear Lisa’s distress. She starts explaining even before she steps in the door.

Endings are just as important as beginnings

For children like Lisa, endings are just as important as beginnings – often, important people have already disappeared from their lives without a chance to say goodbye. Every piece of work is a chance to do this differently.

Precious prepares Lisa for the end of their work from the start. They draw a calendar, colouring in one football on each visit. On the last day, she bring chocolate cake and another letter. It reminds Lisa about why Precious came to see her and of the time Precious fell over in the mud playing football – something they did every visit.

Lisa feels proud that Precious noticed how she has learnt to do handstands and says she will think of her when she watches Match of the Day.

If all goes well, Precious has helped Lisa and her Mum find a way to talk about difficult times; if not, this encounter has laid a foundation of trust in social workers as a source of information about past, present and future. As people who explain what is happening and why and know about feelings and families, holding the child in mind long after they say goodbye – something every child who comes into care needs.

Learn more about talking to children and young people about changes in their lives

Polly will lead a Live Classroom, ‘Communicating with Children and Young People about Changes in their Lives’, focusing on using the Words and Pictures approach to life story work and writing letters for later life, as described in this example.

Find out more and book a place on the Live Classroom here.

Download an example of a pre-visit letter here.

 

About Polly Baynes

Polly Baynes has worked with children and families for 39 years as a residential social worker, local authority social worker, independent chair, children’s guardian and independent social worker. She is a Research in Practice Associate and the author of their Practice Guide to Life Story Work. Polly has delivered training, consultation and mentoring in life story work to social workers, foster carers, adopters and kinship carers across the UK.