Joanne Stoddart

Why is Life Story Work important?

Blue Cabin’s Local Authority Specialist, Joanne Stoddart, shares her experience on why life story work is important when working with care-experienced children and young people.

Imagine being taken away from your family as a child at age six, probably in traumatic circumstances, and then being told you are to live with strangers. Then imagine a lot of people suddenly talking about you and your family, and trying to work out what your wishes and feelings are. Imagine then being told you will not be returning to your family at all, and instead you will only be able to see your family once or twice a week for an hour or two. You’re still only six years old. Imagine then being told you are leaving the people who were looking after you in their home and had been strangers to move in with another set of strangers in another new home. You’re now seven years old. Then imagine yourself growing up not really understanding why your family was broken up, why you had to live with different families over the years, and why you keep getting told you still can’t live with your family…and you’re now 13 years old.

There are thousands of children who have experienced this level of disruption, broken attachments and trauma in their young lives. Sadly, there will be thousands more children who will experience this in their futures. It would be challenging enough to process everything being experienced as an adult but imagine being a young child. A child’s memories of their life events and relationships will be very muddled and fractured, and they need support to help process the feelings and emotions they experience.

What is the aim of life story work?

Life story work aims to help children and young people reflect on the journey they have taken so far and understand who they are today. It provides space for children and young people to make sense of their lives, so that they have the chance to move forward with confidence in who they are and where they are going.

Ryan and Walker (2016) state that children who live with their birth families have many opportunities to know their past and to clarify past and present events. However, children separated from their birth families are often denied these opportunities; they may have changed families, social workers, homes and moved away from familiar neighbourhoods and communities. Children who lose track of their past and who are confused about the present are likely to find it difficult to develop emotionally and socially.

(‘Life Story Work: Why, What, How and When’; Ryan and Walker: 2016, Coram BAAF).

What are the benefits of life story work for children?

Engaging children and young people in life story work provides an opportunity for children to work through and make sense of their feelings and memories, and to help them understand how and why decisions were made about them and their family. Helping children to work through and process their life history will help them to gradually move forward and feel more stable and secure in their lives. When a child is able to focus on the here and now rather than being held back by the past, they can then start to move forward in their lives.

Rees, 2009, explains that life story work is imperative for all care experienced children and young people as it provides the opportunity:

  • To give details and understanding of the child’s history;
  • To build the child’s sense of identity;
  • To enable the child to share his or her past with carers;
  • To give a realistic account of early events to dispel fantasies;
  • To link past with present and help the carer and child understand how early life events impact on behaviour;
  • To acknowledge issues of separation and loss;
  • To enable carers to understand and develop empathy for the child;
  • To enhance the child’s self-esteem and resilience;
  • To help the child develop a sense of security and permanence;
  • To promote atonement and attachment to carers.

(‘Life Story Books for Adopted Children’; Joy Rees: 2009).

What makes ‘good’ life story work?

As part of my work with Blue Cabin, I completed research into local authorities’ approaches to life story work. One of the findings from this research highlighted the key to good life story work was the quality of direct work that was facilitated by social workers with children, and the quality and longevity of the relationship the social worker had with a child in order to approach life story work in a meaningful and trusting way. Therefore, relationships are key to engaging children with meaningful life story work.

In engaging children with life story work it is crucial that a child’s trusted adult, usually their carer, is involved in the work alongside the child’s social worker. When a child is helped to process their memories and emotions, they are likely to reflect on information shared and the feelings and emotions they are experiencing with their trusted adult. Equally, a child may react adversely and need to have a safe person and secure base to be able to express their emotions with, usually their trusted adult.

Blue Cabin has been instrumental in rolling out Creative Life Story Work, based on the Rose Model of Therapeutic Life Story Work. This was rolled out in three local authorities in the North East of England and was funded by What Works Centre for Social Care and evaluated by Ipsos Mori. The evaluation of the model highlighted that a ‘creative, relational approach to life story work has shown it to be higher quality and more collaborative than traditional life story work, and that it helps to develop and strengthen relationships between care experienced children and young people and their carers.’

The evaluation also highlighted what children and young people said about being involved. They talked about ‘significant changes in their lives’ linked to taking part in the Creative Life Story Work including improved mental health, a better understanding of their identity and improved relationships with people in their lives. The evidence also showed that some children and young people made ‘big life decisions’ such as ‘changing contact arrangements and rethinking career plans’. This was possible with the support from the trusted adults in their lives who participated in these sessions alongside them.

When talking about their experience of being involved in the Creative Life Story Work sessions with a child in their care, a carer said: “It did make our relationship stronger. He has now got a very strong attachment with me which we did not have before and so that has been really good. He trusts me and he knows I will keep him safe.”

Two of the findings of the evaluation included:

  • A better understanding of care experience and identity were most often cited among the benefits to care-experienced children and young people of creative life story work.
  • Of those involved in delivery of creative life story work, there was generally a perception it had improved the relationships between carers and children and young people, and improved well-being and stability of their placements.

You may be interested in reading the evaluation report here.

Whether you are a social worker, foster carer or residential worker, the key to engaging a child in life story work is your relationship with the child. The child needs to know they have someone to trust in, so work together with the key people in the child’s life to support them. Evidence shows that life story work will only strengthen the child’s relationship with you, and every care experienced child and young person deserves to be able to move forward in their lives to become the best version of themselves they can be. Your role in helping them achieve this is crucial.

Find out about the evaluation of Creative Life Story Work here.

Joanne Stoddart is a Local Authority Specialist working with both Blue Cabin, she also holds a role in a regional adoption agency. She is an experienced children’s social worker and manager, with almost 25 years’ experience working in Local Authorities. She has held various roles from children’s social worker to head of service, all within statutory children’s services, with significant direct experience of working with care-experienced children and young people. Joanne has been involved in Blue Cabin’s Creative Life Story Work project over the past three years, and has worked closely and collaboratively with Blue Cabin throughout.