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Podcast Season 3: Episode 4 – What does ‘good’ life story work look like?

What does ‘good’ life story work look like? We delve into this question with Polly Baynes, who has 36 years’ experience in life story work with children

What does ‘good’ life story work look like?

What does ‘good’ life story work look like? We delve into this question with Polly Baynes, who has 36 years’ experience in life story work with children. Hear Polly’s advice for practitioners, the ground rules she agrees, and how she responds when children share difficult feelings and memories.
Hear a new episode of the Creative Life Story Work podcast on the first Thursday of each month.

What does 'good' life story work look like?


Please note that this transcript is auto-generated and therefore will contain some errors and natural pauses in conversation.

DAWN: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Creative Life Story Work podcast, where we explore how to make the life story work better for all care experienced children and young adults. Creative Life Story Work is a new approach which can improve children and young people’s lives and their relationships with others at home and at school.

It’s based on the ROSE model of therapeutic life story work. Every month we’ll explore a different aspect of creative life story work and we’ll give insights into how you can use this approach to help care experienced children and young people make sense of their past and build a brighter future. My name is Dawn Williams and I am an associate.

At Blue Cabin, one of the partners on this exciting work in the region. Today, we are [00:01:00] exploring life story work, what it is, some of the tools that you could use to deliver it. I’m absolutely delighted to welcome into our podcast studio. Polly has been involved with Life Story Work with Children for 36 years in a variety of roles, including Residential Social Worker, Local Authority Social Worker, Children’s Guardian, Clinical Supervisor.

and an independent trainer. She’s an associate at Research in Practice where she has authored the Research in Practice Life Story Work Practice Guide and she’s delivered and developed the Research in Practice National Training Program. She’s currently studying for a PhD looking at how social work understands its own story and makes sense of this in working with families.

A very warm welcome this morning, Polly, to you, to our podcast studio.

POLLY: Thank you very much, Dawn, and [00:02:00] thanks for inviting me to talk on this podcast.


wondered if, first of all, you would be able to just sketch out for us almost historically how life story work has been developed as a technique that social workers use in their work?

POLLY: Well, I am old enough that I started my working life back in the 1980s when the role of social workers was very different. It was very much more the kind of role that people are trying to reclaim now through relationship based practice. We had a lot of time to spend with children and families and direct work with children was seen as central.

to social workers day to day work and the work of Vera Faulburg back then was really influential in thinking about the social worker is a bridge between children’s past present and future thinking about the [00:03:00] importance of separation and loss. in the lives of children in the care system. Adoption was really changing back then.

It had been a service for childless parents, primarily of relinquished babies. And this was a really radical sea change where older children, disabled children, sibling groups, black children, were all starting to be seen as potentially children that could be adopted. And of course these children had memories of their lives, of their lives at home with their birth families.

And also we were starting to hear the voices of relinquished babies that had come to adulthood often without knowing about their past and how important it was for them to know their own histories, to understand their identities and their stories. And so it was actually a really exciting time to be working with children and families and finding new ways of exploring life story work at that point.

Social work. endured, I’m going to say, a massive [00:04:00] change over the next few years where care management was brought in. We started to see ourselves as people who assessed and then purchased services from somebody else. The idea of the social worker as a source of intervention of that relationship as an agent.

of change in itself really got lost for a while and life story work became quite sidelined and seen as a discrete and separate task. And it’s only really been in the last 10 years or so, I would say that that life story work has been almost rediscovered, I would say. Partly because we are thinking a lot more about trauma and about the impact on children.

But also social work as a profession working really hard to get back to saying our basic job is sitting in a room with some toys and some pens and playing with children. Our job is talking to families and understanding what’s happening and helping them understand what’s happening [00:05:00] too. So I’ve been really happy to see the way that life story work has almost come back to life, looking at, um, some of the statutory requirements that have been put into place through adoption for children to have life stories.

The danger, I think, is that life story work becomes a measurable outcome rather than an ongoing creative intervention. And also that we forget sometimes still that it isn’t just adopted children that need life story work. It’s children in foster care whose lives are really complex often where they’re forgetting.

different stories from different people in their lives. Children in kinship care, I think we’re only just beginning to recognize how tricky it is to explain to your grandchild that their dad was a chaotic drug user, say, when that is also your son. And when you have all kinds of complicated feelings about that, there’s been this totally unfounded assumption that kinship carers know the [00:06:00] story, which they often.

don’t know half of what went on and are able to tell it without support and that’s starting to change now. The other, the group of children that I think is still neglected is children who go home from care. We haven’t fully pulled into life story work, birth families. We haven’t thought enough about opportunities during family time to help parents answer children’s questions.

We still have this idea sometimes that During family time, if children are asked to come home, their mums and dads should change the subject and not talk about what’s happened. Or we criticize them for saying things like, well, mummy’s just getting the house sorted out. How would they know what to say?

Social workers don’t know what to say. We need to see birth families as part of the team. We need to work out explanations that children and parents can live with and can share so that parents can be part of the story. Because what we know is that [00:07:00] actually, regardless of where children end up at the end of care proceedings, the vast majority of them either eventually go home or renew contact with their birth families.

And so those versions of the stories that mums and dads hold will almost inevitably become part of children’s lives and they need support to work on those.

DAWN: Oh, thank you, Polly. I don’t think I’d ever realised the evolution of life story work and how you’ve described it there as moving into the measuring and gathering of stats as opposed to the telling of the story.

What, I’m just wondering Well, I’ve got two questions here. One’s about who gets to tell that story and what are the considerations of who gets to tell the story? And I’m wondering about some of the stories that get missed in that then, depending on, on, on how that’s being, how those stories are being gathered.

POLLY: Okay. So in terms of who gets to tell the story. [00:08:00] I think we forget at our peril that actually telling a child the story of their early life is one of the most profound uses of social work power that we could ever operate. I can’t imagine a world in which a total stranger had told my children the story of my life by basically looking at some paperwork that was a list of all the terrible things I had ever done wrong.

And so I think we need to be a bit more humble about how limited our version of events is if what we are relying on is the social work file, because I think absolute best case scenario, if you’ve been working with a family for quite some time and going around regularly, your understanding of the nature of what’s happened in that family will be Be about as good as it [00:09:00] is, I always think of it as being like when you go on one of those home visits and nobody answers the door and you hammer on the door and there’s no answer and eventually you go around the back a bit and you shout and you do all those things as a social worker because you’re supposed to be seeing this child and then sometimes you kneel down and you look through the letterbox and you can see into the hall and sometimes there’s a sound or a smell or a look sometimes you know there’s somebody there We just, in the whole of our work, have a little glimpse of what happens in families.

Children were there, they have the lived experience, they know it in their bones, even if they were too little to have any words for what happened. And There’s always more than one way of understanding that story. We can cling to this idea that the version of the story in the social work file is the truth.

Well, no family has a single truth. If I asked my brother what it was like growing up in my family, he would say something different to me. And if you asked me that question now I’m 59, I would tell you something different to what [00:10:00] I would have said at 49, 39, 29, 19, or 9. Family stories are complex, contradictory, they change over time, and I think often people will say this child doesn’t want to know the truth, they’re in denial, they’re very resistant, they’re hard to engage in the work.

It’s not our job to impose our version of the truth on a child. That’s not how human beings work. We all revisit and revise our understanding of our own lives. Well, our job is to take part in a two way conversation where we start from what children can remember from the story that they have in their head, because they’ve always got a story, even if no one’s ever spoken to them, even if they’ve never asked any questions.

We start from what they can remember and the way that they’ve made sense of it. And then we add in. Some bits of what we know to create a space in which they can come to their own view about what happened Recognizing that [00:11:00] their nan or their dad or their big brother Or their previous foster carer or the one that’s looking after them now or the social worker They’re going to have next week might all have slightly different versions of the story.

So I think we have to recognize that there’s never one story, and you talked about who gets lost in there. Very often the particular group of people that get lost in children’s stories is dads. Social work as a whole tends to focus on mothers. It often ignores men as a risk or a resource for their children, and when we forget men, we sometimes forget the whole paternal extended family too.

When we give children the message that their mothers were solely responsible for their practical care and their protection, we are accidentally giving them a terrible message about gender, about what we might expect from boys and men as they get older. No child is in care purely because their mum couldn’t look after [00:12:00] them.

There are loads of children out there whose mothers have really significant difficulties, but they’re all right because their dad has stepped in or their granddad has stepped in or their auntie has stepped in. We need to think about beyond the idea of individual failure and think more about the bigger picture of how come a child ends up in the care system.

And also ensure that our stories include. The impact of poverty on the lives of children and families. Inadvertently, what we do in the care system and have always done is to remove mostly poor children and place them with better off families. Lots of our children grow up in homes really different from the ones that they were born into, much better resourced, safer, more spacious.

They might never walk down the kind of street their mum and dad were originally trying to bring them up on. And for us as social workers, that can become, [00:13:00] it’s the invisible wallpaper of practice. It’s the backdrop. We don’t notice it. And no child should be in care purely because they’re Parents were struggling.

We’re in poverty, but we know that the impact of poverty on child removal is massive, and we need to make that visible and explain how hard it was all of the other things. So it will never just be that your mum couldn’t do it, but also your dad was not around. He didn’t come and make sure you were okay.

Your mum didn’t have anyone to help her. Maybe she hadn’t finished growing up herself yet. The street they lived on was scary. It’s just scary. Creating that bigger picture. I’m thinking about a young woman that I worked with. Who had been adopted and she said, well, my life story book’s okay, but it doesn’t say what jobs my parents had.

She lived in a world where every adult she knew had a job. Possibly her parents might not have had a job, but that was so ordinary to the person that wrote the book, they didn’t think about mentioning it. So you’re [00:14:00] just trying to bring to life the whole world in which the child originated and not just blame one person for what went wrong.

DAWN: Thank you, Polly. Let’s have a short break now so that you can hear about Creative Life Story Work membership and some of the benefits that it could bring for you and your work.

POLLY: We want people to gain more of an understanding about what it’s like to be care experienced and to have a better understanding of what it actually means.

Could Creative Life Story Work make a difference to the care experienced children and young people you work with? Maybe you’re a social worker. I think we forget at our peril that actually telling a child the story of their early life is one of the most profound uses of social work power that we could ever operate.

Perhaps you’re a foster carer. You know, when they say it’s all about the child, it’s not because our experiences. It’s about [00:15:00] the carer and the child, and it just gives a new angle to our relationship because we’re learning about each other together. A Creative Life Story Work membership will give you, or your whole team, access to resources including activities you can use in direct work with children and young people, training with life story work experts, and lots more.

And I think a lot of our children are looking for meaning, looking for, you know, well why is it I feel this way when my, you know, my friends don’t? Why is it I get angry internally and my friends don’t? The greatest thing we see is when we are able to say to young people, this is your story, this is about who you are, and then children towards the end say, it’s not my fault that these things happened.

But it is something that I can do something about. And once we have that, then we know we can move forward. Find out about our membership for individuals and for organisations on our website, creativelifestorywork. com

DAWN: Your comments there, Polly, have [00:16:00] prompted me to think when I’m Facilitating conversations and gathering stories with groups that I work with, we spend a bit of time making a contract with the group thinking about, uh, what are the ground rules?

How are we going to be together? Is that the same for when you’re gathering life story work? Are there any ground rules that should be taken into account before you even start?

POLLY: Before you start work with a child, do you mean?

DAWN: the child and the adult in their life.

POLLY: The first thing I should say is that I think life story work goes way beyond planned sessions and actually, in lots of ways, life story work It’s part of everybody’s contact with a child who already is in the care system or might be at risk of becoming it and so in becoming of going there.

So in lots of ways, the grand rules about your relationship with a child as a social worker need to be set, actually, if possible, before you [00:17:00] first walk in the door and make them thinking about setting up. Relationships that are clear about, I am here to talk to you, we might do some playing, we might do some drawing.

If I don’t know something, I’ll go and find out, this is how many times I’m going to come. Because for me, life story work is sometimes planned separate sessions. But it’s often about the conversation you have in the car with the child on the way to family time. It’s about making sure that the foster carer has the story so she can answer a child’s questions when they wake up crying in the middle of the night.

It’s, it’s about. Turning up at their review with that photograph they wanted of their nan and her dog. It’s all of those things, but in separate sessions. Sometimes I come in as a person who is separate to the rest of the child’s life. And I would always meet and talk with their trusted adults first, because I know from training foster care is one of the things they always say is please never come around to my house and tell [00:18:00] this child something.

that I don’t already know. So one of the main tasks I think is making sure that the adults in the child life, child’s life know the story, but also are able to hold onto it and let it be true. And sometimes actually I’m that piece of work with new families of whatever kind and also with schools and nurseries that can be really quite a significant bit of preparatory work about I’m going to do this and you’re going to what role do you want them to take.

There’s a whole load of stuff that’s part of setting up social work when you’ve got adults in the room generally that stuff about I might ask the child a question if they don’t answer please don’t answer for them all of that stuff and and making that relationship live while you’re working with children, sometimes saying, I’m going to ask Nanny to stop talking for a bit now.

So there’s an ongoing contracting with adults because the rules of direct work with children generally [00:19:00] have to be different from. the rules of most encounters between children and adults. So I want children to tell me if I’ve got it wrong, to interrupt me if I’ve done enough talking and they can’t be doing with any more information, to say if they don’t know where is at school you’re meant to guess the answer even if you’re not sure.

So I would do a little contract with a child if I was doing planned work and a little, which just has some basic stuff on it like I’m I’m going to bring my toys but I’m going to take them all away again. It’s about keeping the boundaries. Particularly important, I think, that you arrive when you say you’re going to and you leave on time.

And so I sometimes use a bit of blue tack on the clock to show where the big hand’s going to be. I’ve tried using timers but they become the most exciting and interesting thing in the room. So I’ll sometimes put a timer on my phone because children sense the time is poor. But sometimes children like adults do that thing where you’re in the room for [00:20:00] 40 minutes and it feels like nothing’s happening.

And then it’s five minutes before you’re due to go and they suddenly start talking about the thing. Or play in about the thing that is really important. And it can be so tempting to think, oh, I’ll just stay a bit longer. But actually, sometimes people do that because they need to be able to focus on that.

topic and know that you’re going to leave quite soon afterwards. So unless the child makes a new disclosure that you are going to have to report and it’s going to have to be investigated immediately, I would say one of the things in the contract is if you say you’re coming at five, you come at five and if you say you’re leaving at quarter to six, that is when you go and you don’t let them nick your toys.

Children, most of the children that we work with, also I don’t let them hit me or hurt me or do stuff and I’ll name it if it’s. feeling sexual. I like, well, that feels like sexy touching. We’re not going to do that in here. But most of the children that we would do life story work with have experienced really loads of rejection and disappointment from adults, [00:21:00] loads of hurt and let down.

And so often that stuff about, will you still have that tiger in your box of animals next week? If I’ve asked for chocolate biscuits, are you going to bring chocolate biscuits? Those things are really important bits of boundary setting, but also of establishing yourself as a trustworthy person. So it, a lot of the contracting is around that and, and being clear also about who’s going to know about what we do.

Talk about and, um, the drawing that we do, who’s going to see that, um, because I would use in live story work, lots of the same techniques that I might use as direct work as part of an assessment with a child, but it’s really important at the beginning that the child knows whether I’m going to sit in a meeting and talk to lots of grownups about what they’ve told me or whether it’s for their book and their story.

And we’ll talk together about who’s going to find out who’s going to get to see it. Children often need quite a bit of help to [00:22:00] work out who to tell what about their lives as well. That’s quite, another quite important bit of, um, setting up the work, I think, in terms of, um, They need a cover story. They need to know what to say when somebody at school says, How come you don’t live with your mum then?

If they just say, I’m not telling you, that makes the other children really interested. And so, you need to help them work out a little bit of story that will keep people quiet. And also work out who, particularly if you’re going to be sharing information with them in life story work that they’re not already aware of, how much of that Do they want to tell to who?

Uh, social media is a nightmare if people put stuff about their lives out there. Teenage girls in particular often share really difficult information about their lives and then their friends just can’t handle it and it’s all over the place. And little kids will just quite innocently say, so my dad is in prison because he stuck his finger up my little brother’s bum.

And then [00:23:00] obviously everybody on the bus is like falling apart in horror. So it’s not teaching them to lie, but it’s helping them learn what to say when and where and to who.

DAWN: What would good life story work? Look, sound and feel like what would be some of the tools in your toolkits that you’re taking in to have conversations in with those children and adults.

POLLY: I think the most important thing about what good life story work would look like would be that it would probably be different for every child. It would be responsive to what that child at this moment needs to know who’s the best person to share it with them and how is the best place for them, the best way for them to understand it.

Should we be crawling around on the floor with toys? Should we be going out in the car and visiting places they used to live? What role should I be taking? So sometimes with older children, for example, my role is more like being a [00:24:00] detective. I’ll Go in, they’ve got a specific question they want answering and basically I’m acting on their behalf to go and find the information they want and it might be very clearly defined.

Whereas with a littler child, they might still be needing to spend a lot of time thinking about what happened that day they saw their auntie have an overdose. A start from where the child is at, from what they need, rather than this externally imposed It’s got to be done in this way by this time, uh, it needs to be flexible and creative and safe.

And it needs to all the way through as a worker, what you’re doing is looking at the child for feedback, not just about what they’re saying to you about the work, but their physical reaction that they look on their face, what they’re like before and after. So a whole part of making sure that the life story work is good quality is your communication with the person that looks after them.

because they will be the one that says, after you came, they wet the [00:25:00] bed. So it’s, I think what’s really important is that it’s connected to the rest of their lives and that the people around them when I walk out the door are able to support them to carry on the story. Um, because if you go around once a week, The rest of the time, they need other people who can answer those questions and give them a hug and, or take them down the park to burn off the energy that thinking about this stuff causes.

So I think it’s about being individual and about having, being flexible. So you might come with an idea of what you’re going to talk about and how you’re going to do it, but sometimes that’s just not the thing that’s going to be talked about today. So. I think having the confidence to do something different and having a range of tools that you can draw on.

Pens and paper, real simple stuff. I use little knitted people. I use them right across all different [00:26:00] aspects of my work with cardboard box houses, which you can fold up and put in the back of your car, and also little playmobil type people. And I’ve got some stories that I would use. I’ve also got a Bag of mixed monsters, animals, creatures, people, but it’s working out what’s right for this child.

And it might be walking on the beach, having a chat for some kids.

DAWN: I can imagine the, um, box of tricks that you arrive with as as you walk into her house. Um, my final question, um, this morning is, and really you’ve covered it. You’ve covered some of it in your, in your last talking about your toolkit is, but what would your advice be for social workers or foster carers or other practitioners who are just beginning to facilitate life story work conversations with children and young people in their care?

POLLY: I would say know [00:27:00] your child’s story and that’s important whatever kind of social work you’re doing. You need to know this child’s story. and know who the important people are in their lives. When they start telling you about things, you need to build up trust. Don’t expect children to start talking to you about difficult things when you’re the fourth social worker they’ve had this year, and they haven’t had time to get to know you.

Playing is always proper social work, and so if you are bouncing on the trampoline in a back garden for five weeks with a child before you even start doing any life story work, you’re doing something really important. Go at the child’s pace, be brave, and Know that you will get it wrong, and when you get it wrong and a bit of explanation comes out wrong or you find yourself waffling, don’t be scared to say to children, I’m making a mess of this, [00:28:00] I’m just gonna have a little think and start again, because we all need to do that in life.

Don’t be afraid to say to children, I don’t know the answer to that question, I’m gonna try my best to find out. And then make sure you do try your best to find out. Always speak with their parents, about their parents, with respect. Even if they are not at that point. And try to be I think what children need is someone who can bear the terrible things that have happened to them to be true.

And who will still like them anyway.

So be hopeful, but also be the person that will stand in that story with them, because children look at adults faces. They start telling you things and they look at your face to [00:29:00] see if you can bear it. They don’t want to hurt adults feelings, and if they see that you can’t, they will withdraw. draw their step back from that conversation.

As social workers, often we can’t make everything right in children’s lives, but what we can do is listen properly, let it be true, not brush them off or dismiss them and say, Oh, I don’t think it was as bad as that. Or no, you don’t hate your dad. Allow strong feelings. Don’t be scared. And remember that there is a between trauma and upset and Some of our children are severely traumatized and not ready to think or talk about the past and we quite rightly are careful with those children, but it’s okay for human beings to be sad, angry, scared, jealous, all of those things.

Human emotions. They need grownups that can sit in the room with them and let those feelings [00:30:00] be true and not need to close them down just to say, Yeah, I’d be angry if that happened to me. Well, that sounds really scary. Just let feelings be true. Let feelings be true.

DAWN: Polly, I could talk to you all morning.

Thank you so much for spending time this morning, giving your wealth of experience and insights into Life Story work and its delivery. And you’re going to be doing a live classroom for us in February. So if people wanted to book on and see you and get to do some playing as well and learn some of your techniques that would be possible.

Great. That’s it. Thank you.

POLLY: Thank you very much, Dawn.

DAWN: Whether you’re a foster carer, someone who has experience with the care system, or you work with children and young people, we hope this episode has given you an [00:31:00] insight into how we can make life story work better for young people and how you can use it in your own practice.

You can find out more about Creative Life Storywork on our website, creativelifestorywork. com. And you can find us on LinkedIn and Twitter, or X as it’s now called, at Creative LSW. Please do get in touch though with any comments or questions as we’d really love to hear from you. And if you’re using Apple Podcasts, please do leave us a review as it really helps others to find our show.

Produced and mixed by Will Sadler of Anya Media. You can subscribe wherever you get your podcasts by clicking one of the following links:

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