Tips for undertaking life story work

How you can incorporate a range of tools and activities to help a child explore their life

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Photo: WestEnd61/REX/Shutterstock

Life story work is much more than just completing a book that outlines events in the life of a child or young person. In a recently-updated guide for Community Care Inform, Elaine Dibben, adoption and fostering development consultant for CoramBAAF, covers how to use life story work to help adopted children explore and understand their early history. Community Care Inform Children subscribers can read the full guide, which includes examples of life story books. Here, we present a few key bits of advice from the guide.

When work begins

A clear decision needs to be made about when life story work should begin. This normally would be a formal decision made within a child’s looked-after review or case conference. Secondly, who should do the work needs very careful thought and consideration. Whoever undertakes this important role needs to be able to meet with the child on a consistent, regular basis. Ryan and Walker (2016) suggest weekly sessions for the first eight to 10 weeks but recognise that fortnightly sessions may be more realistic for some workers.

Many looked-after children have experienced adults who have been unreliable and have had chaotic lives. Life story work provides an opportunity to promote a child’s self-image and the first step is having an adult who sees them regularly and gives a clear message that this is the child’s time and that they are valued. Additionally, the worker will need to have good support/ supervision; life story work carries a heavy responsibility and can be emotionally draining.

What sessions involve

The process of life story work incorporates a range of tools and activities to help a child explore their life. The completion of a life story book is an additional tool in the process. Sessions with children can include arts and crafts, puppets, play people and so on, in order to explore and explain the events that have taken place in a child’s life, but also as a tool for children to express their thoughts and feelings. All the information regarding a child’s memories and feelings, with their permission, should be included in their book.

During the work

Workers need to go at a child’s pace and not be tempted to force them to engage with a particular issue. A worker may only get ‘10 minutes work’ but the rest of the session can be used to allow the child to explore play and, if you can engage fully in this play, a child can reveal so much more about how they see the world and you can reinforce your relationship with the child.

Life story work should be conducted in a manner that allows the child to feel supported and nurtured. Many looked-after children experience a high level of emotional pain and have had many significant losses. A child’s life experience may mean that they are in a constant state of red alert and function at a primitive level of fight, flight, or freeze.

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