Mental Health in schools has become a critical part of the changing face of education. As we educate ourselves more on mental health in schools, we can begin to employ strategies to help us navigate the many mental health concerns that arise throughout the day in our classrooms!
Without further adieu, Welcome to the third installment of therapeutic modalities in the classroom! If you haven’t yet checked out CBT strategies and Solution-Focused Strategies, check them out here!
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to be used as an alternative to proper treatment administered by a trained, registered professional mental health practitioner. The strategies offered in this article are meant to be used by educators in a supportive context to provide tools to decrease anxiety provoking situations in a school setting.
Narrative Therapy is one of my all time favourite therapeutic modalities to use both as a counseling professional and as a teacher! (Spoiler alert - there may be an inherent bias woven throughout this article - but I will try to remain objective!)
What is Narrative Therapy?
Narrative Therapy is a strengths-based therapeutic modality that actively strives to depathologize client issues; in other words, it sees the person as separate from their problems “which allows clients to get some distance from the issue to see how it is helping them, or protecting them, more than it is hurting them” (Narrative Therapy, 2020). This is done by positioning the client as the expert in their lives, acknowledging that they have skills, abilities, and resources at their disposal and they are not made up of only their problems (Winslade & Monk, 2007).
As the name states, Narrative Therapy considers the many stories that make up the human existence and the various stories we have about ourselves, our experiences, etc., while looking for alternative stories to “uncover the dreams, values, goals, and skills that define who [clients] really are, separate from their problems. These are the buried stories that can be rewritten and woven into the ongoing and future story of their lives” (Narrative Therapy, 2020)
Why might this be helpful in a school?
We often think of anxiety or depression as being a “problem” that we need to overcome, and our students feel this way too! However, Narrative Therapy shifts this perspective into seeing anxiety and depression as contextual. It positions the problem as one story of many that make up a whole individual, while teasing out the alternative plot points the student may be unable to see. This allows students to see themselves as separate from their problems, look at their issues through a different lens, re-evaluate the situation, and try new strategies to consider the externalized problem.
Benefits to using Narrative Practice in Schools
Well obviously acknowledging the problem as external from the individual (as highlighted above) is super beneficial for youth! It allows youth to start to see themselves as more than an “anxious person” or “depressed person” (Narrative Therapy, 2020).
Youth are often not seen as experts in their own lives, but Narrative approaches allow the individual to be the expert and work with the therapist to identify their areas of expertise and acknowledge the many skills, beliefs, abilities and strengths they already have! (Winslade & Monk, 2007).
Narrative Therapy is also a brief model of therapy, much like Solution-Focused, which means you don’t need to dive into the intricacies of the individual’s childhood traumas or situations to help them understand and subsequently change their current narrative about themselves.
Because Narrative Therapy externalizes the problem, elements of Narrative practice can be done safely in your classroom without making students too vulnerable or compromising their emotional safety!
Understanding a Narrative approach can allow you to externalize problems for students, and begin to correct the pathologizing language often used about students in staff rooms, case meetings, etc. (Walther & Fox, 2012). It not only helps us to reframe for our students, but it offers a new perspective so that we can have more empathy for our students and see them as more than a diagnosis!
Narrative strategies for the classroom
See the student as the expert
In Narrative Therapy, the therapist sees the client as the expert in their own lives. This is a valuable tool in schools too! Students learn with us, not from us. Allow space for students to be the expert! Every student has a host of skills that we may know nothing about.
For example, in an English class, allow students to choose their own essay topics on things they are expert in! This will give them confidence in the subject matter, even in classes they’ve historically struggled with!
Narrative Therapy doesn’t position the therapist as the expert or “all knowing” and doesn’t employ the use of typical therapeutic “jargon” (Winslade & Monk, 2007). This is useful for schools, as it prevents students from being alienated due to inaccessible language.
Allow Students to Share Their Stories
Narrative Therapy posits that the client has multiple stories about themselves and their experiences. Allow students to consider what stories they have about themselves - describe who they are and how they see themselves in the world around them.
As an introductory activity at the start of every school year, ask students to write about themselves. Have them write who they think they are and who others think they are. Ask them what defining qualities they have. Ask them about their skills and difficulties. The best knowledge you will ever get about a student is from them! Getting this information early on will allow you to find the alternative story!
Find Alternative Stories
Narrative Therapy hears stories that people have about themselves and seeks to identify alternatives to their story. Narrative Therapy posits that “There is no ‘objective reality’ or absolute truth; what is true for us may not be the same for another person, or even for ourselves at another point in time” (Ackerman, 2020)
For instance, a student may see themselves as “disruptive” or “problematic,” however there are likely many instances in school when the student chose to behave differently (Walther and Fox, 9, 2012).
Once you have students' original “about me” from the start of the year, repeat the process a few weeks in, or even midway through your semester! Ask them now to consider who they think they are, and WHY they have this story about themselves. Have them consider alternatives and how they’re different in different circumstances. Allow them space to highlight the when and why of their experiences to begin to develop an alternative story.
You can do this in conversation with students! When students see themselves a certain way, identify it in the moment and acknowledge the times you’ve seen other sides to them! Allow them to see themselves as more than the “problem” they may have internalized.
As a way to externalize the problem, the therapist looks for metaphors the client uses to describe their problem, rather than employing counselor jargon (Winslade & Monk, 2007). The therapist will identify a metaphor, for example, the client may describe depression as feeling like a “black cloud.” The therapist can then ask how “the black cloud” has impacted the client’s life. This allows the client to refer to depression as another entity, rather than an internalized problem like “I am depressed.”
You can have students write metaphors for their own lives and experiences, regardless of what subject you teach! This will encourage students to develop a different understanding of their problems and begin to externalize them.
Another option is to consider characters in books, short stories, poetry, etc. and encourage students to write metaphors for the character’s conflicts and struggles. This will help them see it in relation to their own lives and may help them to understand problems as external in other contexts so it can be translated to their own experience.
Identify Unique Outcomes
Once a negative story about self is identified, the Narrative Therapist seeks to “offer meaning or give a positive functional identity … to develop life affirming stories” (Ackerman, 2020)
This can be done with students by encouraging them to consider multiple realities and perspectives in stories, books, etc. This will help them understand that reality is socially constructed. Encourage students to step into the shoes of one of the characters and consider a unique outcome - have students identify a new storyline for these characters and see the possibility that these problems are less significant in other contexts in the character’s life. This can help students begin to apply these strategies to their own lives!
You can also do this one-on-one in partnership with students when they are struggling with an issue. Allow them to try seeing unique outcomes by identifying exceptions to the rule - when has the problem not been a problem? When has the student responded differently? What are the “innovative moments” (Goncalves et.al., 2009) in this students’ life?
Overall, Narrative Therapy offers many safe techniques that can be employed by teachers to help students understand their own mental health. Narrative Therapy allows you to consider the whole student and multiple stories about the student, to save you from the dangers of the single story! When students are able to deconstruct their experiences and see themselves as resourceful, they begin to have alternative stories about themselves overall. Isn’t this the goal?! To help students create positive, affirming stories about their skills and abilities and apply their skills to other areas of difficulty moving forward?!
Ackerman, C. E. (2020, 1 9). 19 Narrative Therapy Techniques, Interventions, + Worksheets. PositivePsychology.com. Retrieved 10 3, 2020, from https://positivepsychology.com/narrative-therapy/
Gonçalves, Miguel & Matos, Marlene & Santos, Anita. (2009). Narrative therapies and the
nature of “unique outcomes” in the construction of change. Journal of Constructivist
Narrative Therapy. (2020). Psychology Today. Retrieved 10 3, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/therapy-types/narrative-therapy
Walther, S., & Fox, H. (2012). Narrative Therapy and Outsider Witness Practice: Teachers as a community of acknowledgement. Educational and Child Psychology, 29(2), 7-17. https://d1wqtxts1xzle7.cloudfront.net/38281771/Reading_Rosie.pdf?1437735886=&response-content-disposition=inline%3B+filename%3DGoodley_D_and_Runswick_Cole_K_2012_Readi.pdf&Expires=1601760542&Signature=g~xxBfWPNIbQ2Cg1AhoyXzUU6gpo6~7ty9PBfcJZZ0LExmAA3ArDczH
What is Narrative Therapy. (n.d.). Dulwich Centre: A Gateway to Narrative Therapy and Community Work. Retrieved 10 3, 2020, from https://dulwichcentre.com.au/what-is-narrative-therapy/
Winslade, J. M., & Monk, G. D. (2007). Narrative Counseling in Schools: Powerful and Brief (2nd ed. ed.). Corwin Press. https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=jPR0AwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=narrative+therapy+in+schools&ots=7ATf51jXlO&sig=MOuMobXcKz1N8RJcbN1YQVWBWfI#v=onepage&q=narrative%20therapy%20in%20schools&f=false