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Working with Emotionally Disturbed Children
By: Staff at

(Written by T. Doty, 2003)

The following essay was written in response to a posting on the newsgroup Storytell requesting advice in how to teach storytelling to emotionally disturbed children....

When I have worked with disturbed children I have always insisted on working with them in small groups, or one on one, if possible. I know this often goes against the grain of the system -- not to mention the boundaries of budgets -- but I have found that it works. It allows me to create a workshop that is unique for each child. These children have a vast diversity of issues -- many more than one finds in a typical public school classroom -- and to try to squeeze them into one cubbyhole or one style of workshop, seldom works. In small groups, or one on one, a child who learns by doing can get up and do, and one who learns from listening can sit quietly and take it all in. A good teacher will find a way to steer these and other learning options into sharing words, and eventually a story.

I find that in small groups, or one on one, there is far less acting out, screaming, uncontrolled behavior. Part of this behavior comes from the tension of being in a group, part from being asked to do something that may feel uncomfortable, and a great deal comes from a kind of thinking -- brain functioning -- that is unique and often not recognized by others. A workshop that may work in a typical classroom seldom works with these kids. The workshop needs to be presented in such a way that is in tune with their way of thinking, and as a friendly, nurturing invitation rather than a request to be like everyone else and jump in and participate like everyone else. These children are NOT like everyone else -- few of us are -- nor should a workshop for them be like other workshops. In most institutions there are people with authority who understand this and they are the people to talk with. Often they can make things happen when others canít or wonít. If someone tells me "No, it canít be done," I search out the person who has the power to say yes.

Before I plan a workshop for a special-needs child I talk with adults who know the child. This gives me some background and a starting place for creating a series of activities I feel might be appropriate. I always have backup activities, and enter the workshop with the attitude that not everything will work and that what may appear not to be working at any given moment may end up being a long-term success. Time and patience and flexibility are important. If a time comes when I cannot think quickly enough of what to do next, I share a story. These kids love to listen to stories. Donít we all?

While the mission of many to encourage these kids to fit in and function in society may be a noble one, too many adults have told them this too many times. It is rare that they have the opportunity to be fully themselves, and express who they are. Storytelling can give them that opportunity. I try to create a workshop which focuses less on technique and the learning of someone elseís story, and more on creating an atmosphere that encourages the child to find their own storyteller voice and a comfortable way to express what truly matters to him or her, in the form of an original story. This is safe, a way for a child to share what feels important without saying it directly and then feeling vulnerable or threatened. And this is the heart of true storytelling: to take what matters and share it in a way that it matters to an audience, and thus makes a difference. If I have done the storytelling part of this workshop well, the message of their story will communicate clearly. In some instances, it is simply too painful for a child to create a story, and when I sense this, I find a way to provide the child with story options that have enough variety for the child to find one that speaks as truly and genuinely from the heart as if the child had created the story himself.

This approach empowers the child with a sense that he or she is in control of the words and this can be a freeing experience. Also, many disturbed children are highly artistic. They find this path of creating appealing, and they can often relate to an artist more deeply than with a counselor or therapist. The best psychologists have known this for quite a while, and all one has to do is look on any psychology shelf in any bookstore to find a number of titles that address the healing qualities of stories. Interestingly enough, I have found many workshops that work well for special-needs kids also work for talented and gifted kids. All of these children are highly creative, and as artists, this is one of many things that we have in common with them. By acknowledging this, a relationship between storyteller and child finds a beginning.
When creating a workshop for anyone, I always go back to that Inuit definition of storytelling, the best I have ever heard: A storyteller creates the atmosphere in which wisdom reveals itself. Part of serving oneís art is insisting on a setting where the art has an opportunity to do its best work.

This, of course, is my bias. It works for me. Walking my own path is often a richer experience with the tales of the experiences of others ringing in my ears. Feel free to share!

Author Information:
Name: Staff at
The contents expressed in any article on are solely the opinion of author.

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