Updating Life Story Work for use with a technologically proficient generation: a review

By Simon Hammond                                                          Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009


Simon Hammond was a residential child care worker and has now embarked upon a PhD at the University of East Anglia, within the School of Social Work and Psychology. Simon started his PhD in October 2008 and although it is in its early stages, his PhD aims to create a web-based form of Life Story Work through utilising new and emerging technologies and a Participatory Action Research approach. Simon also teaches on the School of Social Work and Psychology’s BSc Psychology degree and is a Graduate Member of the British Psychological Society. Contact : Simon Hammond, Ph D Researcher, School of Social Work and Psychology, University of East Anglia, Norwich. NR4 7JT. Email: S.Hammond@uea.ac.uk Telephone: +44 (0) 1603 593632


Updating Life Story Work for use with a technologically proficient generation: a review     Introduction.

Where was I born? Where did I get my blue eyes from? Why do I support my favourite football team? For the majority of people answers to such questions are generally known and can be found through talking with their birth families. However, ‘Looked after’ children are one population that may not be able to rely solely on this dialogue and therefore can often have more questions than they are able to create answers to. This can be further compounded by the reported high number of placement moves experienced by young people in care (Munro & Hardy, 2007; Sinclair, Baker, Lee, & Gibbs, 2007). In an effort to address these knowledge gaps and to create a coherent narrative, Life Story Work is often carried out with young people looked after in the care system (Ryan & Walker, 2003). This process is deemed to be something that should start the moment the young person enters the care system (Falberg, 1994; Rose & Philpot, 2005; Ryan & Walker, 2007) and attempts to piece together aspects of this lost self-knowledge through the creation of a Life Story Book. Nevertheless, there appears to be a dearth  of Life Story Work being undertaken with adolescents living in English residential care homes. This may lead to problems in identify construction and self-knowledge acquisition, resulting in a less than advantageous transition into adulthood. The following discussion aims to highlight the possible barriers to Life Story Work in English residential homes whilst raising an awareness of its benefits. Following this the possible use of culturally familiar technologies will be discussed as possible solutions.


What is Life Story Work, why is it important and why is it not widely undertaken with young people living in English Residential Care Homes?

Storytelling as a form of communication can be dated back to the very earliest records of our ancient ancestors. From the cave paintings of those who lived thousands of years ago, to the culturally specific, time sensitive stories that appear to be passed on from generation to generation via word of mouth. Storytelling still represents a major aspect of the 21st century life and even though the mediums for storytelling have changed as a result of technological advances, the messages they deliver are still very powerful. Certain sectors of the child care system currently utilise storytelling as a way of promoting self-knowledge and identity development in an approach called Life Story Work. However, this has mainly been undertaken with younger children (Rose & Philpot, 2005). The work of Glickman (1957) represents the first recorded use of storytelling within a professional social work setting. These ‘life books’ were, and still are used by care workers when preparing a child for long-term fostering or adoption placement (Hanney & Kozlowska, 2002).

The theoretical roots of using Life Story Work with young people in care placements can be viewed through an attachment theory pathway. Many attachment theorists cite the need for the child: “..to put together a coherent story..”  (Schofield & Beek, 2006: p.358). This approach therefore provides a conduit for communication through which young people can explore their lives and seek to establish this coherent narrative or story (Fahlberg, 1994: Ryan & Walker, 2007). This narrative tends to be recorded at a particular point in a child’s life in a Life Story Book. This is never complete at the time of the original ‘work’, but needs to be continually updated and used to construct answers to the growing child’s questions about their past (Rose & Philpot, 2005). Life Story Work as a process has been applied to the care population using three broadly split approaches. These can be characterised as: the ‘giving’ of a narrative, ‘collaboration and empowering’ to create a narrative and the multidisciplinary creation of a ‘healing’ narrative. These characteristics make each approach more suitable in certain situations than others; however the problematic application of each to English residential care home settings appears to be a feature shared by all. The first relies upon giving a collection of chronologically arranged information to the young person. This allows the young person access to information such as birth parents’ names, dates of birth and such forth. Life Story Work and Life Story Books in this form, involve giving the young people a: “..factual narrative about their lives and the lives of those closest to them” (Rose & Philpot, 2005: p.14).

Although not a complete way of learning about one’s own past this approach still has an important part to play in laying the foundations for self-knowledge. Given this it is in my view  an approach that though it tends to be used more in early admissions to care  –  hence its application to a mainly older residential population (Sinclair et al, 2007; Bullock, 2009), even those who enter the care system at an older age, referred to by Sinclair et al, (2007) as ‘Adolescent Entrants’ –  that meets an acute developmental need. The problem is a large number of these late entrants to the care system young people may already know or feel they know such information and therefore may say they find this work pointless. The second approach to Life Story Work, based on a developmental and attachment perspective, empowers the young person to explore introspectively and construct verbally, thoughts, feelings and emotions regarding their past with the assistance of an adult figure (Rose & Philpot, 2005; Ryan & Walker, 2007).

Life Story Work of this nature can take up to 18 months or thirty-six separate meetings in which the young person is able to address their past discarding some: “..negative emotional baggage…” (Rose & Philpot, 2005: p.14). The emphasis here is: “…on the crucial links between cognition and emotion, thinking and feeling.” (Schofield & Beek, 2006: p.358). A key feature of this type of Life Story Work appears to be the person who works with the young person through the process. Yet for most young people living in English residential care homes, 18 months may represent numerous placement moves and staff changes (Munro & Hardy, 2007; Sinclair et al, 2007; Bullock, 2009). Therefore the cross-provision applicability of this approach to residential care homes in light of the absence of chronologically committed adults due to high staff instability (Holland, Faulkner & Perez-del-Aguila, 2005; Petrie & Simon, 2006) remains a concern and probable barrier to Life Story Work in many English residential settings.

The third approach Life Story Work represents a move towards a multidisciplinary and holistic perspective (Burnell & Vaughan, 2008). Initially a rigorous file search is undertaken, which aims to obtain first hand accounts from birth parents, foster carers and social workers involved with the child’s case at the time of their admission. This in-depth search aims to uncover the child’s reasons for entering the care system, so those who work with the young person can understand the implications of their past in terms the child’s formative and crucially important developmental years (Burnell & Vaughan, 2008). Accordingly Burnell and Vaughan, (2008) state that to create this process of ‘healing’ a coherent and detailed narrative needs to be created, crucially ensuring that the child feels that they are totally absolved of responsibility for their move into the care system. Burnell and Vaughan (2008) fail to address the possibility the young person having mixed feelings towards their birth families. For example, children who  have experienced abuse and neglect, may still have a sense of loyalty to their birth parents, remembering some pleasant memories alongside the unpleasant ones (Fahlberg, 1994). Additionally, whilst in earlier childhood such an approach may aid the transition of a child to a long-term foster or adoption placement, the application of this approach to adolescents in care requires considered thought and development.

Each Life Story Work approach discussed supports younger populations of the care system, helping them to develop a stronger sense of self-knowledge, or as Schofield and Beek (2006: p.358) suggest: “..a coherent story..”. Undertaken through various strategies, these approaches provide professionals with a selection of routes to the creation of this self-knowledge, either through giving, empowering, or attempting to counsel, these children through the process. However as witnessed throughout this discussion, the application of these approaches to Life Story Work to young people in residential care remains problematic, especially in light of the low pre-employment training of English residential child care staff (Petrie & Simon, 2006). A study by Riggs and Coyle (2002) offers an insight into some of the possible psychological implications of frequent placement moves and a lack of Life Story Work. They examined the psychological well-being and identity of four young people, aged 16-25 years, who had at some point been homeless in the United Kingdom. They found that their participants reported both physical and psychological implications of being homeless, which it is proposed here, may have a relationship to those feelings experienced by young people in highly unstable care settings, who feel as though they have lost their base or roots. The physical implications of homelessness included: “..a lack of secure place for possessions” (Riggs & Coyle, 2002: p.5). Moreover, the psychological implications were reported to be feelings of isolation, rejection, alienation and “a lack of safe space for psychological belongings” (Riggs & Coyle, 2002: p.5). Additionally feelings of isolation, rejection and a “loss of identity and personhood” found by Riggs and Coyle (2002: p.5), are similar to the need for the young person to have a ‘Stability of Community and Stability of Personal Identity’ identified by Jackson (2002), illustrating further the importance of Life Story Work across care provisions.


Life Story Work and interactive digital media

The advent, and continuing rapid development of the internet, web-cams, blogs, chatrooms, instant messenger, interactive computer games, mobile phones, which now allow their users to take, share and even upload their pictures and video clips via ‘Bluetooth’ to the internet in a matter of seconds, have all clearly changed the way young people choose to communicate. Yet for many social work professionals, communication tools such as those listed here could still be quite alien to them. Resultantly the use of these within Life Story Work could still be relatively low. In an effort to keep pace with the dynamic, multimedia proficient, text messaging, and youth culture in general, the care system and social work practice itself, needs to converse with  this culture’s methods of communication. Williamson and Facer (2004) highlighted the uses of interactive media as a way of aiding young children to verbalise externally their thoughts and feelings. Consequently (and of particular relevance to the care population and Life Story Work) this externalised product can be revised and updated regularly. Hence allowing the young person to assimilate any new knowledge as they see fit, in the same way that Life Story Books can be added to when necessary. However using an interactive computer-based medium also gives the operator unprecedented flexibility to make changes frequently and quickly. Since items can be copied, printed, saved or deleted as the operator desires,  this is an ideal medium to help the construction of Life Story Books. Simply the very use of a computer as  a medium for communication may also attract the attention of disengaged groups of young people, since such objects are highly valued in youth culture (Cown, 2000). Examples of interactive computer-based media that attract a great deal of attention from youth culture, and which feature similar flexibility are online Social Networking Sites (SNS) such as Facebook and MySpace (Doring, 2002). Similar characteristics are also present in and are also a feature of private or ‘nominal home pages’. Whereas sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com allow their users to present profiles of themselves, information uploaded onto nominal home pages remain private and can only be accessed via a unique log in name and password. The ‘profile’ feature on SNS invites the users to enter generic information regarding their age, gender, marital status, a profile picture and their home town. Sites such as Facebook are now a global phenomena held in high regard by youth culture and research illustrates that they allow young people to stay in contact over great distances (Doring, 2002).

However, if Life Story Work allows for rational exploration of how and why young people ended up in care, whether such sensitive and personal information should be displayed in such a public arena is highly debatable and needs further exploration. Instead attention will now turn to the potentially therapeutic nature of nominal home pages. Chandler and Roberts-Young (2000: p.91) suggested that: “Where web pages are experienced as being emotionally close to their authors as well as being physically detached from them, this can facilitate a sense of dialogue with oneself”.

This way of externalising emotions, thoughts and feelings via a familiar communication tool, are seen by young people as non-threatening, non-judgemental and non-invasive (Ahmad, Betts & Cown, 2008). Psychological belongings are now externalised to the ‘out-there-world’ with Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) acting as an agent for intrapersonal communication and could be used to communicate these ‘externalised belongings’ to significant others, such as social work professionals or carers. Such sites give the young people a “…safe space for psychological belongings” (Riggs & Coyle, 2002: p.5), whilst allowing users to upload digital pictures and contextualise images by adding comments summarising their memories and emotions at the time the picture was taken (Ahmad, Betts & Cown, 2008). Similarly with the continued development of the camera phone the practice of young people spontaneously recording images from their world has become ensconced in popular youth culture (Haddon, 2007). Additionally the web based nature of this approach to Life Story Work means that the young person’s nominal home page could be accessed from any location with an internet ready computer, meaning information, blog entries and pictures are not lost if the young person moves placement frequently. Most of this population are already more familiar with such technology than the majority of adults, however the gap is closing. Nevertheless, this naivety on behalf of the adults should be viewed as a positive rather than a negative aspect. This lack of knowledge can lead to the young person teaching or coaching the adult, which in itself may raise self-esteem and also provide an opportunity to build rapport.





Like adults, many young people use their camera phones to take spontaneous video clips and pictures from their world as they see it ; recording events in chronological order, saving them potentially, for posterity. With the continued development of phone technology and the passing down of older phones, the number of young people who have access to such technology will continue to grow. The task of a new generation of Life Story Work approaches in residential child care is to ‘tap into’ the things the young people are already doing in their everyday life’s and use these communication tools to encourage reflection within the young people. This acceptance and use of digital technologies as a legitimate way for adolescents to express themselves appears to pave the way for a new adolescent specific approach to Life Story Work to be developed. As a result such technologies remain relevant to the culture and flexible enough to transcend barriers to undertaking Life Story Work with adolescents in care.




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