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Approaches in research and

professional practice



Guest Editors
Tom Billington & Liz Todd
4 About the Contributors
Guest Editorial
Tom Billington & Liz Todd
8 Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice: Teachers as a community of
Sarah Walther & Hugh Fox
18 Positioning among the lines of force in schooling: An issue for psychologists and
counsellors in schools
John Winslade
30 ‘When the powerfulness isn’t so helpful’: Callum’s relationship with autism
Dr Jennifer Alison Gilling
39 The professional practice of educational psychologists: Developing narrative approaches
Charmian Hobbs, Rachel Durkin, Gillian Ellison, Jennifer Gilling, Tracey Heckels, Sarah
Tighe, Barbara Waites & Carol Watterson
51 Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child
Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole
65 How can the use of petit narratives create space and possibility when shorthand is used in
educational psychology practice?
Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca
75 Engaging with young people through narrative co-construction: Beyond categorisation
Kate Warham
85 Narrative analysis of former child soldiers’ traumatic experiences
Paul O’Callaghan, Dr Lesley Storey & Dr Harry Rafferty

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 3

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
About the Contributors

4 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
About the Contributors

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 5

Guest Editorial
Tom Billington & Liz Todd

6 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Guest Editorial

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Narrative therapy and outsider witness
practice: Teachers as a community of
Sarah Walther & Hugh Fox

When people meet together to hear, respond to and acknowledge the preferred accounts of people’s lives, it is
referred to in narrative therapy as ‘outsider witness practice’. In this paper, we describe how the outsider
witness practice framework can support staff in educational settings to acknowledge preferred accounts of
identity. We summarise the broader orientation to life, identity and relationships that inform narrative
therapy as a context for locating outsider witness practice. We then describe the outsider witness practice
framework and scaffold in some detail and illustrate this with an example of a piece of therapeutic work
with a young man.
This paper is intentionally written in the first person. This reflects our wider commitment as narrative
therapists to inviting and promoting a sense of personal agency, ownership and accountability.
Keywords: narrative therapy; schools; community; outsider witness.

T HAS BECOME COMMON for people’s how we think about ourselves and others but
identities and selves to be understood as our actions and living practices.
an essentialist part of them, with the self- As no single account or story can ever
located as a core part of a person. This core reflect our entire lived experience, narrative
self is variously theorised to be the result of therapy holds an understanding that life is
personality traits, characteristics, uncon- multi-storied: That there are many possible
scious motivations, drives and so on. These accounts that can or could be told about who
are known as structuralist understandings of we are and how we live. However, some
identity; that is, identity is determined by the stories about our lives are told and heard
internal structure of the individual. more than others; they can become domi-
As narrative therapists, we are interested nant in defining our sense of self and limit
in a different understanding of personhood, the actions available for us to take. We do not
a non-structuralist understanding – also always get to author these accounts or have a
referred to as post-structuralist understand- say in which ones are told. This is particularly
ings, in some contexts – in which identity is the case when problems or difficulties are
seen as being shaped in social and relational around and when the people who are
contexts: sharing problem stories about our lives are
Post-structuralist understandings account for in relative positions of power.
identity as a social and public achievement –
identity is something that is negotiated within Schools shape identities
social institutions and within communities of Schools may just be one community in which
people – and is shaped by historical and a person’s identities are storied, but they are
cultural forces. (White, 2000, p.62) a very significant community. Staff rooms are
We are also interested in the idea that narra- an informal but powerful social and public
tives are the means by which our identities setting in which problematic identity conclu-
are shaped in these social and relational sions about children are shared and
contexts; the stories or accounts that we tell, sustained. In more formal contexts, accounts
and that are told about us, shape not only of children written by educational profes-

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© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice

sionals carry power and a truth status that acknowledged by others that the person can
other accounts of a young person, authored experience this story as authentic and
by their friends, for example, do not carry. credible, which in turn enables it to be influ-
School events and teacher opinions are ential in shaping their life. It becomes an
frequently documented, circulated and option for how they may seek to live their
understood as truths to people outside the life, an option not available when the prob-
school context. They are told and retold lematic account of identity is the only
throughout and even beyond a person’s account and is taken to be true.
educational career as part of their ‘record’, Although Michael White and David
having significant effects that can extend Epston (White & Epston, 1989) had been
into the future. recruiting audiences during their work for
It is in these sorts of ways that problem some time, White writes of the significance
stories can begin to become the dominant of the work of cultural anthropologist
influence in a person’s life. They can seem to Barbara Myerhoff in developing a ‘fuller
speak a truth about who we are and have the understanding of the significance of the
power to totalise our identities, marginal- audience’s contribution’ (White, 2007):
ising all other possible narratives. A person’s Unless we exist in the eyes of others, we may
life can be reduced to this problematic come to doubt even our own existence. Being is
account and become single-storied; their a social and psychological construct; it is
preferred sense of who they are – what is something that is made, not given.
important to them and how they wish to live (Myerhoff, 2007, p.31)
their life – goes unacknowledged and This idea is a key principle of narrative
becomes invisible even to themselves. therapy and reflects the shift away from indi-
In these situations, narrative therapy vidualised approaches towards the more
seeks to bring forward these alternative social and relational orientation that narra-
‘preferred accounts of identity’ with the tive practice embodies.
understanding that, once these are made
visible, the person can more clearly see ways Acknowledgement by the therapist
forward that are congruent with how they Most people who seek counselling have their
wish to live their life. However, it is difficult lives storied by dominant problematic
for a person to step into these alternatives accounts. Alternative narratives are often
unless they are noticed and honoured by asked about, made visible and acknowledged
others. It is more likely that people will be in the first instance by the therapist. For
able to sustain and develop their preferred example, a young person may be seen as
living practices if their efforts to live these aggressive and unco-operative by those
preferences are recognised and told by audi- around them – parents and teachers and so
ences; if they are put into circulation and on. However, in therapeutic conversation
acknowledged. between the young person and a counsellor,
it may emerge that actually there are many
Narrative therapy and acknowledgement actions they take that do not fit with this
Narrative therapy is often referred to as a description; there are likely to be many occa-
therapy of acknowledgement. We try to sions when they might have caused trouble
make visible the ways that people would in school but did not. These actions are
prefer to see themselves and would prefer to expressions of something other than aggres-
be seen by others. In addition, we invite sion and unco-operativeness and can be
others to recognise and acknowledge these asked about further. They may turn out to be
preferred accounts. expressions of a wish to learn and a determi-
It is in having these alternative stories of nation to make something of their life, but
‘who they are and how they might become’ this determination is rarely seen, existing as

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Sarah Walther & Hugh Fox

it does in the shadows of the dominant story They are people of power and status in that
of aggression and lack of co-operation. young person’s life and, as such, their contri-
In noticing and asking about these occa- bution will be highly significant to the young
sions, the therapist can then confirm and person. Also, they may be able to respond to
explicitly witness the preferences they the young person outside the therapeutic
reflect: context, that is, during the ‘ordinary’ macro-
So this episode, where you could have gone off world of school life, in ways that are
in class, but you kept quiet and got on with supportive of this preferred identity. Further-
your work, that was because you want to make more, they may be a means of spreading the
something of your life. Have I understood that news of this alternative identity more widely
right? within the school community. The more
This response is highly acknowledging of the widely this account is spread, the more it can
young person’s alternative ideas of what is contribute to shaping the young person’s life
important to them, and by acknowledging it and to giving a sense of authenticity to their
in this way it starts to make it possible for the preferred identity claims.
young person to see this identity claim as The person who is to be at the centre of
one that is possible or authentic. this audience should be consulted about
their interest in the process and about who
Acknowledgement by others they might like to have listen to and witness
If identity is understood to be a social and their stories:
public achievement, rather than an intrinsic Who in your school might have had a glimpse of
characteristic of a person, then it is even your determination to make something of your
more powerful when these alternative iden- life? Would you be interested in inviting them to
tity claims are publicly acknowledged by come and hear about the efforts you have been
people other than the therapist. Narrative making to make something of your life? And in
therapy does not centre the therapist as me asking them some questions to find out what
heroic. It privileges the macro-world of life they think about what they have heard?
over the micro-world of the therapy room, Teachers identified in this way may be
based on the principle that it is in social thought of as having the potential to form a
contexts that we are able to authenticate our community of acknowledgement, a commu-
identity claims more richly. nity that will support the life of the young
As the lives of the people with whom we person’s preferred account of their identity.
meet are often dominated by the telling and
retelling of problem accounts, in narrative Recruiting teachers as
therapy we work to create relational contexts outsider witnesses
that are authenticating of preferred identity Once a teacher has been identified as a
claims by recruiting audiences who can offer potential outsider witness, there are many
acknowledgment. We refer to these ways to invite that person into the process.
recruited audiences as ‘outsider witnesses’. However, it is important to confirm that they
will indeed be able to contribute to an
Identifying teachers as enrichment of the young person’s preferred
outsider witnesses identity. The therapist can begin by
There are many possibilities for recruiting explaining their connection with the young
wider audiences from various aspects of the person and the conversational context in
person’s life, including friends, neighbours, which the potential outsider witness was
colleagues, family members and so on. identified. This acts as a foundation for
Teachers make particularly good outsider enquiring about the outsider witness’ knowl-
witnesses when they are open to hearing edge of the person’s preferred story and
alternative accounts of a young person’s life. their willingness to share this explicitly:

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Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice

I have recently been speaking with a young for use in contexts of narrative therapy or
person about his life. He has told me that community development. Witnesses are
although many other teachers seem to see him gathered together to hear the preferred
as a person who doesn’t want to learn, he accounts of a person’s life, and are invited to
thinks that you may be one of the few people make responses that lead to rich description
who noticed who has something different about of these preferred accounts.
him, who may have guessed that he does want
to learn. Is that right? What have you noticed? The outsider witness practice
How come you have been available to this? framework: Tellings and retellings
The length and type of conversation at this The overall outsider witness process consists
stage can vary and may include other aspects of three stages (White, 2007, p.185). Firstly,
of narrative practice. However, the intention there is a conversation or interview with the
is always to ensure, as far as possible, that the person at the centre of the definitional cere-
outsider witness will be available to hear and mony. During this interview the outsider
acknowledge preferred accounts of identity witnesses sit in the room listening, having
rather than seeing this process as another been invited to notice what they are particu-
opportunity to relate the problem story. larly drawn to.
Secondly, the outsider witnesses are inter-
Outsider witness practice and viewed using the outsider witness scaffold
definitional ceremony and, whilst this is happening, the person at
Meetings of outsider witnesses are structured the centre sits listening. The outsider
in particular ways to form a ‘definitional witnesses talk with the interviewer and do not
ceremony’. This description is again drawn address their responses to the person at the
from the work of Barbara Myerhoff, who centre of the ceremony. This puts the person
recorded her connection with a community at the centre in the ‘listening position’, where
of elderly Jewish people in Venice, Cali- no demands are made on them to respond to
fornia. She observed their practices for what the outsider witness is saying since the
‘telling and retelling, performing and re- structure discourages them from doing so,
performing the stories of their lives’: and they can, therefore, simply think about
When cultures are fragmented and in serious the responses without having to either agree
disarray, proper audiences may be hard to or disagree with what has been said.
find. Natural occasions may not be offered and Thirdly, the person at the centre is re-
then they must be artificially invented. I have interviewed to elicit their responses to what
called such performances Definitional they have heard from the outsider witnesses.
Ceremonies. (Myerhoff, 1982, p.105) These three stages can be thought of as:
Myerhoff also writes: ● A telling of the significant life story by the
Definitional ceremonies deal with the problems person for whom the definitional
of invisibility and marginality; they are ceremony is performed.
strategies that provide opportunities for being ● A retelling of the story by the people
seen and in one’s own terms, garnering invited to be outsider witnesses.
witnesses to one’s worth, vitality, and being. ● A retelling of the outsider witnesses’
(1982, p.267) retellings by the whom the definitional
In summary, a definitional ceremony was ceremony is performed.
described by Barbara Myerhoff as an ‘artifi- In addition to this, a final part of this process
cially invented’ occasion that provides a may consist of everyone talking together to
space for audiences to contribute to a discuss their experience of the definitional
person’s ‘worth, vitality and being’. Michael ceremony, ask questions about the process
White developed outsider witness practice as and generally deconstruct and make trans-
a form of definitional ceremony specifically parent what has been happening.

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The outsider witness practice scaffold Identifying the expression

Just as care is taken to recruit outsider This is an invitation for the outsider witness
witnesses who will be open to hearing and to say to what they have been drawn in the
acknowledging the alternative accounts of conversation they haves just been an audi-
people’s lives, so too it is important that care ence to; out of everything they have just
is taken to elicit helpful responses during the heard, what expression in particular stood
definitional ceremony. It cannot be assumed out for them: ‘Whilst you were listening to
that the responses that people make sponta- this conversation, what did you hear that you
neously will necessarily be helpful and were most drawn to?’
contribute to rich description. A definitional It is important that the interviewer draws
ceremony is not an ‘anything goes’ situation, out some actual words or phrases used by the
but a carefully constructed witnessing. person at the centre of the ceremony, as this
Rather than doing ‘what comes naturally’, forms the foundation for the rest of the
witnesses are invited to respond in carefully conversation. It also ensures that the
structured ways; ways that are structured by outsider witness response stays connected to
questions asked of them by an interviewer. what the person at the centre of the cere-
Michael White (1995) developed a scaf- mony has said, rather than being connected
fold of questions that may be used to elicit to the hypotheses or interpretations of the
outsider witness responses that both outsider witness.
contribute to rich description and also lead If the outsider witness does respond with
to the embodiment of the responses. The an interpretation or hypothesis, for example,
interviewer is responsible for interviewing ‘I thought they were brave’, then it is impor-
not only the person at the centre, but also tant to follow up with a question such as:
the outsider witnesses. In doing this, the ‘What was it that you heard that suggested to
interviewer takes responsibility for ensuring you this idea that this person is brave? What
that the outsider witness responses remain was it she actually said?’ If the outsider
non-structural and contribute to a rich witness’ assertion about bravery is not
description of the preferred accounts of connected with the stated experience of the
identity of the person at the centre of the person at the centre of the ceremony, the
definitional ceremony. assertion may seem without credibility and
In order to be able to perform this possibly patronising.
responsibility, it is helpful for the interviewer
to negotiate at the start of the outsider Identifying the image
witness interviewing that they, the inter- In this part, the outsider witness is encour-
viewer, may interrupt if they think that the aged to speak about the way that the expres-
outsider witness responses are going off sion to which they were drawn affected how
track in some way. In our experience, people they see the person at the centre, in terms of
who are recruited as outsider witnesses are what they might give value to in life and any
only too glad to accept this suggestion as connected visual images this painted of the
they are often appropriately concerned that person for them. Whilst not all outsider
their responses should be as helpful as witnesses find it easy to come up with pictures
possible and that they should not ‘say or visual images, these visual images are often
anything wrong’. very powerful for the person and are remem-
The outsider witness scaffold has four bered in different ways from verbal responses.
parts: As you heard this and as you listened to this
● identifying the expression; account, what did it suggest to you about what
● identifying the image; might be important to this person? Or what
● identifying resonance; hopes they might have for their life? Or what
● identifying transport. aspirations they might have?

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Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice

As you think about this what images or In this stage, as witnesses recount events
pictures of this person come to mind? from their own lives, they are likely to re-
During this stage, the person at the centre is enter into those experiences and it is partic-
able to hear the witnesses speak in ways that ularly important for the interviewer to
authenticate aspects of their identity. These ensure that the witness does not become the
expressions by the outsider witnesses are centre of the ceremony by telling more and
linked directly to what the person has said in more about their own lives. The interviewer
the first stage of the process and, therefore, has the responsibility for re-centring the
have credibility. response and may interrupt with other ques-
tions to do this, for example:
Identifying the resonance It is very interesting to hear how you to have
If the outsider witness has been drawn to a experienced something similar. As you think
particular expression, then there must be about how the account you have just heard of
some resonance with their own experience how this person has responded to these
of living. This resonance may be with events circumstances, how does your own experience
of their personal life or, where appropriate, affect how you are seeing them?
with previous therapeutic conversations in The interviewer also needs to remember that
which they have taken part. White (1995) this is not a forum for the witness to indi-
refers to the witnesses’ interest as being rectly instruct the person how to deal with
‘embodied’; by enquiring about this interest, their problem, perhaps by recounting how
it is made explicit that the outsider witness they themselves dealt with a similar difficulty.
responses are personal responses based in The interviewer can again carefully interrupt
their experience; that they are not authorita- if this becomes the case, to avoid the possi-
tive truths based on abstract theory. We bility that the person at the centre of the
might ask: ‘What is it about your own experi- ceremony understands this as a criticism
ence that meant that you were drawn to about their inability to manage or a direction
these things in particular?’ about what they should do.
It is important for both the outsider
witness and the interviewer to make and Identifying the transport
respect distinctions between what is personal It is rarely acknowledged that therapy is a
and what is private. The intention is not that two-way process and that not only is the
outsider witnesses should feel compelled to person at the centre affected by the process,
share personal information that they regard but those who are in the position of ‘helper’.
as private. If making these distinctions is If the witness has been drawn to certain
difficult, it is perfectly permissible for an expressions, and if these expressions have
outsider witness to ‘pass’ on this question. resonated with events in the witness’ own life,
However, when embodied and personal then their own experience of these events
responses are elicited, they connect the life will have been re-contextualised through this
of the person at the centre to the life of the process; they will have been moved in some
outsider witness through shared themes. way from where they were previously and will
This connection around shared themes have been taken to places where they would
contributes to the rich description of the life not otherwise have been taken. White (1995)
of the person at the centre. Where an refers to this as ‘transport’ and we can ask a
outsider witness is a professional and shares range of questions about this:
a resonance based on their work experience, Where has listening to this conversation
then the life of the person at the centre may taken you?
be connected through shared themes to the Having heard this conversation, what new ideas
life of someone else the witness has worked has this bought up for you that you might not
with. have had without hearing this conversation?

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What has this left you thinking or planning As these accounts were told, I became
to do? interested in a number of inconsistencies;
What might be possible in your own life as a events that didn’t quite ‘fit’ with some of
result of hearing this account? these broad descriptions. In particular, one
Not only does hearing the responses to these worker present, Max, had sustained a long-
questions acknowledge the two-way nature of term connection with Callum. I asked a few
therapy, it positions the person who has questions about this:
come for consultation as someone who has What was it that Max was doing, that meant
affected the lives of other people. This that Callum wished to continue in this
enhances a sense of agency and the signifi- connection with him?
cance of their life. Why was it important to Max to continue to
offer this to Callum?
The effects of outsider witness What was Callum doing, that meant that
practices Max wished to continue in his connection with
The last three stages of this outsider witness Callum?
process can each be of great significance to What might this say about what was
the people on whom they are centred. important to Callum in this connection?
Hearing others respond to and acknowledge Max thought that Callum might be inter-
what is important to them, when this has not ested in these sorts of conversations and a
been previously acknowledged, can be an week later I met with them both.
almost overwhelming experience. Hearing
that others, particularly where these are high- Identifying alternative accounts of
status professionals such as teachers, have Callum
also struggled with the issues that they are I learned that Callum had met with many
struggling with can be a revelation. Similarly, professionals over the years, but that many
understanding that their life can be influen- people only wanted to talk with him about
tial in the life of others can give people a problems. Max was one of the few people who
sense of agency and an enhanced under- Callum had found helpful. This was because
standing of their ability to have an impact on he had consulted with Callum about what he
the world around them that is new. wanted to happen; treated him like a young
man, rather than a child; noticed things that
Practice example: he was interested in; supported Callum in
Callum, Max and Mrs Taylor speaking up; and offered him respect.
I was first introduced to Callum during a Max spoke about some of the things that
‘Team Around the Child’ (TAC) meeting. he had learned about Callum over this time:
Callum had decided not to come, so my His sense of humour; that he took opportu-
introduction to him consisted of multiple nities; and that he kept going with stuff, even
verbal accounts by the ‘Team’ around the when things were very hard.
absent ‘Child’.
Although these accounts were multiple, Identifying an outsider witness
they were not multi-storied. Rather, they were This context offered a foundation to ask
multiple tellings of a narrowly storied Callum about other aspects of his life:
description of Callum: That he was aggressive What was it that was particularly important
and cared for no-one but himself; that he for Callum to keep going with, even when
only attended school when he wanted to; and things were hard?
that he would not engage with services. This Who else would know this?
account not only defined who Callum was in This last question is a way of identifying
the present, but also extended into the future potential outsider witnesses in the macro-
to predict that he would ‘end up in prison’. context of Callum’s life. The connections

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Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice

between people in outsider witness groups wrote following this meeting, which docu-
can be present in many different helpful ments the telling and retelling that
ways, but when the witnesses are part of that occurred:
person’s ongoing life they can continue to
notice, witness and support the actions Dear Callum
people are taking to live their preferred It was good to meet with you yesterday. We
identity projects. spoke again about school and you told me that
Callum told me that he always went to your favourite lesson was cookery. You told me
school (even if sometimes he was a bit late) that getting all the stuff together for cookery
and that he liked cookery. He explained that lessons required quite a bit of planning:
he always went to cookery classes as he ● You have to use your own time (not school
wanted to be a really good chef and make a time) to get the ingredients.
good life for himself. He thought that his ● You often have to go to a lot of different
cookery teacher, Mrs Taylor, would know shops.
about this as he was one of the few people ● You don’t give up if you can’t find the
who turned up at cookery lessons with all the ingredients straight away – sometimes you
ingredients! have to blag a lift from your aunty to the
Recruiting Mrs Taylor as an When I asked why you chose to make such an
outsider witness effort (in your own time) for a school lesson,
With Callum’s agreement I contacted Mrs you told me again that you want to be a really
Taylor. My intention was to invite her contri- good chef. You said that the effort you made for
bution to Callum’s preferred story and to cookery lessons reflected a commitment – not
offer some preparation for her role as an just to the cookery lesson, but also a
outsider witness. I explained that Callum commitment to yourself and to your own future.
thought she might have noticed some things If you have a good job, then you can have a
about him that other people didn’t seem good life and give your family a good life.
interested in noticing. I asked about what Max said that he had noticed you showing
these were and whether Callum was correct commitment, not just to yourself but also to
that she might have noticed. I also asked a other people. He talked about how your friend
little about what it said about her preferred had been feeling really low and fed up, but that
way of being as a teacher, that she took the you had continued to go round to your friend’s
time to notice these things: house and see if he wanted to go out. Max said
We’ve spoken about how there are lots of ways that he thought that your actions and
to be a teacher. What does this ‘taking time to commitment to this friendship – not giving up
notice’ say about what is important to you in on your friend when he is having a difficult
terms of how you want to be as a teacher? time – had made a big difference to him feeling
What difference do you think that this makes to better and being able to go out again.
your student, that you take the time to notice? Mrs Taylor told us that she REALLY
What does it mean to you, as a teacher, that appreciated the efforts you made, because not
your students notice that you notice? very many students always turn up with the
Would you be interested in other ways of letting ingredients. This gave her a real sense of how
students know what you take the time to notice important it is to you to put effort into things
about them? – she had an image of you as a character in a
computer game, trying to find ways round
The definitional ceremony obstacles to collect all the cookery ingredients
A week later, Mrs Taylor and Max acted as you need, with a little ‘ting’ sound every time
outsider witnesses to a conversation between you got one!
me, Callum and Max. This is the letter I

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Sarah Walther & Hugh Fox

She said that this really stood out for her ● Why is it you were drawn to this in
because it made such a difference when people particular? What is it about your own life
wanted to get the most from her lessons: it or work that meant you were drawn to
supported her belief that what she was doing this?
was a worthwhile thing and that lessons were ● Having read this paper, what might you
not ‘just about ticking boxes, but about giving find yourself thinking or doing in the
people hope for life’. Mrs Taylor ended by next few days or weeks that you may not
saying that on the way home, she’d be thinking have otherwise?
about all the young people she’d taught over Secondly, we wish to conclude with a begin-
the years who might now be able to cook meals ning: An invitation to ongoing practice possi-
for themselves or their families. bility in the form of a brief practical guide
Callum, I hope I have included in this for outsider witness recruits. We welcome
letter the things that you wanted to be written your comments and reflections on this paper
down and I look forward to seeing you again and would be particularly interested in
next week. hearing about your experiences of outsider
With best wishes witness practices.
(first name of author)
An insider guide for outsider witnesses
Outcome What to keep in mind that you want to do
I met with Callum just one further time. ● Listening for the expression – what do
I heard that Mrs Taylor had put Callum in you appreciate most about what it might
touch with a cookery club and had also take to live with the story that is being
connected with his form teacher about how told and in the context in which it has
they might support Callum to access cookery been lived? What is this resonating with
as a GCSE. I also heard from Max that Callum for you? How are you responding? What
had been speaking up more about his prefer- reflections or thoughts are evoked?
ences. This had led to an organisational ● Noticing what pictures come to mind as
takeover and radical restructure of the ‘Team you listen to or recall the accounts of
around the Child’: now re-named ‘Team those at the centre.
Callum’ and strictly by (Callum’s) invite only. ● Acknowledging preferred stories and
identities; what matters to the person,
Conclusion what they give value to, their hopes and
It is usual for a paper to end with a conclusion aspirations, etc.
and we wish to honour this academic tradi- ● This is an interviewing process and is
tion. However, we also wish to honour alterna- conversational.
tive ways of thinking, writing, reflecting on ● Bringing the conversation back so it is
and sharing practices that are congruent with centred on the person who is the subject
narrative therapy and the understanding that of the process.
life identity projects are fluid and ongoing
processes, full of possibility and without What to keep in mind that you want to avoid
conclusion. So this conclusion is in two parts. ● applause/pointing out of positives;
Firstly, rather than informing you what ● pronouncing/giving opinions/advice/
you should have concluded from this paper, hypothesising;
we invite you to consider the following ques- ● monologue;
tions: ● positive reinforcement;
● What is it that you have been most drawn ● imposing values;
to in reading this paper? ● sharing how you solved it;
● What does this say to you about what is ● processing your own issues.
important in this way of working?

16 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Narrative therapy and outsider witness practice

Address for correspondence References

Sarah Walther & Hugh Fox Myerhoff, B. (1982). Life history among the elderly:
Performance, visibility, and remembering.
The Institute of Narrative Therapy.
In J. Ruby (Ed.), A crack in the mirror: Reflexive
perspective in anthropology. Philadelphia: University
of Pennsylvania Press.
Myherhoff, B. (2007). Stories as equipment for living.
Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.
White, M. (1995). Reflecting teamwork as defini-
tional ceremony. In M. White (Ed.), Re-authoring
lives: Interviews and essays. Adelaide: Dulwich
White, M. (2000). Reflecting-team work as defini-
tional ceremony revisited. In M. White (Ed.)
Reflections on narrative practice: Essays and inter-
views. Adelaide: Dulwich Centre.
White, M. (2007). Maps of narrative practice. London:
White, M. & Epston, D. (1989). Narrative means to
therapeutic ends. New York: Norton.

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 17

Positioning among the lines of force in
schooling: An issue for psychologists and
counsellors in schools
John Winslade

Schooling and education are not the same thing. Reproduction theory attempted to explain how schooling
often serves a social sorting function, not just an educational one. This article traces how differences that
arise from developments in a poststructuralist analysis of power relations reshape theories of reproduction
and resistance. It also asks how these ideas can inform the practice of counsellors and psychologists in
schools. Positioning theory is argued to be useful as an analytical tool for sorting out how such relations
are negotiated on a daily basis, rather than given in advance. Finally the article traces how these
perspectives fit neatly with a narrative orientation to psychological practice.
Keywords: social reproduction; poststructuralism; resistance; positioning theory; narrative therapy.

N ORDER TO ESTABLISH a foundation the modern world serve a sorting function
for psychological practice in schools, a for society. They allocate identities to
concern of this article, it is important to children that will serve as the basis for their
begin with a distinction between education becoming as social and economic beings.
and schooling. School is about education – These functions have often been referred to
but it also serves other purposes. Although as the ‘hidden curriculum’ of schooling.
these two are often conflated and many Henry Giroux defines this hidden
people speak about them as isomorphic, curriculum as:
people engage in much activity that we …Those unstated norms, values and beliefs
recognise as educational in many places embedded in and transmitted to students
other than the institutions we call schools. through the underlying rules that structure the
Families of all kinds, for example, are social routines and social relationships in school and
institutions within which children routinely classroom life. (Giroux, 2001, p.47)
accomplish some of the major educational For some, the identities allocated through
achievements of their lives – learning to schooling are springboards of opportunity.
speak, to form intimate relationships, to They can trade in what they learn at school
master basic skills of living and to engage for social recognition and take their place in
with ethical lessons of how to live. professional or business worlds that reward
Conversely, it is also true that schools them handsomely. For others, the identities
serve functions other than their espoused produced by years of schooling predomi-
purpose of educating children. For example, nantly underline a sense of personal failure,
schools might be said to serve the purpose of and instill a sense of worthlessness. Still
childcare for parents who are needed in the others fall somewhere in between these two
workforce. Or they might be thought of as poles. Tom Billington (2000), for example,
holding pens for adolescents who are not yet shows how psychologists can deliver assess-
ready for full participation in the modern ments of children’s pathologies that effec-
world of work (or for whom the world of tively rule out many potential options for
work is itself not yet ready). The sociology of those children’s chances of wealth-making.
education (see Giroux, 2001, for a summary) If they are to serve the purpose of education,
has articulated particularly how schools in psychological workers in schools (school or

18 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Positioning among lines of force

educational psychologists and school coun- upon change need to be understood if we

sellors) might at times find themselves pitted are not to fall prey to a simplistic discourse of
against the aspects of schooling that are blaming students for their lack or merit,
about the function of sorting students into teachers for their inadequate instruction, or
differential pathways (Billington, 2000; parents for their failure to support.
Burman, 2007; Giroux, 2001). In order to When we start to inquire into just how
embody a stance that is consistently in favour schooling achieves the function of sorting,
of an educational agenda for all students, things start to get more complicated. There
psychological workers need to develop a are a variety of explanations available and
careful analysis of how they are positioned in they each represent the worldviews of their
relation to the lines of force in schools and authors as well as the actual functions of
to make conscious choices of action on the schools. In order to establish the basis for the
basis of this analysis (Billington, 2000, and kind of narrative perspective that I want to
Corcoran, 2007, make similar points). emphasise, I shall quickly run over some of
the major perspectives on social reproduc-
Reproduction theory tion and outline their contributions and
According to ‘social reproduction theory,’ limits.
the differential outcomes for students For economists Stanley Bowles and
produced by schools are to a substantial Herbert Gintis (1976), schools reproduced
degree unrelated to the merits of hard work inequality by mirroring the social relations
or personal ability so often invoked in the of the workplace. Schools reproduced the
‘cheery mainstream discourse of educational differential skills needed by the labour force
opportunity’ (Giroux, 2001, p.57) to explain and selected students to fit those differen-
how individuals fall across the dividing lines tials along social class and gender lines. They
that schooling produces. The division of also reproduced the consciousness and
students into different paths of becoming is values necessary for people to participate
explained in reproduction theory primarily willingly in the economic institutions of a
in terms of the influence of race, social class capitalist society. The mechanism that drove
background, or gender on educational this process of production was what they
outcomes. To say this is not to deny that called the ‘correspondence principle’ that
students differ in their abilities and motiva- they identified in classroom relations
tions, or that their parents differ in terms of between teachers and students. Such rela-
the degrees of family support that they are tions were argued to mirror relations in the
willing to provide, or that many manage to factory when the teacher acted as the boss
break out of traditional straitjackets. Nor is it and students acted like workers, sometimes
to deny the existence of social mobility. It compliant and sometimes alienated.
most certainly does not defend any assump- This structuralist economic account
tion that children from backgrounds of allowed for a modest degree of autonomy for
poverty cannot learn. Rather it seeks to the actions of teachers and students in its
explain the degree to which social mobility analysis of schooling but the possibility of
and social change does not happen. The autonomous action was relatively minor in
majority of students still end up in social comparison with determining economic
class positions that are similar to those of forces and was largely less than decisive.
their parents; racial divisions remain largely Bowles and Gintis nevertheless performed a
in place from one generation to the next service by countering the assumption that
(despite the election to the White House of schooling served a neutral function and that
Barack Obama); and many occupations still students were individually at fault if they did
fall along gender lines, despite considerable not succeed at school. The vision of
efforts to change this pattern. Constraints schooling Bowles and Gintis offered was for

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 19

John Winslade

working-class students, however, uniformly force to impose their definition of what

bleak and oppressive. As Giroux (2001) counts as meaningful knowledge in schools
points out, it depicted a working class that and this knowledge in turn becomes what is
was totally subject to the crushing weight of rewarded among their children.
domination and without any creative One difference in this account is that it
impulse toward self-creation. There was describes an active process of power rela-
scarcely any room in this account for resist- tions in which dominant social groups tend
ance to what was being done to them. The to succeed in maintaining their dominance
possibility of human action and agency in from one generation to the next, but the
the production of their own lives was outcome is never assured and can be
consigned to a trivial status. Nor was there affected to some degree by the actions of
any room for teachers to make any effective teachers (and of counsellors and psycho-
difference in students’ lives. In Giroux’s logists). As with Bowles and Gintis, however,
words, such an analysis was ‘reductionistic’, the process of hegemony envisaged was uni-
‘simplified’ and ‘overdetermined’ (p.84). directional and was represented as perhaps
A more sophisticated culturalist account too monolithic. It still allowed little room for
of how social reproduction operates was the exercise of agency by those who were
articulated by Pierre Bourdieu and Claude subject to the operation of the ‘symbolic
Passeron (1977). For them, schools were not violence’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992,
direct mirrors of what went on in the rest of p.167) done by schools, much less any
the economy but were able to exercise a opportunity for transformative action on
more substantial degree of autonomy. The either the individual or social levels. (For a
process of reproduction they articulated was fuller account of this point, see Giroux,
more to do with the transmission of culture 2001, pp.89ff.)
than with structural positions. Middle-class A stronger account of the possibilities of
families inculcated a cultural worldview and agency was introduced by Paul Willis (1981)
a familiarisation with linguistic modes, forms in his research into expressions of ‘resis-
of knowing, styles of presentation and dispo- tance’ by working-class ‘lads’ in an urban
sitions that were recognised and rewarded in English housing estate. Willis took seriously
schools. The cultural capital or habitus that what the ‘lads’ had to say about their own
middle-class students acquired in their lives and about their experience of schooling.
homes and communities was routinely He showed that these young men were not
mistaken in schools for natural talent (rather just victims of the forces of social class domi-
than being regarded as absorbed from their nation. They were actively choosing their
cultural milieu). Recognition by teachers of own position in response to it. Yet theories of
especially middle-class cultural capital led to resistance by Willis and others have been
higher grades and educational qualifications critiqued for romanticising resistance and
that could in turn be traded in for jobs that failing to distinguish adequately between
produced actual capital. As Nick Crossley mere oppositional behaviour and expres-
(2003) put it: sions of conscious political resistance (see
The school thus launders cultural advantages, Giroux, 2001). Sometimes, as Foucault
albeit unwittingly, transforming them into the (2000) has noted, resistance can be
hard and clean currency of qualifications. As ‘muddled’ (p.155) or become a ‘simple
such it perpetuates, disguises and naturalises appropriation and display of power’ (Giroux,
the socially rooted inequalities which shape it. 2001, p.103). Resistance theories have also
(p.43) been critiqued for their preoccupation with
Rather than relying on a correspondence dynamics of social class to the relative exclu-
principle, Bourdieu and Passeron argued sion of other modes of domination and for
that ruling classes repeatedly exert symbolic their failure to provide the basis for a trans-

20 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Positioning among lines of force

formative vision of possibility. Giroux (2001) tions in the modern world. The Marxist
argues for an account of resistance that is emphasis on control of the means of produc-
both sensitive to a range of modes of domina- tion was partially replaced by control of
tion and also focused on the effective expres- discourse.
sion of ‘moral and political indignation’ Discourse transmits and produces power,
(p.107). He starts from the assumption that reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes
the oppressed are not passive in response to it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to
expressions of power. Through their actions, thwart it. (Foucault, 1978, p.100)
they are capable of mediating the effects of Foucault traced how a range of dominating
schooling in their lives. discourses established multiple dividing lines
through society and these were by no means
A poststructuralist analysis of all reducible to relations between social
power relations classes. It was not that the forces of social
We are now ready to take into account the reproduction could now be ignored by those
shifts that were enabled by the poststruc- who took up a poststructuralist perspective.
turalist movement of thought and ask ques- They could instead be reconfigured through
tions about what they have added to the a poststructuralist lens, through which they
predominantly Marxist orientation of the look slightly different. From a poststruc-
social reproductionists of the 1970s. Michel turalist perspective, a more nuanced field of
Foucault’s (1978) analytics of power rela- multiple competing discourses came into
tions are critical to this development. For view. To be sure, some have to do with where
Foucault, power is not simply repressive but, one is positioned in relation to social class
in the modern world, primarily productive in divisions. But other relations of power are
its functioning. It is not just ‘the law that says constituted along dividing lines based on
no’ (Foucault, 2000, p.120) but ‘it makes orders of discourse organised on the basis of
people act and speak’ (Foucault, 2000, gender, disability, sexual orientation and of a
p.172). Schooling acts thus to produce forms host of more local discourses within partic-
of consciousness in students through a ular communities and families.
process of internalisation. His analysis of the For Foucault (1982), power relations are
panopticon as ‘one of the characteristic ordinary and are based on the practice of
traits of our society’ (Foucault, 2000, p.70) is taking action ‘upon the actions of others’
central to this analysis. (p.220). They are about attempts to influ-
As in the modern prison, schools are ence others. In this sense power is present in
panoptic sites that produce ‘good’ students every utterance, as people try to produce
through constant surveillance that culmi- each other. It is an account of power that
nates in the internalisation of self-moni- renders it diffuse and dispersed on the one
toring and the production of docile and hand but still frequently concentrated and
compliant behaviour. Such surveillance systematically organised on the other. Where
operates through three main processes: attempts to influence others become prob-
‘supervision, control and correction’ lematic is where they become systematically
(Foucault, 2000, p.70). The effective tech- organised around a pattern of domination.
nologies of power are not so much the acts Foucault’s colleague and friend, Gilles
of punishment and repression as those of Deleuze (1988), takes up Foucault’s account
testing, student files, school reports, parent through the use of slightly different termi-
interviews, psychological testing, and so on. nology. He talks about ‘lines of force’ that
Another distinction from the social run through a social world, sometimes in
reproductionists in Foucault’s analytics of slightly chaotic, healthy competition, but
power lies in his emphasis on the role of often becoming ‘striated’ through institu-
discourse as the foundation for power rela- tionalisation into rigid lines of force.

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 21

John Winslade

From this analysis, we can now conceive schooling to be able to help them make
of a vision of schooling as a complex web of agentic choices of how to position them-
relations, expressed through discourse, in selves in relation to the dominant discourses
which competing agendas seek expression in at work. It would not be enough for such
the lives of teachers and students. One line psychological workers to simply serve the
of inquiry might focus on how the neoliberal interests of schools as institutions, given that
agenda of schooling (Apple, 2004; Davies & the discourses of schooling do not always
Bansel, 2007) that currently dominates serve the interests of students.
educational discourse internationally may be Often the actions of psychological
shown to have largely displaced the formerly workers and the roles they are trained to play
dominant progressive agenda. But we can are beholden to discourses that serve other
also appreciate how this agenda is always purposes, such as social sorting, that are
being contested. It continually has to anything but democratic and just. Many
struggle to assert and reassert its dominance. forms of psychological discourse concentrate
Another line of inquiry might focus on on the intra-psychic or cognitive world of the
how subjectivities are produced in students student without attention to the social forces
according to the specifications of particular that are internalised in the student. For
discourses (for example, the discourses of example, Billington (2000) demonstrates
adolescence, or of human development, or how assessments of pathological conditions
of the normal family, or of how educational in children are frequently driven by forces of
success is defined). The role played by government and economic stringency more
discourses of individual deficit is particularly than by scientific knowledge. As Corcoran
important here and has been commented on (2007) also notes, the assigning of deficit
by a number of writers (for example, conditions functions to ‘normalise the prac-
Billington, 2000; Corcoran, 2007; Gergen, tice of marginalisation, and to reinforce the
1994). This line of inquiry would also, teacher’s perception of the action’ (p.120)
however, need to focus on how individuals often at the expense of the child’s own
resist the production of such subjectivities perception. A certain kind of blindness
and mediate the effects of domination in results that lacks a sharp enough analysis of
their own lives (see Billington, 2000, for what is happening to overcome its effects.
some accounts of student resistance to their A critical focus, however, seeks to study and
own production as students with disabilities). to work directly with the internalised effects
So what has all this to do with the work of of social processes.
school counsellors and school or educa- Such a focus invites psychological
tional psychologists? I am aware that the workers to make choices about where they
audience to which I wish to speak is will assist in the production of power rela-
constructed differently in different coun- tions to the detriment of students or where
tries. My own background is in school coun- they will work with students to resist such
selling in both New Zealand and in the US, discourses. This kind of work would involve
but I also know that in Britain and Europe psychological workers in particular kinds of
the work of counsellors overlaps with that of conversations with young people that help
school or educational psychologists. My aim them stay alert to what processes of produc-
here is to address all of these professionals tion are at work on them and what opportu-
together. I would argue that it is crucial for nities exist for the expression of personal
psychological workers, as I propose to refer agency (including conscious resistance).
to them so as not to get caught in differences Two sources of ideas for how to work in
of nomenclature, to develop a sharp enough this way seem, to my mind, to hold the most
conceptualisation of what is happening to promise: one theoretical and one practice-
young people in the course of their oriented. The first is positioning theory

22 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Positioning among lines of force

(Davies & Harré, 1990) and the second is and culture, that is, from a place that is
what has become known as narrative practice already structured within limits, but also
(White, 2007; White & Epston, 1990; from a place that is a beginning point for
Winslade & Monk, 2007). acting into the cultural world (Laws &
Davies, 2002). The concept helps us analyse
Positioning theory how it is that people ‘do being a certain kind
Positioning theory provides the best bridge of person’ (Davies & Harré, 1999, p.52).
I know of between the work done by larger By way of distinction, let me pause for a
social forces and the particularities of moment to acknowledge the work of Jack
psychological practice with individuals and Martin (2011) who, in concert with Alex
families. As Drewery (2005) argues, posi- Gillespie, has developed a related approach
tioning theory is focused on ‘the constitutive called ‘life positioning analysis’. Martin
effects of conversations’ (p.306). It derives claims that life positioning analysis incorpo-
from Foucault’s (1978, 1980) notion of a rates a discursive approach to personhood,
subject position and was developed by Davies but distinguishes this approach from Davies
and Harré (1990) into a concept that is and Harré’s (1990) version of positioning
useful for studying the production of selves theory on the basis of: (a) focus on ‘direct
in discursive contexts. When people make an experiences with particular, significant
utterance, they both establish a moral claim others’ (p.2); (b) theorising about life posi-
within a discourse and also call addressees tioning arising as a ‘direct result of our evolu-
into some kind of subject position within the tionary and cultural history’ (p.3); and (c)
relation that is invoked by the offer. For targeting eventually a ‘thematic analysis of
example, an utterance may establish a posi- positioned experiences and perspectives
tion for the speaker as a benign, middle-class across the different phases of the person’s
helper and for the addressee as an at-risk life’ (p.5). There are points of overlap with
student in need of assistance. In this way a the use of positioning I am alluding to here,
relation is established, even if only momen- but I am less interested in the narratives that
tarily, a perspective on the world is invoked span a person’s whole life than in the negoti-
and a form of subjectification is produced. ation of discursive influences in particular
Each utterance also acts in some small, or moments of interaction. I am also not
not so small, way to produce the social or convinced by the distinction between discur-
relational world into which we are acting. sive and concrete forces that assumes an
Our utterances serve to position us in rela- unnecessary hierarchy of influence. Discur-
tion to others and also to call others into sive forces are just as materially powerful as
position in relation to us. Positioning theory those called ‘concrete’. And the link between
thus provides a bridge between the local evolutionary development and cultural posi-
moral order of a relation and the wider tioning is too grand and sweeping to be
social discourse in which it is but one convincing to my personal taste.
example among many. Positioning theory in the Davies and
Positioning theory articulates just how Harré mode, however, allows us to theorise
the social world becomes mapped onto the how students and teachers move each other
subjective experience of individuals in the around through the deployment of discourse
context of conversation. It is, therefore, and thus produce each other’s responses in
about the development of a sense of self conversation. As a concept, it is useful in the
always in relation to the ‘moment by analysis of exactly how power operates at the
moment oughtness’ (Linehan & McCarthy, local and particular level in the school. It
2000, p.442) of relationship with another accounts for how people are positioned in
participant in a conversation. It implies the relation to, say, gendered or social class
possibility of agency from a place in history subjectivities, or in relation to categories of

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 23

John Winslade

pathology, and then take these up, even to and school psychologists should not assume
their own cost. It also accounts for practices that relations in the school are consistently
of exclusion from speaking rights in which a benign. If life in a school is a terrain across
person may take up or be offered a position which lines of force contest with each other,
that does not entail full participation as a then the decisions about how to position
legitimate social agent. Positioning is there- oneself in relation to them are critical. Such
fore about social constraint as well as about decisions produce futures in students’ lives.
social legitimation. What then are the processes in which
With the aid of positioning theory, we students are commonly positioned in the
can conceive of the work of psychological course of being schooled? Bronwyn Davies
workers in schools as engaging daily in the (2006) describes the process of ‘subjectifica-
production of students’ lives through the tion’ that schooling offers through posi-
practice of talk. At the same time there is a tioning people as good or successful
sense in which such talk always invokes the students. She draws on Judith Butler (1997)
moral order of one or more available to refer to this process as achieving the dual
discourses. Foucault (1989) spoke of the or ‘paradoxical’ purpose of producing simul-
‘great anonymous murmur of discourse’ taneously ‘mastery and submission’ (p.425).
(p.27) that lies in the background of all In order to master learning in school, one
social practice. We pluck pieces from it and needs to submit to (or become positioned in
position ourselves, and each other, in rela- or subjected by) a set of practices that consti-
tion to it. It should not be surprising, then, tutes the identity of ‘successful student’ to a
that the discourses drawn upon would often degree that is recognised within the institu-
call students into positions in social class tional interactions of a school. Davies’s
relations, gender specifications, or cultural insight (after Butler) is that becoming a
worldviews based on ethnicity or race, or subject with agency is a creative achieve-
into particular categorisations of disability. ment, an ‘accomplishment’ (p.425) of the
On the other hand, we might expect that on very act of submission to the lines of force
many occasions a person might choose to that run through schools. As agents, rather
resist the ‘oughtness’ of a discursive position than as determined objects, persons can still
and take up a stance of difference in opposi- ‘reflexively and critically examine their
tion to it. When students are caught between conditions of possibility’ and can ‘subvert
two motivations, or express ambivalence, or and eclipse the powers that act upon them’
seem uncomfortable about how teachers are (p.426). This is the possibility of resistance
speaking to them, psychological workers that lies at the heart of the production of
might profitably consider (and then inquire governmentality (in Foucault’s 2010 terms).
into) how they are being positioned by the Deleuze (1995) refers to it as the possibility
discourses and lines of force at work in the of a ‘line of flight’.
school. As Billington (2000) argues, this Davies also introduces a qualification to
might involve listening for the story of the this account. She warns that:
students’ response to the larger social forces Mastery is not continuously available nor is it
onto which their localised ‘behaviour’ is available to everyone. Students are constantly
being mapped. at risk of being recognised as inappropriate
The value of thinking in terms of posi- and incompetent. (p.434)
tioning then lies in how it invites us to There is thus an edge to the process of
examine and deconstruct (Derrida, 1997; schooling. Students risk being produced as
White, 1992) the lines of force at work in a educational failures, as ‘naughty boys’ (p.428)
student’s life, some of which might work in in one of Davies’s examples, as slow learners,
the student’s interest and some of which as at risk students, as behaviour problems, as
might work against this interest. Counsellors pathologically disabled, and so on.

24 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Positioning among lines of force

The existence of such possible lines of neutral in relation to lines of force. Nor does
subjectification urges us as psychological it focus the attention of psychological
workers to continue to strive to understand workers exclusively on what is happening
the processes at work in the formation of inside the psyche of the student without
students’ lives. These processes are complex taking account of discursive lines of force.
and involve an interplay of competing lines Instead, it draws explicitly on a poststruc-
of force, of mastery and submission, of turalist analysis of how power relations work
government and resistance. They do not to produce students’ lives.
simply start and finish in the cognitive world Developed by Michael White and David
of the student (Billington, 2000). The Epston originally in family therapy contexts,
reflexive, ethical question that Davies there- narrative therapy has since been articulated
fore proposes is a telling one: in relation to the institutional forces at work
We must understand our own contribution to in schools (Winslade & Monk, 2007;
creating and withholding the conditions of Winslade & Williams, 2012). It has been elab-
possibility of particular lives. We must orated in the school context for a range of
constantly ask what it is that makes for a counselling purposes, including work with
viable life and how we are each implicated in at-risk youth (Ungar, 2006), with young
constituting the viability or non-viability of the children (Freeman et al., 1997), with people
lives of others. (p.435) diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperac-
I read this statement as emblematic for tivity Disorder (ADHD), (Nylund, 2000),
psychological practice. It invites us to with grief group counselling in schools
consider reflexively how we are being posi- (Granados et al., 2009); with mediation prac-
tioned and how we might position ourselves tices (Meyers, 2011; Winslade & Williams,
in relation to the lines of force and the 2012); with restorative practices in schools
expressions of resistance in schooling. It asks (Waikato University Restorative Practices
us to learn to read the processes of submis- Development Team, 2004); with trans-
sion that students are entering into as they forming bullying relationships (Beaudoin &
master being either a good student or an Taylor, 2004; Williams, 2010); with peer anti-
educational failure. It requires the exercise harassment mediation (Cheshire et al.,
of judgement about which lines of subjectifi- 2004), and so on. Here I shall select some
cation in schooling will produce non-viable key practices of narrative practice and draw
lives and it also suggests that we develop the connections with the foregoing conceptual
knowledges and skills that enable us to work principles.
actively alongside students against those The term ‘narrative’ is, as most labels are,
lines of force. only partially accurate and to some degree
limiting. It refers to the concept of a story
Narrative practice rather than to discourse. The two terms are
So far I have been talking in theoretical not completely analogous, but may often be
terms with little regard for practice. Now it is substituted for each other. It is also easily
time to introduce a practice orientation. The possible to refer to how a person is posi-
form of practice I shall represent here is tioned in a storyline as in a discourse. One
known as narrative practice. I am attracted to advantage the concept of narrative does
it precisely because it appears to offer the have, however, is the sense of something that
most potent leverage in the process of moves through time from a beginning, to a
subjectification through schooling. Narrative middle, to an end. Let me continue by refer-
practice has the advantage that it takes encing a selection of key ideas that may be
account of the politics of meaning making in employed in schools.
relations between people. It does not assume A first key idea is that students’ lives are
that psychological practice is apolitical or multiply storied. Psychological workers need

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 25

John Winslade

not accept any single description of a student their preferences for response. It is founded
as totalising of that student (Winslade & on the principle of naïve inquiry and
Monk, 2007). Instead, any account of a curiosity about how a student relates to
student’s identity is regarded as partial. particular meanings, rather than on analy-
Where such an identity story is problematic, tical critique.
either for the student or for a teacher, the Such deconstruction is substantially
existence of a counter-story (Nelson, 2001) enabled by the emblematic practice in narra-
may be sought out and grown. Multiplicity, tive counselling of externalising conversa-
rather than reductionistic integration, is a tion. In this approach, problems are
mainstay of narrative practice and it applies personified and spoken of as if they were a
to social class designations as well as to other third party. The practice is an example of the
descriptions. Students are not simply creative use of what Jeff Sugarman (2009,
members of a social class, or of a racial or p.10, after Ian Hacking) refers to as
gender group, or of a category of disability. ‘dynamic nominalism’. The student is posi-
They are positioned in multiple discourses tioned as a recipient of the effects of the
with varying degrees of systematicity or speci- problem and as an agent who might respond
ficity. These positions are constantly shifting to these effects. For example, candidates for
and changing. Therefore, it makes no sense externalisation include: diagnoses (such as
to understand them from a singular under- ADHD, autism or conduct disorder),
standing of what it means to be an oppressed academic struggles (exam failure or learning
person, for example. difficulties), social problems (violence or
A second key concept is the practice of bullying), infringements against school
double listening (White, 2007). It involves ethics (truancy, cheating, misbehaviour) or
attuning one’s ears to hear the ambivalence major social discourses (such as racism or
and complexity in students’ communications sexism). Students might then be invited to
about their lives in school. Double listening choose how to position themselves in rela-
allows a psychological worker to hear at the tion to the effects of these problems.
same time students’ experiences of what is Michael White’s (1989) aphorism, ‘The
problematic and their experiences of person is not the problem; the problem is
resourcefulness. It pays attention simultane- the problem,’ (p.6) captures the spirit of
ously to processes of domination and resist- externalising and directs attention to the way
ance, subjectification and agency, to that in which problem issues in students’ experi-
which is explicit and that which is implicit, to ence at school are better considered as posi-
positioning and refusal to be positioned. tions in discourse, rather than as essentialist
Double listening invites students to express expressions of students’ nature. For
the effects of the operation of lines of force example, ADHD deficit disorder, when
in their lives and also to articulate their externalised, is referred to as a problem that
response to such lines of force, including the visits and affects a student and is fed by a
moments when they can identify a ‘line of cultural world that increasingly exposes
flight’ (Deleuze, 1995; Winslade, 2009). children and young people to overly stimu-
Deconstructive questioning is also a lating electronic environments. To only refer
feature of narrative practice (White, 1992). to such a mental health issue in terms of the
Such questioning does not tackle power rela- chemistry in students’ brains ignores the
tions through head-on critique but aims to discursive world that students must negotiate
‘render strange… familiar and everyday and find positions within. Thus a student
taken-for-granted realities and practices’ might be asked, ‘How does ADHD work its
(White, 1992, p.121) by inviting students to mischief on you? What effect does it have?’
develop reflexive consciousness of the forces This is an alternative to the totalising
operating upon them and inquiring into discourses of diagnosis that frequently posi-

26 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Positioning among lines of force

tion students without the chance of their capitalises on the developments of poststruc-
making an agentive response. Behaviour turalist thinking. These developments at the
trouble can be externalised as a force that same time build upon and complexify the
seduces students into its field of influence at idea of social reproduction that arose in the
times when they feel the need to protest the sociology of education a generation ago.
internalising effects of marginalising failure Potentially, however, they also make the
that is being imposed on them at school. operation of power relations more available
Bullying might be read as a position in a rela- for psychological practice. Hence they are
tional narrative rather than as essential to more useful to practitioners who are working
any particular person’s nature (see Winslade with particular students in particular
& Williams, 2012). contexts. My hope is that, armed with such a
A final key concept that I shall reference vision, psychological workers can articulate a
here is the idea of building a counter-story to clear project in their work that starts from
any kind of school problem. The counter- the basis that students and teachers are
story embodies in narrative practice the being made subject to lines of force at work
impulse toward resistance in an intentional in their lives. They are, however, constantly
construction of an identity story. It stresses working to resist, modify and sometimes
the value of agency and is potentially trans- transform these lines of force.
formative of students’ experience of lines of The spirit of this project lies in the possi-
force. A story of resistance may be read as an bility of identifying a power relation, under-
expression of a hope for something better. standing how students are positioned within
Rather than just hearing the expression of it, and then facilitating the construction of a
opposition to how one has been positioned viable counter-story. This spirit is embodied
in a discourse of social class, or gender, or in a remarkable comment by Michel
race, or disability, double listening encour- Foucault (2000):
ages us to hear the other side of the story: …the most intense point of a life, the point
The expression of a person’s hopes and where its energy is concentrated, is where it
dreams, the desire for something more, the comes against power, struggles with it,
preference for social justice, or the assertion attempts to use its forces, and to evade its
of a transformative narrative. Narrative prac- traps. (p.162)
tice is about noticing this expression and If helping students deal with ‘the most
inquiring into it, detailing it more fully, and intense points’ of their school lives is where
growing it into a line of flight that leads to a psychological workers focus their work, then
new territory. The narrative practitioner they will be doing highly relevant and impor-
identifies raw points of difference and, tant work. If they are doing so in an acknowl-
through crafting of a careful sequence of edgement of how students are positioned in
questions, grows such difference into a power relations within the school, they will be
narrative of resistance to a power relation. less likely to themselves become inadvertent
A detailed account of how to do this is agents of lines of force. If they help students
beyond the scope of this article, but has been to use such forces and evade the traps that lie
articulated elsewhere. I would refer espe- within them, then they need not automati-
cially to Michael White’s (2007) Maps of cally be working in opposition to other
Narrative Practice. My own articulation can be teachers in the school. If they concentrate on
found in Narrative Counselling in Schools: the effects of positioning and on power rela-
Powerful and brief (Winslade & Monk, 2007). tions, then they can avoid making either
At stake in this article is a vision that students or teachers into problem persons
might overarch the particulars of psycho- while still responding to the power of prob-
logical practice. I have been concerned here lematic lines of force to produce students’
to articulate a vision of this practice that lives in transformative directions.

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 27

John Winslade

Address for correspondence:

John Winslade
College of Education,
California State University San Bernardino,
5500 University Parkway,
San Bernardino,
California, 92407, USA.

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Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 29

‘When the powerfulness isn’t so helpful’:
Callum’s relationship with autism
Jennifer Alison Gilling

Diagnoses of autism continue to be a focus of educational psychologists’ work. Discourses surrounding

autism can, unfortunately, present limited views and ways of working with these young people when
individual assessment and reliance on checklists is organised so deviance from ‘normality’ can be
identified. This often impacts on the complexities of disclosure for the young people themselves and the
relationships they have with the professionals that should support them.
There is a wealth of autobiographical accounts from individuals who have been given a diagnosis of
autism. A narrative approach, which views young people as the experts on their lives and the collaborators
in our future understanding of their relationship with problems, is one way of privileging ‘insider-
knowledges’ and guiding professionals towards constructing a different understanding of autism.
This paper documents a piece of educational psychology casework that explores one young person’s
relationship with autism from a social constructionist perspective. The paper considers the implications of
viewing such ‘problems’ within a structuralist versus post-structuralist framework. In challenging global
truths and the ‘medical model’ of autism, it provides an example of how a young person’s preferred identity
can be constructed through a narrative framework. The paper concludes by considering alternative ways
for professionals to practice in which there is a move away from limitations and impairments towards
reconstructing views about problems and understanding individual experience.
Keywords: narrative therapy; re-authoring; autism; social constructionism.

HIS PAPER has been constructed whether he should encourage Callum to
through a piece of educational think that autism is something really good
psychology casework with Callum (not that he should want to ‘have’. The tension
real name), aged 10. Callum was given a between the different values of the individ-
diagnosis of autism and recently his behav- uals involved prompted me to work with
iour, as viewed by others, has impacted on Callum using a narrative framework (White,
his relationships with school staff who intro- 1995) and this subsequent exploration of
duced Callum to me as cheeky and rude, understandings and relationships that
physical towards other children and not able people have with labels, diagnoses and indi-
to take ‘no’ for an answer. I was also vidual difference.
informed that Callum has also recently In this piece of work I take a relativist
moved into a different class with a different ontological stance that assumes there are no
teacher, and has a new baby brother after objective realities; rather, individuals
being an only child for nine years. When I construct their own interpretations of their
first met Callum, I knew little else about him. experiences. My intention is to explore the
At Callum’s annual review, school staff, lived experiences of individuals, take an
parents and other professionals raised the interest in their world view and consider,
issue of Callum’s autism with regard to his through a phenomenological perspective
peer relationships. Some thought that if the (Willig, 2008), how they make sense of
class were told what autism is and why ‘problems’ in their lives. This is considered
Callum does what he does, his peers may be in opposition to other practices that lead to
more sympathetic towards him while others social marginalisation and pathologising of
disagreed. Callum’s father also asked anyone seen as ‘different’. These ‘global

30 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Callum’s relationship with autism

knowledges’ or ‘objective realities’ might their relationship with the problem be

constructed from scientific and cultural changed as to make it less troublesome?’
discourses (Foucault, 1979) fail to recognise (White, 1995). Callum did not have a clear
the importance of ‘local’ or ‘insider knowl- understanding of autism, but had a sense
edges’ (White, 2007) that individuals hold that some aspects of his life were becoming
about different phenomenon. The experi- troublesome and ‘too big’ to manage. So
ence for both Callum and those in his local while I am not arguing whether autism exists
system cannot be measured or assessed – it for Callum and other children, I want to
can only be shared in telling. The focus of begin by questioning some of the dominant
educational psychologist (EP) practice with ideas that surround autism.
teachers and teaching assistants should move
away from identifying global characteristics Characterising the problem:
of autism and associated generic practical Why use autobiographical accounts?
approaches and solutions. Instead, by The concept of autism as a spectrum condi-
moving towards ‘looking from the inside- tion consisting of a triad of impairment to
out’ (Williams, 1996, cited in Barrett, 2006) encompass social communication, relation-
and gaining young people’s own experiences ships and imagination is well documented
of the world, it may reposition existing struc- (Dickerson Meyes et al., 2001; DSM-IV,
turalist ideas and practices, enable adults to American Psychiatric Association, 1994) and
forge better understandings and relation- as such will not be focussed on in detail in
ships with these young people and recon- this paper. Indeed, there is yet to be any
struct views about the nature of their conclusive evidence to identify a single core
‘problems’. ‘deficit’ in autism, with both cognitive and
What is important to note is that Callum emotional perspectives being considered.
does not know about his diagnosis. The main Discourses surrounding autism often present
purpose of this piece of work is to privilege limited views and ways of working with these
Callum’s story. individuals and their families; historically, in
the practice of EPs, individual assessment
Narrative perspectives on problems and reliance on checklists have been organ-
This paper moves away from a focus on ised in ways where deviance from ‘normality’
essentialist truths in the diagnosis of autism can be identified.
and the often held view that labelling can What will be considered in this paper is
help to understand, create a social identity the view of Billington (2000) that the people
and open up opportunities for support. In themselves (children or their families) are
contrast, the narrative view is that identities the experts on their autism and should be
are not fixed and our lives are ‘multi- the collaborators in our future under-
storied’, that is, narrative captures non- standing of it. The reliance on deficit models
essentialist identities and we may have of impairment of people with autism rather
different stories (events that are linked in than those in which individual difference is
sequence, across time and according to a celebrated can mean the experiences of indi-
plot) about different aspects of our lives. viduals are lost in therapeutic exchanges.
While narrative therapy draws on post- Billington (2000) describes the need for
modern and post-structuralist ideas, it is not complex accounts, not simplifications that
to say that ‘everything is arbitrary’. This over- locate children with such difficulties into a
simplification can lead to the view that narra- one-size-fits-all category. He explains that
tive therapists do not believe autism, for rather than patterns of behaviour it is the
example, exists. The issue is not whether a challenge to the relationship with the young
problem exists, but asks ‘What sense does a person that disturbs teachers the most. By
person make of their problem?’ and ‘How exploring the dialogue and collective

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 31

Jennifer Alison Gilling

thinking through narrative autobiographical Post-structuralism: Challenging the

accounts, a different kind of relationship foundations of knowledge
may be constructed. Post-structural theory explores individual
Todd (2006) writes that there is little perspectives and critically analyses the
evidence of any real participation of themes or discourses that underlie and
children and parents with services, and in attempt to govern actions. Social construc-
some cases children are often the ‘absent tionism, a postmodern discipline on which
special guest’ in reports and meetings that narrative is informed, insists we take a critical
form professional practice (Todd, 2003). stance towards our taken for granted ways of
The selected aspects of the children and understanding the world, including
their situation presented by professionals ourselves (Burr, 2003). It allows us to be
may not be those preferred by the children critical of the notion that our observations of
or their parents. Until the Children Act the world are objective and unbiased and is
(1989) was passed, legislation on the issue of in opposition to positivism and empiricism
child voice had limited existence. Following in traditional science. Society is seen as both
this, the Code of Practice (Department for constructing of, and constructed by, people.
Education, 1994) and the revised version The constructed ideas – themes, narratives
(Department for Education and Employ- and discourses – often come to be given
ment, 2000) stated more clearly that ‘truth’ status. These versions of an event
children have a right to be heard and should brings with it the potential for social prac-
be encouraged to take part in decision tices, for acting in one way rather than
making. Hobbs et al. (2000) outline a another, and for marginalising alternative
number of consultative approaches that ways of acting (Foucault, 1979). Discourses
educational psychologists can make in elic- are not abstract ideas; they are intimately
iting children’s views, drawing on psychology connected to institutional and social prac-
that emphasises the importance of indi- tices that have a profound effect on the way
vidual meanings and the social construction we live our lives, on what we can do and on
of understanding. Todd (2006) calls for what can be done to us (Willig, 2001).
more ‘enabling’ practice, that which Through modern power, these truths come
includes young people and parents in profes- to define a person (White & Epston, 1990).
sional processes without focussing on the Foucault (1979) argued that a principal
child as the source for change. Non-enabling effect of power through truth is that it
practices (those that view problems as engages people into actions around their
‘within-child’) in early intervention could individuality and that this makes global truth
lead to children becoming labelled at an claims about how we all ‘ought’ to be. This
early stage, growing into that label and living privileges the knowledge of scientific disci-
their life accordingly. Consider Callum: He plines as an objective reality. Thus, Foucault
does not know he has a label, but the profes- argues that power cannot be gained in a
sionals around him do. His teachers seek to society without supporting global knowl-
identify behaviours that they would associate edges and engaging with objective realities
with autism. This becomes all he is identified constructed by science; the privileging of
by and the story of Callum is autism. What global knowledges is in itself an exercise of
would happen if Callum and his peers also power as this unavoidably restrains local
learn of this label? It is important to consider knowledges. Language may be the mode by
the theory behind enabling practice in order which meaning is created, but discourse
that essentialist ‘truths’ are not how we includes the ways in which social and polit-
continue to define young people like ical power influences what is and is not said
Callum. in certain contexts. According to modern
power (Foucault, 1979; White, 2007), prob-

32 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Callum’s relationship with autism

lems arise when people feel they ought to act The social power created in constructing
a certain way, fashioning their lives identities may lead professionals or peers to
according to constructed norms. This act as if people can be defined in absolute
recruits people into the surveillance and terms, with labels that can become fixed.
policing of their own and others’ lives, These discourses or ‘totalising identities’
putting themselves under pressure to do lead individuals to be defined solely in rela-
something and ‘get it right’ (White, 2002). tion to one problem and becomes the only
Olinger (2010) questions the drives behind story about that young person. For Callum,
the behavioural goals that professionals all people are beginning to notice are his
determine for children affected by autism ‘autism things’. Huws and Jones (2010)
and whether they assist interaction in a world explored the perceptions of lay people about
that frowns upon difference and that by autism, following work with parents who felt
training children to act ‘normally’ we are stigmatised because of the lack of knowledge
perpetuating a greater lack of acceptance of people have about autism and reports from
individuality and difference. young people experiencing bullying by
As language is not passive but actively people with little or no knowledge of autism,
helps to construct identities, post-struc- like the teasing experienced by Callum.
turalism gives us a way of reflecting on the Interestingly, and supporting the views of
terms we have constructed around young Callum’s teachers and parents, Chambres et
people such as Callum in order to see how al. (2008) concluded that revealing a child
this could help or hinder enabling practice has autism can help reduce negative atti-
(Todd, 2006). The categories we use to tudes of adults towards that child.
understand ourselves may be bound by Authors revealing their own autobio-
cultural normative prescriptions, so our ways graphical accounts of their relationship with
of understanding are historically and cultur- autism consider issues of personal identity
ally relative. For example, what we under- and social understanding. Gerland (1997)
stand as ‘behavioural disorder’ is a writes: ‘I screamed and bit and kicked and
phenomenon that has come into being no one could help me… no one could
through the exchanges between those who explain why there was so much I didn’t
have difficulties with interaction and understand’ (p.40).
responding to routines, and those who may Other authors suggest that people with
teach them or offer diagnostic tests. There- autism lack a sense of self or strive to become
fore, what we regard as truth may be thought a ‘somebody, somewhere’ (Williams, 1994,
of as our current accepted ways of under- cited in Bagatell, 2007). As traditional deficit
standing the world. These are a product of views of autism suggest individuals have diffi-
the social processes and interactions in culty with social interaction and communica-
which people are constantly engaged with tion, it might be assumed that identity
each other and can lead to how people come construction is of little significance. Yet for
to define themselves. some people deemed to have ‘high func-
tioning’ autism (this term itself being a
Personal identity and disclosure: metaphoric construct of ‘mental retarda-
‘Doing autism things’ tion’), concealment and disclosure can
People have said I’ve got autism.... I don’t encompass complex strategies in order to
know what that is but I don’t like the word. manage identity and what might be a good
My dad has said it to me before but he was just way to ‘come out’ (Davidson & Henderson,
winding me up. Other children say I’m ‘doing 2010). Contrary to Chambres et al.’s view
autism things’. They think I do that but (2008), individuals are concerned that
I don’t know what it is. (Callum) revealing autism will lead to more negative
attitudes towards them, as was the case in a

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 33

Jennifer Alison Gilling

study by Swaim and Morgan (2001) who Narrative therapy:

found that children held less positive atti- Re-authoring preferred identities
tudes towards a child actor presenting with While discourses were understood by
autistic behaviours than when not engaging Foucault as a political construction rather
in such behaviours, and that this persisted than a personal one, they do not necessarily
even when information about autism was have to determine one’s identities; identities
given. can be adapted and resisted (Bagatell, 2007).
Broderick and Ne’eman (2008) explored Narrative explorations of discourse free
metaphors surrounding autism. While people from totalising structuralist self-
historically metaphors about autism judgements (‘I’m not normal, there must be
constructed from non-autistic communities something wrong with me’) and enable
have deemed it as a disease, ‘alien’ or with- them to make judgements of their actions
drawn from the outside world, those according to whether it fits with how they
constructed by the autistic community believe it is good to live their life and what is
metaphorically frame autism within a model their preferred identity (Morgan, 2000).
of neurodiversity. Autism metaphors have White (2007) believes that for every
served to create both narratives around aeti- power, there is some point of resistance;
ology and cause, and about appropriate even the expression of struggling in life is an
responses and interventions. In order to do example of taking action and responding in
this, the metaphors rely on cultural notions some way. By expressing what is problematic
of ‘normalcy’ and ‘abnormalcy’ (Broderick or troublesome, people are doing something
& Ne’eman, 2008). Recent developments in other than going along with the problem.
this area have reframed the triad of impair- These actions are founded upon preferred
ments not as inabilities but as positive attrib- accounts of life and identity (Carey et al.,
utes of people with autism, skills that 2009). By taking a different action, this may
non-autistic or ‘neurologically typical’ (NT) in turn construct a new relationship with,
individuals are seen as lacking (Brownlow, and understanding of, the problem.
2010a). The ‘perspectival’ knowing underpinnings
In contrast to the view that people have a of narrative therapy move towards curiosity
difficult and confusing relationship with and away from an emphasis on objectivity.
autism and the world, Kim (1999, cited in Gergen (1991) suggests on this assumption
O’Neil, 2008) writes: ‘Autism is home. It is a that people make conclusions and interpreta-
place where I belong. I always have. It is tions based on a ‘particular community of
protection against the overwhelming sensory interpretation’. That is, when we say some-
information coming at me from all over’ thing is true, we understand this as saying a
(p.788). sufficient community currently accepts this
Autism can, therefore, be understood by information as true at that time. The develop-
those people affected by it as a central part ment of preferred identities is crucial to inclu-
of who they are and not as something bad, sion since it suggests that there are many other
but rather associated with a number of skills stories about a young person that are available
(O’Neil, 2008). Brownlow (2010b) is careful but often pass unnoticed in the relationships
to note that in making such reframings, that between staff and young people.
binary categories of ‘us and them’ (autistics Hermeneutic approaches in narrative
and NT) are moved away from and instead therapy facilitate people’s dialogue with
capture difference in terms of ‘neurodiver- many co-existing internal and external
sity’ and and alternative construction of narrative stories rather than stepping more
‘autism as difference’. fully into any single particular narrative. This
creates a haven for exploring these different
voices to respond in more satisfying ways.

34 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Callum’s relationship with autism

The assumption that there are many of working on individually constructed mean-
possible experiential realities created ings. Using narrative in such a way could
through discourse (Foucault, 1979) has been engage young people as co-authors to work
cited by White and Epston as being a major on the isolation of a discrete problematic
impact on the development of narrative area of behaviour. Externalisation may be
practices (Besley, 2002). While the stories helpful in such a case as, by giving the
that are constructed give meaning, they are problem a form and turning it into a
only partial (Freedman & Combs, 1996). No concrete entity, it removes the problem of
story can encompass all of the lived experi- seeing a more abstract vision of the problem.
ence. However, the stories that are selected Concrete thinking is often stated as an
indicate what experiences we give more element inherent in the way of being-in-the-
meaning to. Significance is attributed to world represented by autism (Cashin, 2008).
certain moments, while others are ‘written Once the problem is defined, the young
out’. Meanings that are derived depend on person is scaffolded through taking a curious
the distinctions between what is presented to exploration of plausible concrete means of
us (privileged meaning) and what is written action against the problem. It is this method
out (Derrida, 1978). that I used with Callum to explore the action
Narrative ways of structuring conversa- against his problem.
tions develop what is known as ‘thick’ rather
than ‘thin’ descriptions – more complex Callum’s preferred story
stories where, for example, autism is just one As I stated at the beginning of this article, my
aspect. By using externalisation in the main focus was to privilege Callum’s insider
hermeneutic exploration, it locates prob- knowledge, that is, not what professional
lems as separate from the young person and discourses say about autism but to listen to
names the problem. By careful use of his life experience and give it as much status
language, the young person can be assisted as professional or global knowledge. Insider
to talk about their relationship with the knowledge may reveal untapped resources
problem, what effect it had, what they think that allow a different understanding of who
of this effect and whether they take a partic- he is, what his stance on his autism things is,
ular stand on their problem. From this and what he wants others to have noticed.
unique outcome, occasions when the I wanted to remain de-centred and not to
problem has not been so prominent can be take on an expert role but to be curious
explored, leading to the eliciting of values about what Callum wanted to share.
and preferred stories. Callum and I met for a narrative session
The epistemological assumption under- in his school. He said he had remembered
lying hermeneutics and narrative – that me from his annual review. Callum spoke
language and a presumed ability for abstrac- about two things that were important to him
tion is integral to understanding – may be at the moment – his baby brother and his
seen as posing a challenge when working interest in Star Wars. We began a conversa-
with people with autism, given that some tion about ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ in
believe their primary method of information Star Wars and, using strength cards, we
exchange is visual rather than linguistic explored what qualities he might share with
(Newman et al., 2010). However, Cashin the ‘goodies’, where these might have come
(2008) presents evidence of narrative being a from in his life and what values they repre-
successful and changing approach to therapy sented. Callum identified that he was organ-
with people with autism. He describes it as ised and protective, both of which he needed
going beyond giving someone a social story when helping his mum to look after his
(Gray, 2000); social stories are not a form of brother. He also thought he was humorous
narrative therapy as there is no presumption and liked to make people laugh as this

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 35

Jennifer Alison Gilling

helped him to feel included in the play- work around the counter-narratives of
ground. He talked a lot about friendship, the mothers of disabled children.
importance he placed on having friends and Callum identified that when the power-
being a good friend himself and that his fulness is not so helpful, it teams up with
friends would not be surprised to hear he anger. Callum thinks this makes him do
has these skills and qualities. naughty things and makes him not want to
On my second visit, I asked Callum who be friends with people, despite him placing
else would not be surprised to hear about his value on having friends. It also makes him
strengths. He talked about the relationships cross when he has to do what other people
he has with his mother and her partner, and say, although an exception, or unique
his dad and his partner, who seem to under- outcome, has been the times he has done
stand who he is without focussing on autism. things for mum when she has asked, such as
Callum likes having people around him but washing up. From this it is evident that
would not be friends with people if they did Callum’s position on the powerfulness is that
not like Star Wars. The only person he speaks he does not want it around in his life. The
to who does not like it is his mum, because ‘I effect of this on other people is that they say
have to speak to her, she is my mum’. Callum he has autism, something he neither wants
said his dad has mentioned autism ‘to wind to have nor fully understands.
him up’ and Callum could not think why dad During our third session I was curious to
might have done this. Callum was keen to find out more about Callum’s values around
talk about Star Wars again so I asked which not going to ‘the dark side’. He said that, like
character he was most like. He likened in the film of Star Wars, he needed to chal-
himself to Anakin Skywalker because they lenge the dark side and that he didn’t want to
are both powerful and, like Anakin, Callum be seen as evil anymore. Through our conver-
described how he sometimes ‘turns to the sation in which I scaffolded distance, Callum
dark side’. Through externalisation, Callum seemed to move from a position of not
was able to tell me when ‘the powerfulness knowing (‘I don’t know what I’m not good at’)
isn’t so helpful’ – when he ‘turns to the dark to what he is able to come to know (White,
side’. The effects of this has him being 1995). He recognised that he is good at
cheeky to staff and pushing people in the making friends quickly, being polite (Callum
playground. He feels that sometimes the always complimented me in our sessions) and
powerfulness takes over him and stops him good at teaching others (especially about the
from ‘being good’ and has him doing rules of Star Wars games). Most importantly he
‘autism things’ instead. Callum did note that came to know that he can be nice to people
his mum tells him to stop flapping, which he and that sometimes power is helpful if he
thought might be an ‘autism thing’. channels it into this preferred story.
However, Callum does not notice he is flap- I have not finished my work with Callum
ping and he feels it does not get in the way of and am curious to explore much more into
him getting on and doing what he wants. the underlying values that Callum has about
The only effect it has is that he does not like having more helpful powerfulness. I think
being nagged about it; he cannot see why what my work has highlighted is that the
other people are bothered by it if he is not. story of Callum that I heard when I first met
Listening to Callum, it struck me that he was his teachers and other professionals was very
stuck in a battle of ‘disciplinary power’ different to that I have come to know from
(Foucault, 1979). His mum had developed a Callum himself. I aim to expand this work in
normalising discourse about flapping behav- order to share the preferred story with
iour, and Callum struggled to police himself others and develop more reflective practice
into that way of being. Fisher and Goodley that considers and constructs a new relation-
(2007) explored this phenomenon in their ship with Callum and ‘autism things’.

36 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Callum’s relationship with autism

Conclusion value for children with autism in moving

Based on the work presented here with from giving children a social story to their
Callum and the consideration of the litera- active engagement in the creation of the
ture around narrative ways of working and story. By moving towards a post-structuralist
privileging autobiographical accounts and understanding, personal identities and
insider knowledges, I aimed to highlight that preferred stories can be illuminated.
young people like Callum have an under- There is a clear need for professionals to
standing of problems in the context of their reflect on the power relations between adults
own lives (whether this is labelled autism or and young people and to consult with the
not) and are able to articulate their own young people themselves, not only provide
experiences and values. By exploring which them with opportunities for them to partici-
people and what relationships support the pate in the planning and delivery of support,
problem as well as the preferences people but for the professionals to forge better
have in their lives, it may reduce the possi- understandings and relationships with these
bility of people viewing themselves as young people to reconstruct views about the
‘abnormal’ or having a problem that stops nature of their ‘problems’.
them from forming positive relationships.
Professionals need to consider alterna- Address for correspondence
tives to the negativity of the discourses of Dr Jennifer Gilling
professional practice that focuses on limita- Educational Psychologist,
tions and impairments. Fox (2002) believes Tyne House,
that, in an evidence-based world, research, Hepscott Park,
professional experience and client values Morpeth,
should combine to create the most credible Northumberland
model to use. Although narrative therapy is NE61 6NF.
founded on the assumptions of language Email:
creating meaning, evidence has shown its

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38 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

The professional practice of educational
psychologists: Developing narrative
Charmian Hobbs, Rachel Durkin, Gillian Ellison,
Jennifer Gilling, Tracey Heckels, Sarah Tighe,
Barbara Waites & Carol Watterson

People (parents, carers, teachers, adults, other professionals) seeking the involvement of an educational
psychologist (EP) frequently bring longstanding and difficult concerns. Usually, many ways have already
been tried to address the difficulty and generally these have been felt to be unsuccessful. The problem then
often becomes one that is described as belonging to the person or setting – the angry child, the bad parent,
the weak teacher, the inexperienced leader. Once labelled as such, it becomes less likely to remedy a concern
that has become part of someone’s identity – the label becomes an established fact. The problem is stuck.
Narrative approaches construct problems in a different way; the educational psychology team in
Darlington has been interested in applying narrative ideas to the practice and ethos of the service over a
number of years. Narrative approaches (White, 2007) view problems as separate from the person or setting
and as such are one story amongst many that people have in their lives.
This paper presents a reflection on the work of Darlington Educational Psychology Service (DEPS) in
developing narrative approaches to practice. The work is considered through a number of case studies
including direct work with children and young people, training to bring about organisational change and
research. It is suggested that a narrative approach provides a challenge to prevailing socio-cultural
narratives and offers alternative richer understandings of behaviours often characterised as problematic.
Keywords: narrative approaches; narrative therapy; social constructionism; educational psychology
service; externalising.

HE SERVICE MODEL and delivery of Beadle, 1996), embracing the belief that
Darlington Educational Psychology people have solutions and resources to
Service (DEPS) has undergone signifi- address concerns in their lives. The interest
cant transformation over the past 10 years. and desire to extend practice in this direc-
Psychology had been available to schools, tion led to exploring narrative approaches
children and young people through psycho- (White, 2004), through which a shared ethos
metric assessment, direct referrals of has evolved within the service, underpinned
children to the psychology service or by a belief in community rather than profes-
through access to an amount of educational sional solutions to problems. Individuals and
psychology time allocated to each setting. groups can then be supported in acknowl-
A change of direction came about with the edging what is important to them and in
introduction of a model of service delivery developing alternative pathways and possibil-
based on consultation (Wagner, 1995); ities in their lives.
moving away from the role of the psycholo- The fundamental aim of the educational
gist as the ‘expert’ and focusing on collabo- psychologist (EP) is to support children and
rative working with those who can bring young people, listen to children, young
about change. The service then explored people and adults and facilitate a process of
solution-oriented approaches (O’Hanlon & solution finding and problem solving when

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 39

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Charmian Hobbs et al.

lives become ensconced in difficulty Morgan (2000) provides a summary of

(Gersch, 2004). Effective EPs strive to the key principles of the approach, detailed
achieve this aim through the creative and within Table 1.
innovative application of psychology within Through discourses, realities are created
schools and the wider community that comprise a set of meanings, images or
(Cameron, 2006). The narrative model of stories that form a particular version of events
service delivery that has been developed in (Foucault, 1972) and are maintained
DEPS reflects recognition of the impact that through narratives. This brings with it the
EPs can make on individuals, groups and potential for the influence of modern power
systems as a result of a common ethos that on social practices; modern power deems
prevails across all aspects of statutory and what is permissible for people to do and for
non-statutory work. As a team, practice and how they may treat others. This power makes
service delivery has continued to grow global truth claims about individuality by
through training, continuous professional constructing what is ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’
development (CPD), research and peer in everyone. This privileges belief in objective
support. realities based on scientific disciplines and
This paper gives a brief overview of narra- marginalises alternative ways of acting.
tive therapy and then sets out to illustrate how Narrative, however, is based on social
narrative approaches have been applied by constructionism that proposes that there are
DEPS using examples of work with individ- no essential truths (Burr, 2003). If we accept
uals, groups and systems. Some of the applica- that alternative versions of events are poten-
tions described were not originally tially available through language, there may
conceptualised in a way that would seem to be be a variety of different discourses repre-
in keeping with narrative ideas, however the senting any event. Narrative approaches
way in which they have been used by DEPS explore the interaction between commonly
has been in accord with narrative principles. accepted objective knowledge and subjective
knowledge to understand what interpreta-
Principles of narrative approaches tion and meaning people construct.
Narrative approaches are more than a set of White (2007) believes for every form of
therapeutic skills; they reflect the inter- modern power there is some point of resist-
locking of theory, respectful speaking, ance; even the expression of struggling in
listening and practice concerned with life is an example of taking action. By
different ways of understanding the self. expressing what is troublesome, people are
Narrative therapy is concerned with the doing something other than going along
significance of relationship, context and with the problem. These actions are founded
community in influencing thinking, action upon preferred accounts of life and identity
and meaning. Realities are socially (Carey et al., 2009). Stories do not ‘happen’;
constructed; categories given to understand rather, they are actively constructed in
ourselves may be bound by cultural norma- people’s heads. This intentionality is central
tive prescriptions so our ways of under- to narrative therapy.
standing are historically and culturally The process of therapeutic conversations
relative (Burr, 2003). For example, what we draws on Vygotsky’s (1986) theory of scaf-
understand as behavioural, emotional and folding, viewing therapeutic questions as
social difficulties (BESD) reflects a phenom- stepping stones for people to learn previously
enon that has come into being through the unknown things about themselves through
exchanges between those who have partic- unexplored preferred stories. Scaffolded
ular difficulties with social adaptation and questions enable people to move from what
others who may teach them or offer diag- is ‘known and familiar’ to ‘what is possible to
nostic tests. know’. This provides the chance to develop

40 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Developing narrative approaches

Table 1: Principles of narrative therapy, adapted from Morgan, 2000.

● It is a respectful, non-blaming approach that centres people as the experts in their lives.
● People have skills, competencies, beliefs and abilities that will enable them to change their
relationship with their problems.
● The key metaphor of narrative practice is that life is storied; stories are events that are linked
in sequence, across time and according to a plot. Stories are socially constructed and
maintained and bring into play culturally embedded themes. It is through the telling of these
stories that one’s experiences become meaningful.
● Our lives may be multi-storied; that is, narrative captures non-essentialist identities. In
conversations with professionals, people often favour problem-saturated stories.
● Certain events are selected and privileged over others and linked to form a dominant, ‘thin’
story. Other events outside the dominant story, such as those of success and strength, remain
hidden or less significant. Subsequent experiences are likely to be interpreted in accord with
this thin story.
● In challenging the problem story, problems are separate from people; that is, the problem is
the problem, not the person. This process of externalising names and objectifies problems
such that they are no longer an intrinsic part of the individual. In being separated from the
problem, the person is placed in a position of greater agency to reflect on and challenge the
problem without attacking themselves.
● The effects, origins and actions of dominant, problem stories (thin descriptions) on a
person’s life are explored through deconstruction. This creates the opportunity to identify
and challenge the beliefs underpinning the ‘thin’ story.
● Conversations offer people the opportunity to notice ‘unique outcomes’ that contradict the
dominant story.
● These preferred stories are constructed and brought to the fore and can be ‘richly described’
to produce a ‘thicker’ alternative (re-authoring).

ideas about who we are and in turn have a personal identity or the use of normalising
sense of directing or influencing our lives. terms; the focus is on engaging in conversa-
tions that will contribute to rich descriptions
Evidence base of peoples’ lives and the meanings that they
When considering the evidence base for the hold. Evidence for the effectiveness of narra-
effectiveness of narrative approaches in tive therapy is demonstrated through the
addressing difficulty, it is important to recog- case studies, detailed transcripts and
nise the prevalence in many current commentary showing how individuals have
psychologies of ideas about ‘internal states’ been facilitated in constructing new under-
that are often related, in therapy, to weak- standings of their intentions and identity.
nesses, deficits, disorders or pathologies. Such evidence is increasingly available in
Successful interventions in these psycholo- many publications (Denborough, 2008;
gies are then usually evaluated against a Freedman & Combs, 1996; White, 2004,
reduction in behaviours associated with 2007). There is also an increasing research
these difficulties, and those that are seen as base that has examined the use of narrative
most effective are where significant numbers approaches in establishing a richer under-
of individuals show less or no inappropriate standing of the label of Attention deficit
behaviour. Within narrative therapy, there hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (Tighe,
are none of these ideas about ‘human 2010) multi-agency working (Heckels, 2011)
nature’, a sense of ‘self’ as central to and behaviour difficulty (Gilling, 2011).

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 41

Charmian Hobbs et al.

The following sections illustrate profes- Irene’s story. Irene was a Year 7 pupil with a
sional practice in DEPS as further examples diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder
of the ways in which using a narrative (ASD). Her parents sought the involvement
approach can offer a different lens through of the school’s EP due to Irene’s ‘tears,
which to view presenting concerns. All tantrums and refusal to co-operate’, leading
names have been changed to maintain confi- to what they perceived as a ‘dysfunctional’
dentiality. family home.
Through engaging parents in an initial
Narrative approaches and the narrative conversation, Irene’s parents had
individual the opportunity to explore their values and
Narrative practice serves as a powerful and beliefs around family life and the origins of
effective approach to working with individ- their expectations of the behaviours of their
uals in both mainstream and specialist child. Narrative conversation facilitated
primary and secondary settings. It offers a them in deconstructing and examining the
focused opportunity to collaborate with a problem that they had raised by considering
young person or adult in the progressive its history, its appearance and its impact.
enhancement of their awareness of the alter- Such an in-depth analysis of the challenges
native pathways and possibilities in their that people are facing is perhaps rare in
lives, placing them in a position of agency today’s educational settings; narrative
and control. The United Nations (UN) conversation, therefore, offers an acknowl-
Convention on the Rights of the Child edgement of the effect of adversity that may
(Office of the UN High Commissioner for not be encountered otherwise. The curious
Human Rights, 1989) stated that: and exploratory nature of the narrative
…the child shall have the right to freedom of approach provides individuals with whom
expression; this right shall include freedom to EPs work with a potentially novel, critical
seek, receive and impart information and ideas and reflective context and thereby begins to
of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either develop an openness that enables new
orally, in writing, or in print, in the form of perspectives to emerge.
art, or through any other media of the child’s A narrative conversation with Irene
choice. (Part 1, 13:1) commenced with the externalisation of the
Such a statement is indicative of a moral obli- problem. The problem became ‘the
gation on the practitioner to find a way to nagging’ and was thus located to a position
enable the child to express and address their outside of Irene’s identity. How ‘the
views. However, children are not necessarily nagging’ affected Irene and her relation-
in a position in which they have the power to ships with family members was ascertained;
make themselves heard by the adults around she shared how ‘the nagging’ brought
them. DEPS has acknowledged the need to tension, stress and annoyance into her life,
‘find ways to position ourselves so we can encouraging actions such as shouting,
hear children’s stories’ (Hobbs 2000, p.114) hitting and not doing homework. Facili-
and believe that narrative approaches to tating Irene in exploring the effects of ‘the
conversing with individuals represent an nagging’ enabled consideration of whether
opportunity to achieve this and to enable such effects fitted in with her hopes and
children to take control in a process of plans for the future. Consideration of the
defining the experiences of their lives. The times when Irene was working towards her
following case examples are intended to hopes and plans facilitated the identification
illustrate this and provide readers with a of times when ‘the nagging’ and its effects
sense of the impact of narrative practice on were less evident, thus beginning the devel-
children, young people and families. opment of an alternative story of family life
and relationships in which ‘the nagging’ was

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Developing narrative approaches

not so dominant. The process of externalisa- in thickening the alternative and preferred
tion and creative questioning that is identities of children’s lives’ (White &
inherent within a narrative approach placed Morgan, 2006, p.109). Reflecting teams are
Irene in a position where she had space from an opportunity for invited others to listen to
the problem. Her sense of responsibility, the preferred account and, through struc-
choice and personal agency was increased tured questioning, describe how hearing the
through being able to adopt a more reflec- preferred account resonated with their own
tive, appraising stance. From such a position, thoughts, feelings and experience. This
she could speak about the difficulty and use retelling enables the preferred account to be
her imagination and personal resources to more richly described and to be more
expand the meanings that she attributed to connected with the lives of others.
experiences beyond the problem story and Mark was a 4-year-old pupil about to
discover new ideas about them (Bruner, make the transition from the nursery class
1986; Freeman et al., 1997). into the first class in primary school. Consul-
tation with parents and teaching staff high-
Extending and enhancing the process. Over lighted a dominant story of Mark being
recent years the profession of Educational unable to cope with this impending change
Psychology has perhaps moved away from due to his diagnosis of ASD. Observations
direct work with individuals, possibly due to that were incongruent with this story seemed
its association with cognitive testing and a to be marginalised. In order to develop a
perception that it is insignificant when richer story of Mark that would include his
compared to change at an organisational strengths, resources and successes, the EP
level (Dessent, 1992). However, Boyle and offered his parents and teachers an opportu-
Lauchlan (2009) suggest that this also may nity to meet as a reflecting team.
have contributed to a reduction in the The reflecting team began with the EP
extent to which psychology is applied by EPs. having a conversation with the nursery
The engagement with narrative approaches teacher about Mark’s ‘learning journey’ –
at Darlington illuminates the way in which a collection of photographs and observa-
individual casework can evolve to constitute tions of Mark in the nursery setting that had
a part of wider intervention at whole school been collated over the academic year. Mark’s
or family level (Boyle & Lauchlan, 2009) and teacher was asked to select three images,
can be grounded in evidence-based psycho- observations or both that stood out to her,
logy. Narrative conversation with an indi- reflecting on why this was the case, what it
vidual can be enhanced by practices that was that Mark was doing, what this led her to
enable the inclusion of the wider community think and hope about him and her values in
in the construction and thickening of an relation to these thoughts and hopes.
alternative story of the young person or Through this conversation a narrative began
adult’s experiences. As will be evident in the to develop that detailed Mark as a child
following examples, such practices may be beginning to engage in social interaction,
explicitly grounded in narrative or reflective who was able to overcome his fears of
of the possibilities that narrative allows for accessing the outdoor environment and who
incorporation of methods from other, maintained a great interest in books. The
congruent approaches. reflecting team members – Mark’s parents
and a trainee EP – listened silently at this
Mark’s story. Reflecting teams. ‘Just as time before being asked to express what had
problem stories are constructed in relation stood out to them about what they had heard
to others, so too can preferred accounts be and why this resonated with them, thus
witnessed and audienced in relation to enhancing the emerging alternative story.
others. In narrative therapy we are interested

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 43

Charmian Hobbs et al.

Mark’s parents commented on their were given an audience and developed

pleasure at hearing Mark spoken about in meaning such that they began to form an
this way and having the opportunity to speak alternative story about Harry. This
about their experience of his development at constructed Harry as someone who asks
home. They felt reassured and supported in questions, seeks help, interacts with others,
learning of the school’s understanding of remembers facts and loves animals – not as
their son. Mark’s teacher felt that she had the ‘one who hits.’ Other staff in school as
learned more about Mark’s family and their well as Harry himself contributed to The
hopes for his future, commenting on the Golden Book; Harry enjoyed sharing time
value of a conversation about Mark’s life as a with his class teacher to record events in the
whole rather than simply focusing on coping book and he began to identify things that he
with autism and acknowledging how this valued throughout the school day,
information could be used in planning for requesting that they be recorded. Harry’s
transition. Mark’s teacher also felt that the parents felt a sense of relief in learning of
reflecting team offered an effective frame- the many valued actions of their son in
work for families to hear about and respond school and, in association with this, they
to their child’s learning journey. acknowledged feeling happier with conversa-
tions with school staff. An increasingly
Harry’s story: The Golden Book. The supportive dialogue between home and
Golden Book is a means of documenting school developed, continuing the construc-
exceptions from the dominant, problem tion of an alternative story about Harry.
story in a child’s life. It highlights actions Harry himself continued to collaborate in
and utterances that contradict it and records the enhancement of the alternative story
what stands out about these and what they throughout his daily school life.
show about the focal person; it provides a
written or illustrated record of an alternative Tom’s story: Video Interaction Guidance
story, constructed by those who are signifi- (VIG). Video Interaction Guidance (VIG)
cant to a young person and, indeed, the (Kennedy et al., 2010) is an approach that
young person themselves (McGlone, 2001). aims to enhance communication within rela-
Harry was described as ‘experiencing tionships, usually between parent and child.
difficulties controlling his behaviour and VIG involves the EP facilitating participants
forming positive peer relationships’. Hitting in creating, viewing and discussing short
and other behaviours considered as aggres- recordings of their interactions that high-
sive were quickly noticed, whilst alternative light what is working within their communi-
behaviours often went unnoticed. Harry had cation.
become known as the ‘one who hits’. During a home visit by the EP, Tom’s
The Golden Book, although not origi- mother described her parenting as a ‘failure’
nally developed within narrative practice, and herself as a ‘constant nag’. However,
was used in such a way to develop an alterna- throughout the conversations she alluded to
tive story that was thickened by those who a range of exceptions concerning pleasur-
participated and shared in contributing to able play experiences and talks with Tom
the book. The Golden Book acted as a about his school day. When asked why she
prompt for Harry’s class teacher to notice valued such instances, Tom’s mother
exceptions around his behaviour and social conveyed her belief in the importance of
interactions. By considering what these having a good, communicative relationship
exceptions demonstrated about Harry, docu- with her child. She was keen to explore this
menting them in The Golden Book and further and agreed to engage with VIG.
sharing them with his family by sending the Tom’s mother was filmed with Tom for
book home, the events and observations 20 minutes within a playroom at school.

44 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Developing narrative approaches

The EP then selected a range of clips on relationships with their parents. The letter
demonstrative of successful interaction to be has provided an opportunity to spend time
viewed and discussed at a subsequent session together speaking about what is important to
with her. During the review session, the EP the young person. Parents have commented
facilitated Tom’s mother in reflecting on the that therapeutic letters have provided them
verbal and non-verbal responses and initia- with a unique insight into the life of their
tives that she was making towards her son child and often constructed their relationship
that were contributing to a successful, in a new, exciting and alternative way. Indeed,
attuned interaction. The discussion that research in the narrative field indicates that
arose in response to this reflection enabled therapeutic letters offer the equivalent of
the development of a much richer, alterna- four-and-a-half hours of talking and signifi-
tive story of her parenting, linking her effec- cantly enhance the likelihood of positive ther-
tive communicative actions, evidenced by apeutic outcomes (Freeman et al., 1997).
the film clips, to her values and beliefs about
being a mother. Narrative approaches and statutory
Tom’s mother was surprised to witness requirements
and acknowledge the way in which she could The preparation of statutory psychological
exert such an impact on her son’s behaviour advice for the Local Authority (LA) as part of
by means of her responses to him during the Special Educational Needs: Code of Practice
their interactions. She explained how she (DfES, 2001) is, to some extent, a part of the
had never previously had the opportunity to individual casework of every EP. Initially,
reflect on her parenting and notice her however, it may seem at odds with a narrative
successes. In noticing her own skills, she was model of service delivery that stands against
able to identify other times when she might the structuralist view of ‘needs’. However,
apply them to develop a more harmonious, DEPS has successfully incorporated the
enjoyable environment within the home. preparation of statutory advice within the
narrative framework that prevails within the
Therapeutic letters. As the dominant story’s service. Narrative is an approach that lends
influence diminishes, therapeutic documen- itself to the gathering of information from
tation can record the new and preferred young people and adults for the writing of
stories that have emerged. Therapeutic statutory advice. It enables a non-judge-
letters are written to an individual that the mental, respectful and curious stance to be
EP has worked with, summarising the perti- adopted in what is a written construction of
nent points from the meeting and including the young person’s story for the LA. It illumi-
questions relating to what the individual may nates their experiences, current context and
do next in relation to these. The letter serves perceptions of their needs without standard-
as a means of further acknowledgment of the ised testing and without serving to further
words of the individual after the session has compound what is often a problem-saturated
ended, making clear that their voice has account of their identity.
been heard and responded to.
EPs working in Darlington write a letter to A narrative approach to group work
the individual young person or adult with young people
following each narrative conversation. The Collaboration in the construction of shared
letter provides a record of the preferred story understandings and new meanings about
that has become more accessible through the ourselves and the world are key aspects of
narrative conversation. Young people have the narrative approach. With these princi-
commented on the value of receiving this ples in mind, the approach has been helpful
affirmation of their comments and described in facilitating effective group work in
the impact that receiving a letter has exerted schools. Given that the stories held about

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 45

Charmian Hobbs et al.

ourselves are viewed not only as the product The Tree of Life is an effective approach
of individual minds, but as being created and to working with individuals but is also valu-
reached through a shared space (Newton & able when working in the context of a small
Wilson, 2003), group work opens up an group. Groups of children can begin to elicit
arena in which the community in question a sense of shared investment in their group
can access deeper understandings of itself by constructing a group ‘tree’ that portrays
and in which alternative explanations can be their histories, hopes and commitments. In
explored. this case, it seemed particularly beneficial to
The following are examples of practice apply this approach as it allowed for a shared
that demonstrate the possibilities for understanding of how the group had grown
including narrative ways of thinking and together and shared a number of values.
working with groups of children and young Attempting to collaboratively find the words
people. The first example describes the use to include in the ‘tree’ provided opportuni-
of ‘The Tree of Life’ and illustrates how this ties to describe more richly what is important
can be successful in facilitating group to the group. Rather than targeting one indi-
thinking and action, whilst the second vidual, the aim was for voices to be combined
demonstrates the application of a narrative in order to shape co-emerging stories. The
approach to a ‘Circle of Friends’ group, thus group ‘tree’ was given a wider social audi-
showing how the principles can be applied ence as it was shared with the whole class and
to a range of group formats. These pieces of teacher, who were able to respond to the
work suggest that adopting narrative ideas is ‘tree’ with their reflections. By engaging with
not restricted to narrative-based practices; this wider social audience, there was a sense
narrative ideas can be incorporated within of shared responsibility and community.
other approaches to group work, for ‘The Circle of Friends approach
example, The Tree of Life approach has promotes the inclusion of individuals who
evolved from narrative principles, whilst the face the greatest risk of rejection or isolation
Circle of Friends reflects the use of narrative from the community in which they live
ideas within a solution-oriented context. because of their disability, behaviour or
Group work in this instance is more about difference’ (Newton & Wilson, 2003). The
principles of working together, sharing process involves a ‘focus child’ who has been
stories and reaching new meanings and less identified by school staff. The usual process
about the ‘intervention’ itself and its is to establish a group of the child’s peers
intended outcomes. around the focus child to anchor support
The Tree of Life (Ncube, 2005) can be a and assist with bringing about positive
hopeful and inspiring approach to working change for the focus child through goal-
with children who have experienced difficult setting. When used in a narrative way, the
times. It involves drawing their own Tree of ‘support’ group meets weekly to highlight
Life. In doing so, they are enabled to speak examples of exceptions to the dominant
of where they come from and the activities in story and, through discussion, begins to
which they are currently engaged (roots and thicken an alternative story to that of ‘rejec-
ground), their skills and knowledges tion’, ‘isolation’ or ‘difficulty’.
(trunk), their hopes and dreams (branches), A group of Year 4 children formed a
as well as the people that are important to network of support around a child who was
them in their lives (leaves) and what they seen to need support to get along better with
have appreciated about them (fruits). This his peers. The member of staff from the
provides a context to thicken the preferred school who had experience in supporting
stories in their lives, in contrast to the story him had reported that they had tried a range
of difficulty or trauma. of interventions that involved responding to
‘negative behaviours’ that he sometimes

46 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Developing narrative approaches

outwardly displayed. Upon reflection on his lies (DCSF), now the Department for Educa-
apparent difficulties, the staff expressed the tion (DfE). It provided an opportunity to
possibility that these may have been mani- incorporate narrative ideas into training at
fested through the challenges he faced when an organisational level.
interacting with other children. Therefore, it The cluster of schools selected in
was felt that the child would benefit from a Darlington comprised two secondary
‘Circle of Friends’ group. During the group schools, seven associated primary schools
sessions, a narrative approach was particu- and a nursery school. The cluster is well-
larly useful in enabling the children developed, had a history of working together
supporting the child to reach alternative and had already identified ‘emotional well-
understandings of themselves and others, in being’ as an area for significant intervention.
particular to recognise that individuals have The expectations of the cluster were that the
many strengths, skills and experiences to training offered through the project would
offer. help staff to identify areas for development
The use of ‘strength cards’ (Deal, 2008), in relation to ‘emotional well-being’ and
which facilitate conversation about personal build upon, share and disseminate ‘good
resources, was particularly helpful in guiding practice’.
the group’s thinking towards alternative It was thought that narrative approaches
stories of the child and away from dominant, would form a sound basis for the project as,
prevailing accounts of the negative behav- nationally, its remit was, ‘…to develop inno-
iours. These stories were arrived at through a vative models of therapeutic and holistic
shared, rather than individual, focus. Inter- support for pupils at risk of experiencing
estingly, it was not just the content of the mental health problems’. It also emphasised
group’s discussion that was facilitated by a ‘…an ecological approach where children’s
narrative approach but also the processes strengths and needs are viewed in the envi-
behind the sessions and structures within ronments and structures they are part of…
them. The joint working, collaboration and not simply in relation to the child them-
seeking out support through the immediate selves’ (DCSF, 2008).
community were underpinned by a narrative The project was underpinned by an opti-
ethos, allowing a group to bring about posi- mistic, affirmative and preventative
tive change with the child. Working in this approach that focused on whole school,
way moved the group towards a general, class, individual child and staff well-being.
supportive and encompassing approach A shift in thinking was encouraged from the
rather than a specific problem-solving traditional, remedial approach to ‘treating
process and gave hope that these skills and mental health problems’ to an ecological
values could be applied in a range of and systemic narrative approach that felt
contexts in the future. more in accordance with the ethos of a ‘well’
Narrative approaches to systemic work Furthermore, this approach emphasised
There has been little research carried out the importance of collaborative and commu-
into the use of narrative as an approach to nity based ways of working, where staff were
systemic working so its use as the basis for encouraged to work alongside parents and
our plans for the implementation of the pupils, recognising and acknowledging the
Targeted Mental Health in Schools project richness of their personal strengths, qualities
(DCSF, 2008) was relatively untested. and experiences. To support this, networks
The Targeted Mental Health in Schools were founded for the sharing of skills and
project (TaMHS) was a three-year national the disseminating of ideas across the cluster,
pathfinder programme funded through the thus thickening new ways of working.
Department for Children, Schools and Fami-

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 47

Charmian Hobbs et al.

The principal objectives of the project really loved it. She was used to just getting
were, therefore, to motivate and inspire staff negative feedback, so she was negative herself.
to address whole school ethos and well-being It’s made her feel more positive. It was how she
with narrative principles in mind, whilst saw him, how she was describing him. She
building their capacity and confidence to could see the different stories, she could see that
adopt community and school-based solu- he wasn’t just a ‘naughty boy’; he was the
tions in addressing issues relating to ‘caring boy’ and the ‘sharing boy’, all the other,
emotional well-being. Speakers from different things about him. I think that did
Australia and the UK were invited to talk make a big impact on that particular parent.
about their own experiences and use of Introducing new ideas like these into a
narrative approaches. Specific practices such school community can be challenging, as
as The Golden Book, The Tree of Life and such communities are complex with many
reflecting teams were introduced as well as initiatives and changes taking place continu-
inclusive ideas such as Circle Time and ously and often simultaneously. The dissemi-
Circle of Friends, but used in keeping with nation of approaches such as narrative is an
narrative ideas and principles. ideal with long-term implications, therefore,
Based on these narrative principles, the expectations and hopes have had to be
staff was encouraged to consider the modified in accordance with the readiness of
elements of a ‘well’ school and classroom as each school to assimilate the principles and
applied to their context. This activity was ideas. It is hoped that small changes in prac-
helpful in encouraging broader, more tices and perceptions will be sustained in the
systemic thinking, building upon existing future.
good practice, identifying gaps and ways to
move forward. Staff worked alongside the EP Reflections and closing comments
to develop individual school action plans, This article has attempted to convey the ways
outlining their hopes, expectations and in which DEPS has developed in recent years
intentions for their involvement in the and applied psychology drawing from the
project and the activities that they would field of narrative therapy. By providing some
engage in to facilitate these ideas. examples of the range of work undertaken
The importance of respectful language by EPs, it is hoped that readers will appre-
when working with young people and fami- ciate the impact of engaging with the use of
lies was emphasised and training on narra- narrative approaches as a shared ethos and
tive practice was provided. The training within a broad range of contexts. It is diffi-
encouraged staff to view a young person as cult to provide the depth of the rich conver-
‘facing’ rather than ‘being’ a problem in sations that have been shared at an
order to enable them take a broader view of individual, group and systemic level;
a young person that includes their skills, however, such conversations have been
resources and intentions. Ideas around instrumental in shaping our practice and to
social constructionism were introduced to the development of narrative ideas.
develop ideas around how labels can become As applied psychologists, we were already
the sole identity and therefore form a ‘thin’ committed to the principle that ideas and
description of a young person or family. identities are socially negotiated within
The training was greatly valued by staff communities and so we began our shared
and was clearly beginning to have an impact journey as a group or ‘community’ of EPs to
upon not only the well-being of children but explore narrative approaches. Within the LA
of parents, too: context we faced similar dilemmas to those
The child with The Golden Book – mum really working in other EP services around how to
enjoyed it actually. Once you can explain to practice psychology in a way that fitted with
the parents what it is, this particular parent our beliefs yet deliver what was expected

48 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Developing narrative approaches

within LA and school settings. However, with working. Areas of our service delivery, such
a strong commitment to move away from a as statutory advice, that had initially
deficit model to one in which practice could appeared incongruent with narrative prac-
challenge the influences of modern power, tice became incorporated within a narrative
narrative approaches enabled us to work in a way of working.
way that fitted with our beliefs. We moved This article and on-going work
towards engaging in conversations in which contributes to a growing evidence base for
we were able to help others increase their narrative approaches (Freedman & Combs,
awareness of alternatives to dominant stories 1996; Freeman et al., 1997). Dunsmuir et al.
about their identity and thereby shift from (2009) proposed that in order to support
what is ‘known and familiar’ to ‘what is high quality evaluation into routine EP prac-
possible to know’. tice there is a need for educational
The attraction of narrative approaches psychology services (EPSs) to identify the
continued to gain impetus when it became theoretical frameworks and rationale for
evident that it was not a therapeutic tool to their service delivery structures and present
be used solely with individuals. It could be coherent implementation plans. We would
all-encompassing and serve as a way of suggest that narrative approaches could
working that would enable EPs to deliver a provide such a rationale and the theoretical
psychological service to a community of framework through which to do so. This is
young people, schools, parents, carers and supported by Gersch (2009), who stated:
other professionals. …the profession must be seen to be relevant to
Campbell and Groenbeck (2006) believe those it serves, using a language that is
that organisations change when personal appreciated and understood, providing the
positions shift. They go on to say that posi- national agenda with real solutions rather
tions only shift through dialogue with other than with further problem elaboration or
people in other positions. At the heart of the philosophising. (Gersch, 2009, p.6)
development of our ways of working was the DEPS hope this article will stimulate discus-
decision to meet regularly as a team with the sions in relation to how EPSs and other
sole purpose of discussing narrative services working with children and young
approaches. Meeting was critical to devel- people can stand aside from prevailing and
oping our understandings of and capacity to traditional ways of working, adopt a position
work in an alternative way. Our ways of of curiosity and consider using narrative
working were enhanced through our inter- approaches as interesting and innovative
actions and continued reflections, again ways of working with individuals, families,
emphasising the strength of collaboration. schools and communities.
Our commitment to the development of
narrative approaches becoming the mainstay Acknowledgements
of our practice was evident and we identified The authors would like to thank Ray Murphy
and prioritised shared continuing profes- for his valuable comments on an earlier draft
sional development and whole service of this article.
training from practitioners within the field
of narrative therapy. Through our shared Address for correspondence
focus we worked alongside others to explore Dr Charmian Hobbs
the uses of narrative approaches with practi- 28 Heckler Lane,
tioners from other agencies at individual, Ripon HG4 1PU.
group and systemic levels. We embedded the Email:
use of narrative approaches in our ways of

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 49

Charmian Hobbs et al.

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50 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie:
The postmodern disabled child
Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

This paper reads disabled childhoods in a number of distinct ways in order to stimulate debate around the
kinds of stories that researchers and practitioners tell about the children that they work with. Narratives of
bio-power – discourses of the self – have expanded as knowledge from the human and social sciences grow
and institutions of society become more pronounced. Nowhere is this growth of bio-power more evident than
in the lives of disabled children. It is becoming increasingly apparent that distinct bio-political discourses
are building up around disabled children at the same time as these children have become the focus of
participation, policy and service provision. Consequently, we believe the time is ripe to step back from the
current discursive context to question how we as researchers and practitioners understand the disabled
children whom we work with. Our aim, then, is to deliberately and self-consciously read the story of Rosie
– a disabled child we have worked with in our research – guided by four disability discourses, with an
emphasis on making this reading useful to practitioners in the area of childhood and disability.
The first reading attends to the teachings of what we describe below as the autism canon, the second
reading is located in an orthodox social model approach to disability, the third draws on a Nordic relational
model of disability, and the fourth is filtered through what we term a socio-cultural lens. In narrating
‘Rosie’ from different discursive repertoires, our aim is to explicate different understandings of disability
and child that emerge and to warn against the dominance of readings which threaten to pathologise, other
and separate disabled children from their peers, their families and the wider community.
Keywords: children; disability; postmodernism; narratives; critical disability studies; autism.

Children, disability and postmodernity

ECENTLY, one of us asked (Goodley, prison, disability service and hospital
2011, p.103): Why is the talk of (Goodley, 2011, p.104). Following Parker
disability so pathological? How are (1992), these discourses are sets of state-
common sense ideas about impairment ments that construct objects (‘the intellectu-
influenced by professionals and scientists? ally disabled’), make reference to subjects
What possibilities are there for disrupting (‘intellectually disabled children’), boast
these ideas and offering more enabling alter- disciplinary histories (educational psycho-
natives? In this paper we attempt to address logy, paediatrics), support institutions
these questions. To do so we adopt what has (schools, clinics) and reproduce power rela-
been termed a poststructuralist disability tions (adult/child; psychologist/client) with
studies approach (Corker & Shakespeare, ideological effects (special or inclusive
2002; Goodley, 2011; Tremain, 2005). This education). Discourses fold around people
approach recognises what McRuer (2002) to give the effects of consciousness (Parker,
terms the ‘epidemic of signification’ 1997, p.7), reproducing and transforming
through which the bodies and minds of the material world (Nikander, 1995, p.11).
disabled people are inscribed with a thou- We use concepts such as ‘intellectually
sand words that threaten to leave them with disabled’ as if they were ‘real, naturally
deeply disablist ‘epidermal schema’. occurring entities’ because they are objects
Schemas are relics of societal discourses, created by ‘natural’ bio-political discourses
emanating from expert and lay knowledge, that have come to be known as ‘truth’.
reproduced in institutions of family, school, ‘Child’ and ‘disability’ are complex

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 51

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

discourses, especially when they intersect. running of project. But does the participation
In recent years we have witnessed an expo- movement really amount to anything – or is it
nential rise in the sheer volume of impair- simply a new paternalism?
ment objects (e.g. Attention Deficit One of the key reasons for suspecting this
Hyperactivity Disorder, Special Educational new paternalism relates to the kinds of
Needs, Autism, Emotional Behavioural discourses of disability that congregate
Disorder) that have been applied to around disabled children. It is becoming
children, who are subjected to a battery of increasingly apparent that distinct bio-polit-
diagnostic tests that purport to describe ical discourses are growing around disabled
these phenomena objectively (Goodley, children at the same time as children have
2011, p.114). A strange paradox emerges: become more the focus of participation,
While the child and disabled people are policy and provision. Promulgated by the
ever-more present in the cultural psyche, how bio-power of psychology, medicine and
they are being understood is becoming education – and their global reach – these
increasingly difficult to unravel. diagnoses actually construct the very objects
Simultaneously, while discourses of child- (‘the autistic child’) and subjects (‘the child
hood disability permeate cultural locations, with autism’) they seek to describe
disabled children have been afforded a place (Tremain, 2006, p.186).
at the policy table. Increasingly, in our post- From a Foucauldian perspective, there is
Every Child Matters context, disabled no such thing as ‘impairment’ outside of
children as service users have been offered these discourses (Tremain, 2006, p.190). Any
opportunities to participate in debates ‘hard biological fact’ that we might want to
around the constitution and running of point to already has a long history of discur-
services. Disabled children have collectively sive moulding and institutional usage. The
participated in children’s panels, service impaired body is ‘an educated, parented,
user consultation meetings and school coun- observed, tested, measured, treated, psychol-
cils (Franklin & Sloper, 2007). Individually, ogised entity with a long history of being
disabled children are supposed to be active materialised through a multitude of discipli-
participants in decision making about their nary practices and institutional discourses’
care and education, for example through (Goodley, 2011, p.114). The impaired body
individual educational plans. Moreover, the of the disabled child shares all of this
right to participate has been globally shaping due to its consistent engagement
accepted for a number of years: with a whole plethora of disabling practices
Article 13 states that: The child shall have the and discourses.
right to freedom of expression: this right shall We could argue that disablism is on the
include the freedom to seek, receive and impart increase. The current British Conservative-
information and ideas of all kinds, regardless Liberal Coalition Government’s push for a
of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, ‘Big Society’ emphasises individual and
in the form of art, or through any other media familial responsibility for children over the
of the child’s choice. (UNICEF, 1989, n.p.) intervention of the state. Moreover, the
While there have been many positive Government has clearly signalled the inten-
changes, we still view these developments tion to end the ‘bias’ towards inclusion
with scepticism. As Brandon and Towe (Runswick-Cole, 2011a). Consequently, we
(1989, p.20) argued more than 20 years ago: are witnessing a discursive turn from inclu-
Participation has replaced ‘community’ as the sive and rights-based notions of disabled
fresh aerosol term to tart up descriptions of childhoods to more traditional and familiar
jaded services. The professional journals run concepts of the disabled child as passive,
endless articles about involving consumers in tragic, parasitic and burdensome (see
services in management, planning and Runswick-Cole & Goodley, 2011, for more

52 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

discussion of this issue). It seems, at least to a period of 32 months from September, 2008
us, that there is a deep contradiction to May, 2011.
between these bio-political discourses of Overall, our participants included
‘child as active participant in decisions disabled children, their parents/carers and
around their lives’ and ‘child as tragically professionals who work with disabled
impaired passive object’. children, including teachers, third sector
Consequently, we believe the time is ripe workers, health workers and social workers.
to move back from the current discursive Children had been given a range of impair-
context to question how we as researchers ment labels including autism, cerebral palsy,
and practitioners understand the disabled developmental disability, Down’s syndrome,
children with whom we work. Such a task is achondroplasia, profound and multiple
made even more important since we live in a learning disability and epilepsy. The
culture of service user participation and researcher (Katherine) acted as research
consultation. We follow Titchkosky’s (2008) fellow to the project and was involved on a
call to watch our watchings and read our day-to-day basis with the design and imple-
readings. We ask: What kinds of readings do mentation of the empirical work (as well as
we draw upon to make sense of disabled the analysis), accessing families via parent
children? To what extent are our narratives support groups and other community
only partial accounts of the complexity of contacts. Our sampling also had an element
‘disability’ and ‘childhood’? Are we in of snowballing, as potential families were
danger of empowering dangerous readings informed by word of mouth, emails and via
that create pathological versions of child- websites about our research. The ethnog-
hood? Paraphrasing Snyder and Mitchell raphy involved the researcher attending
(2001, p.381), we suggest that by moving children’s birthday parties, bowling and
disabled children into a social and political going shopping with families and was also
context and away from their historical invited to impairment-specific leisure activi-
mooring as medical and supernatural oddi- ties, including an autism specific social club,
ties, the stories we tell of those children have parent groups, and user consultation meet-
the potential to ‘transform understandings ings set up by local authorities, services and
of physical and cognitive difference from professionals to access the views of families.
that of malfunction within particular bodies A few of the families involved in the inter-
to the scenario of a cultural production, views were also involved in the ethnography,
writ large’. but the latter was extended to include
different children and their families.
Researching with Rosie We interviewed five children from the
This paper draws on a number of accounts of 4 to 11 and six from the 12 to 16 age
disabled children and their parents, collected brackets. The children were interviewed at
as part of a project funded by the Economic least three times. In our work with children
and Social Research Council (RES–062-23- we adopted the following principles: To treat
1138) (see project website: http://post- children as experts and agents in their own ‘Does every child lives; to use multi-methods in recognition of
matter, Post-Blair: Interconnections of the different ‘voices’ or languages of
disabled childhoods’. Our overarching aim children; and to seek to establish a climate of
was to ask what life is like for disabled listening (Morris, 2003). We were aware of
children and young people and their families the need to adapt the research tools to suit
in the aftermath of the changes for children’s each child or young person (Goodley &
policy and practice since 1997, set in motion Runswick-Cole, 2011). With this in mind we
by the New Labour government in Britain. drew on a range of approaches, using
The research was carried out in England over photography, mapping, drawing and film

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 53

Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

amongst other methods (see Clark & Moss, contemporary child in a digital age. We
2001; Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2011; acknowledge that our analyses might be seen
Runswick-Cole, 2011b). In this paper we as contributing further to the bio-political
focus on research encounters with 11-year- machinations around disabled children.
old Rosie (a pseudonym). After all, our research identifies objects of
The researcher met Rosie in her home study (disabled children); it seeks to access
four times over the course of about eight their self-perceptions as disabled child
weeks. Consent was sought and gained from subjects and we, in some way, are scaffolding
Rosie’s parents, but we also sought Rosie’s further interpretations around their lives.
‘assent’ (Cocks, 2006), checking that she However, our defence is that we are aiming
understood what was asked of her and was to explicate different understandings of
happy to participate, throughout the time ‘disability’ and ‘child’ that do get used by
spent with her. The meetings were practitioners, researchers and policy-makers
conducted at a time and place that suited to make sense of children like Rosie and to
Rosie; she was given clear choices about warn against the dominance of those read-
whether or not she wished to take part each ings that threaten to pathologise, other and
time she met the researcher. Rosie was able separate Rosie from her peers, her family
to end the meeting at the time of her and the wider community. The readings that
choosing. In the course of the four meetings, we develop are written in the style of case
data collected included voice recordings, notes, practitioner-like diagnoses and analy-
photographs and the researcher’s notes. tical case studies that draw on our knowledge
With Rosie’s ‘data’ spread out before us of Rosie and her family. The analyses are
we were left with some interesting questions deliberately selective, less interested in the
about how we made sense of its personal and truth of Rosie and more focused on telling
cultural significance. Our first task was to particular tales with specific characters, plot
write the story presented below. We acknowl- and destinations in mind. We aim to provoke
edge that there is no such thing as a neutral and to unsettle. But before we do this, let us
story and when we turn from data to text we view the ‘story’ on which we will base our
are already in the process of infecting the readings. The story we present below
narrative with our own subjectivities (see attempts to give some background to Rosie
Goodley et al., 2004). Perhaps more signifi- and her life. We do not present it here as if it
cantly, as we reviewed the story we played were some theory-free or analytically
around with a number of readings, identi- untainted extract from the data. We accept
fied a number of possible practitioner, that the way we present Rosie reflects our
activist and researcher audiences and asked commitment to think imaginatively and
how Rosie would come out from our read- thoughtful about her experiences and ambi-
ings of her ‘data’. We deliberately and self- tions. With subjective ambitions in mind we
consciously read our readings of Rosie. We seek to introduce Rosie to the reader in a
wanted to consider what distinct epistemo- way that gives some insight into her life,
logical narratives would tell about her. This contaminated as it is by our preoccupations
led us to four contrasting readings that we as researchers and writers of this article.
develop below, but introduce here.
The first account attends to the teachings Rosie’s story
of what we describe below as the autism canon; Rosie is 11-years-old. When the researcher
the second is located in an orthodox social met her for the first time, Rosie had just left
model of disability interpretation; the third her mainstream primary school to attend
seeks to utilise a Nordic relational model of secondary school, a special school for
disability; and the fourth is filtered through a children with ‘learning disabilities’. Rosie
contemporary socio-cultural lens of the lives in a small terraced house in a town in

54 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

the north-west of England with a mixed another corner.

population and high levels of social depriva- When Katherine and Rosie first met,
tion. The streets next to Rosie’s have row Rosie particularly wanted to show the
upon row of boarded-up houses, peppered researcher her photographs of school, holi-
with graffiti. days, outings and birthday parties, so the
Rosie lives with her mother and father researcher took a couple of disposable
and she has an older brother who has cameras (one for to use with Rosie, and one
recently left home to study physics at univer- for Rosie to take away and use later – or so we
sity. The researcher visited Rosie’s parents, thought) for Rosie. Rosie had never taken
Don and Angela, at home before she met photos before but she immediately took to
Rosie. Don is a teacher and Angela works the disposable camera. Rosie had just
part-time in an office job; she has recently bought a new toy – Kitty, a small soft toy
reduced her hours to be back in time for bought with vouchers saved from a cereal
Rosie when she comes home from school. packet. The researcher showed Rosie how to
Rosie’s parents told us that Rosie was given a use the camera and asked her to take photos
diagnosis of autism and learning difficulties of ‘things she liked’. Rosie immediately
when she was 3-years-old. Don and Angela asked her mum, then her dad, to pose for a
felt Rosie had been all right at her primary photo with Kitty. She then asked the
school, but they felt that for secondary researcher to pose for a photo with Kitty and
school she needed more specialist provision. instructed her dad to take a photo of herself
The family is a member of a local support and Kitty. Rosie proceeded systematically to
group for families of children with autism. place Kitty next to her favourite things and
Angela regularly attends the parents meet- took photos of: Kitty and the hamster, Kitty
ings and is on the organising committee. and The Tweenies DVD, Kitty and the
Don, Angela and Rosie attend organised Nutcracker ballet programme, Kitty and the
trips together, going to a variety of activities Sylvanians catalogue, Kitty and the Disney’s
including a children’s farm, the cinema and Cinderella DVD, Kitty and the television, Kitty
bowling with other families with a child with and the ‘old kettle’, until the camera was
autism. Don, Angela and Rosie enjoy these full. The researcher gave her the second
days out. Rosie talked enthusiastically about camera (the one for later!) and Rosie
her photographs of the farm trip and Don continued to take photos until the camera
and Angela talked about how much they was ‘finished’, at which point Rosie turned
enjoyed going out with other families ‘like on the television and the photography
theirs’, where other people ‘understood’ if session was over. Two weeks later, Katherine
Rosie behaved a bit differently. Rosie does went back to visit Rosie to give her the
not have many friends round to play at photos she had taken and was greeted with
home; she does not usually enjoy the busi- more photos taken by Rosie of an outing
ness of other children in the house. with the support group.
Katherine always met Rosie in Rosie’s
front room. The front room had books Reading Rosie
spilling out of the bookcases onto the floor. We now provide four readings. We acknowl-
Picture books of Greek myths sit alongside edge that our interpretations are partial yet,
vegetarian and ‘authentic’ Indian cookery through offering a multiplicity of readings,
books between a long line of reference we seek to challenge grand, overarching,
books. There are neatly organised DVDs totalising narratives that speak of certainty,
behind the television, including The Tweenies, deficit and lack.
The Goodies and Monty Python. A hamster Our first reading mirrors this attention to
scuttles about in one corner of the room and lack and is straight from the autism canon.
Rosie’s flute and music stand occupies In this reading, one that we find problematic

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 55

Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

to say the least, autism is a biological deficit: sociology and the sociology of health and
‘a devastating developmental disorder’ illness literatures were premised on an
(Happe, 1999) resulting from a ‘neurolog- understanding of disability as an individual,
ical abnormality’ (Frith, 2003, p.1), ‘due to a medical deficit. As a result, disabled people
physical dysfunction of the brain’ (National have been characterised as deviant and in
Autistic Society, 1998, p.26). In this view lack and, therefore, in need of professional
autism is not a new condition. Indeed, some support. The social model, on the other
suggest that it has been around since Biblical hand, rejects individualised and medicalised
times (Mathew & Pandian, 2010), but autism understandings of disability. Social oppres-
was not formally recorded until the 1940s by sion theories of disability recognise disability
two psychiatrists working independently of not as an individual, medical problem, but as
one another – Kanner (1943) in the US and the product of a disabling society that ‘is
Hans Asperger (1944) in Austria – the geared to, built for and by, and controlled by
fathers of autism (McGuire, 2011). In 1985, non-disabled people’ (Swain et al., 2003,
Baron-Cohen et al. first posited the view that p.2). The social model has become central to
autistic people do not have a ‘theory of political activism and academic inquiry in
mind’, the view that they have ‘mind blind- Britain (Thomas, 1999) and, as a result, it
ness’ and are unable to read the thoughts of has been described as the Disabled People’s
others or even to recognise that the thoughts Movement’s ‘big idea’ (Hasler, 1993). In
of another person might be different from 1976, The Union of the Physically Impaired
their own. In 1991, Wing put forward the Against Segregation (UPIAS) published the
view of autism as a ‘triad of impairments’ Fundamental Principles of Disability. The
(Wing, 1991): Difficulty with social commu- UPIAS definition makes a crucial distinction
nication, social interaction and social imagi- between impairment and disability:
nation. A reading from the autism canon …we define impairment as lacking part of or
suggests that ‘autistics’ are commonly all or of a limb, organ or having a defective
thought to share a number of characteristics limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and
including: a love of routines; sensory sensi- disability as the disadvantage or restriction of
tivity difficulties; obsessive interests; a lack of activity caused by a contemporary social
empathy; difficulty making friends; pedantic organisation which takes no or little account of
speech; and poor non-verbal communica- people who have physical impairments and
tion (Burgoine & Wing, 1983). Autism is thus excludes them from the mainstream of
almost universally recognised as a medical social activities. Physical disability is,
condition that is real and biologically based, therefore, a particular form of oppression.
co-morbid with other conditions such as (UPIAS, 1976 cited in Oliver 1996, p.25)
dyspraxia and epilepsy, and diagnosis has Research framed by social oppression under-
been considered to be hugely important and standings of disability and childhood has
‘liberating’ for sufferers and affected fami- repeatedly shown that disabled children are
lies (Shakespeare, 2006, p.71). more likely to suffer structural and material
The second reading looks through the disadvantage than other children
lens of the social model of disability. As such (McLaughlin et al., 2008). Recently, the
it offers a direct challenge to the view of campaign group, Every Disabled Child
Rosie constructed from within the autism Matters (EDCM, 2007), carried out a survey
canon – a position that rests on medical and of 1800 families with disabled children and
individual constructions of disability. A social found that only six per cent reported them-
model orthodoxy challenges traditional selves to be ‘comfortably off’, with 93 per
approaches to disability that have been cent reporting themselves as being in ‘finan-
framed by individual and medical models cial difficulty’. EDCM identified two specific
(Oliver, 1990). Traditionally, both medical challenges in terms of poverty and disabled

56 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

children. The first was the considerable people. Children are great lovers and users
extra and on-going costs of caring for a of technology. Marsh (2005) suggests that
disabled child, and the second was the diffi- children are best described as ‘digikids’.
culty parents and carers had in entering and Technology and pedagogy have become
sustaining employment, resulting in a signif- folded into one another through the
icant income penalty for the family. In this growing use of technology in schools at least
sense, then, we can argue that families who in Global North and rich countries. For
boast a disabled child are disabled families, Merchant (2006), an important aspect of
privy to structural inequalities and marginal- digital technology lies in the ways in which it
isation (McLaughin et al., 2008). is used to demonstrate the user’s relation-
The third reading that we develop in our ship to popular culture. Indeed, for many
reading of Rosie attends to a Nordic rela- children, they ‘are apprenticed to digital
tional model of disability (see Goodley, 2011, writing through informal learning in out-of-
for overview). As Tøssebro, (2004, p.3) school contexts’ (Merchant, 2006, p.105).
explains, in Nordic countries disability has This is an important point because much of
been defined as ‘a mismatch between the what we know about creativity and learning
person’s capabilities and the functional demands for ‘digikids’ and disabled kids alike is gath-
of the environment’ (emphasis in the original). ered in school contexts. Rosie, in contrast,
This suggests that there is a gap between presents us with insights into a key area of
individual functioning and the demands of her out-of-school life: The relatively private
the society or environment that, in turn, family household. One only needs to speak
produces ‘disability’. In this sense, disability to parents of young people to evidence the
is ‘a relationship, and it is relative to the envi- centrality of digital technologies in the lives
ronment’ (Tøssebro, 2004, p.3). Tøssebro of young people (perhaps at times in
(ibid.) gives an example of the relational contrast to parents’ own difficult relation-
nature of disability: ‘A blind person is not ships with technology!) From this perspec-
disabled when speaking on the telephone tive we approach a reading of Rosie that may,
and is exceptionally able when the lights at times, lose the signifiers of disability. We
have gone out’. By defining disability as the now ‘read’ Rosie with these distinct perspec-
result of a relationship between the person tives in mind in an attempt to excavate the
and the environment, Nordic relational ways in which particular epistemological
models differ from social model accounts persuasions will give rise to very different
(that firmly locate disability within the envi- narratives of Rosie.
ronment) and functionalist accounts associ-
ated with the autism canon (that place the (i) Rosie has autism – a reading from the
problems of disability within the person). autism canon. Despite autism affecting three
Moreover, ‘normalisation’ principles are a times as many boys as girls (NAS, n.d.), Rosie
key element of the Nordic approach. has a diagnosis of autism. Her condition was
Normalisation principles suggest that, identified when she was three as a result of
through ‘empowerment’, it is possible to her parents’ concern about her significant
make patterns of everyday living for disabled language delay and lack of social skills.
people that are as close as possible to the Ripples of the condition are often found in
regular circumstances of life in the wider families with children with autism, with non-
society (Traustadóttir, 2004). autistic relatives often displaying autistic
Our final reading attends to the photo- traits (Piven et al., 1997). It is not, therefore,
graphs from the perspective of what we term surprising that Rosie’s older brother is
a socio-cultural stance. One analytical trope studying natural science at university. The
picked up by this perspective is the signifi- data demonstrate that Rosie suffers from
cance of digital culture in the lives of young many of the characteristics typical of an

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 57

Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

autistic child. Rosie is object-focused rather Rosie’s photographs offer a fascinating

than people-focused. Rosie took a photo of insight into the autistic mind and allow us to
her mother, father and the researcher, but enter her world, albeit briefly.
the primary focus of these pictures was her
new toy, Kitty, that is her latest obsession. (ii) Rosie is disabled – a reading from social
This object focus is typical for autistic model orthodoxy. Rosie lives in an area of
children. As she took the photos, Rosie also social deprivation in a town in the north-west
demonstrated an obsessive preoccupation of England. Rosie’s father works, but, typi-
with patterning as she organised the shots in cally for mothers of disabled children,
a systematic way, demonstrating her Rosie’s mother has been forced to reduce
tendency to perfectionism (Attwood, 2007). her part-time work because of difficulties in
Encouragingly for her future develop- finding appropriate and affordable child-
ment, Rosie has more than one special care for Rosie (EDCM, 2007). All of the
interest. As well as obsessing about Kitty, her research encounters took place in the home.
new toy, she also shows an obsessive interest This is not surprising. For many families
in Monty Python DVDs and Greek myths. living with disabled children, simply leaving
Rosie has an impressive knowledge of vocab- the house requires the family to overcome a
ulary on the topic of Greek myths, however, significant number of barriers. First, there
this seemingly developed area of compe- are often access issues in terms of negoti-
tence is a product of her fascination with ating doorsteps, accessing public transport
mythology and should not distract from an and finding physically accessible locations to
understanding of the devastating impact of visit. However, for Rosie’s family it is attitu-
autism and learning difficulty on her life. dinal barriers that mean that they are
However, it is useful to continue to channel confronted by ‘tuts’ and stares as Rosie
Rosie’s obsessive interests positively in terms behaves ‘differently’ outside the home
of her education with the aim of widening (Ryan, 2005).
her vocabulary. Rosie is educated in a special Disabling attitudes mean that Rosie is
school, as she would clearly be unable to marginalised in her local community and
function in a normal mainstream school. subject to the processes of exclusion. Rosie
Unusually, Rosie’s father noted, unlike many attends special school, revealing the failure
autistic children Rosie does not enjoy of schools to implement the principles of
Thomas the Tank Engine DVDs. inclusive education (CSIE, n.d.). Rosie’s
Typically for an autistic child, Rosie has attendance at special school also reflects an
an impressive memory (Attwood, 2007). inability on the part of her parents to see
Rosie was able to recite the plot lines of her that their children could be included in
favourite DVDs in great detail. However, she mainstream education (BCODP, 2005).
struggles with team situations (ibid.) and is While parents can and do act as allies to their
very self-directed, following her own agenda. disabled children, they are also the ‘agents
Once she had tired of the activity of taking of disablism’ (Thomas, 1999) and this is also
photographs, it was not possible to re-engage evidenced by Rosie’s parents’ removing her
her attention. Rosie communicates in a typi- from mainstream leisure activities and,
cally autistic monotone that varied little instead, accessing segregated leisure activi-
throughout the research encounter. As the ties for children with her particular impair-
research encounters took place in her own ment.
home, Rosie was familiar with the sensory Rosie’s story demonstrates the continued
stimuli around her, although she did presence of the persistent material, struc-
struggle when the sun moved round onto tural and attitudinal barriers to the inclusion
her face. of disabled people and the continued
pressing need for barrier removal.

58 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

(iii) Rosie has a world around her – a Nordic (iv) Rosie has a camera – a socio-cultural
relational model reading. Rosie is autistic. reading. Children are great lovers and users
Rosie’s story reveals a happy, playful child of technology. Marsh (2005) suggests that
interacting with her parents and the children are best described as ‘digikids’.
researcher in her own home. Rosie’s parents Technology and pedagogy have become
and the researcher are attentive to Rosie, folded into one another through the
allowing her to take charge of the camera growing use of technology in schools, at least
and set her own agenda in choosing what is in Global North and rich countries. An
to be photographed and how. Rosie is important aspect of digital technology lies in
comfortable in her home environment, the ways in which it is used to demonstrate
supported by her parents. However, when the user’s relationship to popular culture.
other children visit the home, the environ- Indeed, for many children, they ‘are appren-
ment because busy and confusing – there is a ticed to digital writing through informal
person/environment mismatch that causes learning in out-of-school contexts’
Rosie difficulty. Rosie would prefer to be in a (Merchant, 2006, p.105). This is an impor-
less busy environment with people in it who tant point, because much of what we know
support her. Rosie loves going to the theatre about creativity and learning for ‘digikids’
and watching her favourite shows and char- and disabled kids alike is gathered in school
acters. This is an environment in which contexts. Rosie, in contrast, presents us with
Rosie thrives. insights into a key area of her out-of-school
Rosie enjoys school. She is encouraged to life: The relatively private family household.
enjoy her passion for Greek myths and to The images provide a snapshot into the
enjoy the activities there, including learning rich tapestry of family life. From a Bourdieu-
to play the flute. Rosie and her parents feel sian (McKeever & Miller, 2004) analysis we
the school environment meets her needs. can make some interpretations about the
Caring and enabling professional experts social and cultural capital of her family. The
support Rosie’s inclusion in the special Tweenies, Monty Python and The Goodies
school environment. provide a smattering of cultural artifacts
In terms of normalisation, the family is littering the background and composition of
able to access many of the regular activities the narratives. There is young and old here –
of the wider society, going to the theatre or interests perhaps fashioned by a father
the park, but Rosie needs support in these sharing his comedic choices with his
environments in order to ensure that they offspring, contrasting with Rosie’s own
are accessible for her. ‘Tuts’ and stares choice of film and theatre. The story suggests
suggest that Rosie’s behaviour, status and echoes of laughter by a father and daughter
appearance are not culturally ‘normative’ at the ‘Minister of Silly Walks’ sketch, with
(Wolfensberger, 1980) as she stands out in John Cleese in his prime1. There are vege-
the crowd. Furthermore, unlike many other tarian cookbooks prominent, one dedicated
mothers in the UK, Rosie’s mother is unable to Indian cuisine, and whole shelves of refer-
to work full-time because of the lack of acces- ence books for the family to peruse.
sible and affordable childcare. The family is The story capture Rosie’s own passions for
financially worse off than families without Greek myths and, hence, we can detect an
disabled children living with them with two educational background to her life that goes
parents working full-time. It could be argued beyond the usual discussions of special educa-
that the family has yet to be empowered tional need associated with disabled children.
(with professional support) to lead a The out-of-school nature of interests and
‘normal’ life. learning are alluded to through the images.


Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 59

Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

Discussion: Reading our readings A Nordic relational account confirms

We remain as unsettled by the readings now Rosie’s status as ‘autistic’. This is not in ques-
as we were when we wrote them. Reading tion, rather the focus is on how her autism
Rosie, she is an object of fascination. In and the environment interact. Rosie is, vari-
reading her from the autism canon, the ously, ‘disabled’ and ‘non-disabled’,
narrative of the autistic child becomes a depending on the extent to which Rosie’s
totalising narrative that swallows up every ‘autism’ and the environment match one
part of Rosie’s story. Rosie and her family are another. At home, Rosie is non-disabled as
read as autistic, with the ripples of autism she is supported by her parents. Disability is
being detected in her brother’s love of the normalised by the family: This is simply how
natural sciences. Her enthusiasm for taking Rosie and her family do family (Traus-
photographs, and planning a series of tadóttir, 1995). Outside the home, she is
pictures is read simultaneously as evidence sometimes disabled, when the gap between
of her condition; a product of impairment; impairment and environment becomes too
and of her obsessive behaviour. In this great. Furthermore, the family has yet to
reading, there is no space for pleasure or joy, achieve ‘normalisation’ as Rosie’s mother is
only a reading that confirms that Rosie has unable to work full-time and Rosie’s behav-
‘a life-long developmental disorder’. Rosie’s iour, status and appearance attract ‘tuts’ and
passions morph into obsessions and her stares in the street.
talents are ‘disordered’ as her abilities are Reading Rosie through a socio-cultural
characterised as typical autistic traits. Alter- lens, she is not defined by the autism canon,
native readings are closed off. The narrative nor by social model orthodoxy or the princi-
is so powerful that Rosie’s human value ples of normalisation. Instead, we are asked
dissolves into the autistic quagmire as she to consider her engagements with tech-
becomes an example of the ‘autistic mind’ nology: As an active ‘digikid’. We are pushed,
that allows ‘us’ to learn from ‘them’ what it is too, to consider the wider social and cultural
to be human. capital to which she has access, and that
In reading Rosie from the social model, a provides her with hobbies, interests and
materialist account dominates. Rosie and passions. We get a whiff of the food that
her family are the victims of structural and might be cooked in the house, get a sense of
attitudinal oppression. Staying at home is the sharing of cultural markers from father
not a choice but a product of disablement. to daughter, and an idea of the kinds of activ-
Her parents’ choice of school and leisure is ities that this family likes engaging in. Autism
the consequence of their disabling attitudes disappears. So, too, does disability. In their
and those of the wider society. But Rosie likes place is a depiction of the particularities of a
her new special school, and she enjoys going household.
out with her parents and other members of Reading Rosie, it is clear that she is an
the group for families with children with object of concern. From an autistic reading,
autism. Rosie likes to be at home with her there is hope that she can ‘grow and
mum and her dad. A social model account develop’ as her obsessions offer potential for
struggles to accommodate Rosie and her academic learning and the promise of quan-
parents’ choices without casting them as the tifiable achievements. However, from a social
product of inherently disabling assumptions model reading, progress towards empower-
about the nature of impairment and disable- ment seems limited as Rosie is an isolated
ment. In this reading, Rosie’s choices and social actor, situated in a world of segregated
those of her parents must be the result of education and leisure without the prospect
false consciousness and of their having inter- of change. The lack of achievement of
nalised the oppression. ‘normalisation’ – marked by the ‘tuts’ and
stares of others in the community – positions

60 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

Rosie’s family as in some way lacking and of and the environment must change (albeit in
the need for them to be ‘empowered’ Rosie’s case through ‘empowerment’) in
(possibly with the help of professional inter- order to close the gap between the person
vention). Yet, reading Rosie through a socio- and the environment. Through a socio-
cultural lens, Rosie is a distributed self – cultural lens we witness the makings of
intimately connected with and supported by subjectivity, but these appear to be less tied
and to her family, and not an object of to the bio-political machinations often asso-
‘concern’ at all. ciated with disability. A socio-cultural analysis
Reading Rosie: She is an object of bio- encourages us to read the richness of Rosie’s
power – a body that should be measured, family life: Rosie is simply situated in the
administrated, assessed, governed, educated social and cultural meaning makings of
and at times eradicated by bio-power family life, laughing at Monty Python.
(Tremain, 2005). The autistic reading of
Rosie draws heavily on the promises of bio- Conclusion: Towards a multiplicity of
power – of assessment, education and reha- readings
bilitation, if not cure. She is clearly identified We see Rosie as a postmodern child, a child
as a target of intervention (Ball, 1990). As of which many stories can be told. Our
she ‘fails’ to progress typically, the family is account has only considered four. While our
subjected to a process of ‘dividing practices’ own politics of analysis are most readily asso-
(Foucault, 1983), in which the ‘normal’ ciated with the last three readings, we do
family is distinguished from the ‘deviant’ share misgivings. We struggle with the
(and feckless). Porter (1997) writes: pathologising tendencies of the autism
Viewed in itself… a disabled body seems canon; feel unnerved by the structurally
somehow too much a body, too real, too deterministic possibilities offered by the
corporeal, it is a body that, so to speak, stands social model reading; wonder about the diffi-
in its own way. From another angle which is culties associated with normalisation so
no less reductive, a disabled body appears to adored by the Nordic relational model; and
lack something essential, something that would feel confused by the ‘disability-lite’ nature of
make it identifiable and something to identify the socio-cultural narrative.
with; it seems too little a body: a body that is By failing to engage with the autistic
deficiently itself, not quite a body in the full canon, the socio-cultural reading sidelines
sense of the word, not real enough. (p.xiii; the power of the bio-medical discourse. This
cited by McGuire 2011, p.145). can only be a good thing. And yet, although
As McGuire (2011) argues, in her elegant the socio-cultural reading has the potential
analysis of the cultural constitution and to release the family from a totalising autistic
discursive construction of autism, ‘While all narrative, at the same time it denies the
bodily signs must be watched for potential family the potential affirmation of their
pathology (a medical imperative), so-called biological citizenship (Hughes, 2009) and
‘signs’ or ‘red flags’ of autism must be celebration of their neurodiverse identity
‘watched out’ for (a moral imperative)’ (ASAN, n.d.). Similarly, by challenging a
(p.144). Hence, a reading through the lens materialist account the socio-cultural
of the autism canon blurs moral and medical account positions the family’s experience
imperatives. ‘Normal’ families can escape outside a potentially empowering disability
intervention, while ‘deviant’ families cannot. rights discourse.
On the other hand, a social model In promoting a multiplicity of readings,
analysis insists that the environment must be we seek to accept uncertainty and to
changed to remove the barriers to Rosie’s promote potential. By accepting uncertainty
full participation. At the same time, a Nordic we seek to challenge the tendency of certain
relational account suggests that both Rosie grand narratives to masquerade as truths as

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 61

Dan Goodley & Katherine Runswick-Cole

they weave themselves in and out of disability and children stifle or enable? At
children’s bodies and minds with potentially what moments do we use and refuse our
dangerous effects. Indeed, some psycholog- varied readings? When we constantly ask and
ical knowledges threaten to essentialise and re-ask these questions, perhaps then we can
pathologise difference within children and become as postmodern as Rosie. Our read-
leave untouched wider questions of cultures ings of Rosie reveal the complexity of child-
and societies that fail to tolerate difference. hood (and disability, for that matter), but
By promoting potential, we wonder to what also remind us that some readings are sticky,
extent viewing ‘academic theorising’, some indicate possibility, while others limit.
‘professional opinion’, ‘expert discourse’ We feel it important to acknowledge that, for
and ‘psychological truth’ as nothing more example, the autistic canon and the rela-
than the telling of stories – some more plau- tional model readings are popular cultural
sible than others, some useful in one context stories through which children are charac-
and not others, some in need of rewriting – terised. While we may acknowledge the
might encourage more reflexive analyses on usefulness of these narratives – at times these
the part of researchers and practitioners stories provide plausible accounts that Rosie
working with children and young people. and her family might draw upon – the social
Such reflexivity might destabilise profes- model and cultural readings alert us to the
sional and analytical certainty, bringing with politicisation and creative of Rosie’s position
it a more politicised perspective in relation as a disabled child. Indeed, these readings
to childhood and society. In reading our are often missing from the rich storytelling
readings, we are attentive to the dominance to be found in the social arenas of ‘disability’
of totalising narratives that close down fluid and ‘childhood’. Our plea, then, is to
and alternate readings of disabled children’s consider the ways in which the politics of
lives. When we acknowledge that discourses disability and childhood are always being
of childhood are always being reproduced in constructed and contested in a host of
institutions, by certain institutional actors, familial, professional, academic and cultural
serving particular disciplinary and profes- contexts, and to find and address those
sional interests, this leads us to the question moments when we feel unnerved and
and the ethics and politics of such readings. confused, in wonder or emboldened by
In a cultural time when we are witnessing an stories of disability and childhood.
epidemic of signification around childhood
difference and diversity, then it is a political Address for correspondence
and moral imperative for us to ask whose Dr Katherine Runswick-Cole
interests are being served by these growing Research Fellow in Disability Studies &
discourses. Psychology,
Our concern is that the quirky quality, Critical Disability Studies,
creative and personhoods of disabled Research Institute for Health and Social
children are merely understood as signs, Change,
symptoms and signifiers of pathology. This is Department of Psychology,
a tragic scenario against which we must Gaskell Campus,
continuously refute and battle. We end the Hathersage Road,
paper by asking you, the reader, about your Manchester M13 OJA.
relationship with knowledge, children and Email:
disability: How do you read disability and Website:
children? When do your readings of

62 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Reading Rosie: The postmodern disabled child

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64 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

How can the use of petit narratives create
space and possibility when shorthand is
used in educational psychology practice?
Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

In the fast-paced society in which we live, we find ourselves using convenient ‘shorthand’ to help our work
become conveniently more practical. Whether giving a lecture, conducting an assessment or writing up any
of the above processes we resort to shorthand for the sake of efficiency, and sometimes in the belief that it
makes us more professional. In so doing, we risk forgetting the contradictions in the language and practices
that we use as this is suppressed in the shorthand. This paper shows how narrative helps practitioners and
researchers to create spaces in their work where children escape the compartmentalisation. Through
narrative, possibilities are created in the closed spaces that constitute shorthand practices. Using vignettes
of lecturing and assessment, this paper gives examples of how narrative allows for practice that is more
respectful of children. We will be using Lyotard’s writing on grand and small (petit) narratives on
performativity, and Derrida’s idea of aporia.
Keywords: shorthand; aporia; grand and petit narratives; Derrida; educational psychology.

HIS PAPER aims to highlight some shorthand (on a conceptual level, not just in
spaces in psychologists’ work with terms of language) as a result of frequency,
children where we resort to using short- practicality and convenience, where short-
hand for practicality as a result of pressure of hand is a system of rapid reporting by means
time, and also to show how narrative helps of signs or symbols. Whether giving a lecture,
psychologists to be with children, notwith- assessing a child, conducting research or
standing the fixed terms of the shorthand. writing up any of the above processes, we
This latter term is used to refer to the use of resort to shorthand for the sake of efficiency,
words, phrases and practices without sometimes in the belief that it makes us
acknowledgment of or allowing space for the more professional. We appear to need short-
knowledge, meaning, implications, indeed hand as a common language: it seems stan-
the genealogy of such words and practices. dardised and those who use it feel as though
In today’s fast-paced society, there seems to they are part of a club where everyone
be no time or space for the rich history, and understands each other.
width and depth of discussion behind such The time element is a factor, as in every
words and underlying the practices where situation involving the urgency to ‘fix’ diffi-
they are employed. Tom Billington (2006) cult situations involving a child. Class
writes that words strive for categorical teachers, heads of school, everybody in the
closure in that ‘in our professional lives, we business of education is constantly aware of
often enter into a pretence that all can be the time element, seen as elusive and as ‘not
contained in the words, for example, in a on our side’. In using such shorthand,
diagnosis, definition or explanation’ (p.78). however, we risk forgetting the contradic-
We thus find ourselves using convenient tions in the origins and contexts of the
shorthand to help our work become more language and terminology that we employ.
practical and efficient. We also put aside the context of children,
This paper points out some of the prac- who come before our professional scrutiny.
tices in educational psychology that use Rather than taking time over such contradic-

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 65

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

tions, children are suppressed in the symbols couple of chapters focusing on the develop-
that represent them. They are represented ment of cognition. Invariably, social develop-
in ways that fit the shorthand and a false ment, growth of self-concept and self-esteem
impression is created that we work in a clean ensue, with a few chapters dedicated to the
and tidy system where everything and every- contexts that children generally inhabit,
body has a proper name and place. Children namely family life, schooling, peers and
who do not fit the categories and labels that friendships and media.
constitute this shorthand are viewed as The lecturer’s work seems cut out. It is
contradictions and may thus be pathologised only needed to decide which lectures to
even further. dedicate to which aspect of development,
Through the use of two vignettes we and most of the planning will have been
argue that not only is shorthand literally a done. The rest is just putting the points into
shortened version of a history of complexity, a presentable Powerpoint so that visual aids
but this shorthand also produces reality and can support the talk and discussion.
is reality in itself. Referring to Lyotard, we One day before the first lecture, however,
argue that this reality becomes meta-narra- when all is ready and prepared for the
tive through the discourse that is created – students, the lecturer has qualms. Do the
it takes a life of its own, also because of planned lectures and presentations convey
outside investment in it. Lyotard then helps her sense of children? How are the prepared
us to remember the petit narrative, that is, lectures, as an educational psychologist, any
what allows us to experience children different from those of any other person
notwithstanding these seemingly over- who would have studied the text well and
whelming grand structures. The small narra- could convey it to the students? What can the
tives live within the grand narrative – they lecturer, as educational psychologist, offer to
find their space. We also go to Derrida’s students that would be different? Are
writing about aporia, as it allows us to see children really as cleanly divided and cate-
ourselves as working with contradiction, with gorised as her lectures seem to convey? How
uncertainty and with not knowing. real are the children conveyed in the
lectures? Will the students recognise
Lecturing – Vignette 1 children they know from them? More impor-
An educational psychologist is invited to tantly, will students remember these lectures
lecture a unit on developmental psychology and find them helpful when they are faced
in childhood. The task seems rather with children professionally?
daunting – how can the lecturer convey to
students, themselves still in late adolescence, Assessing – Vignette 2
all that contributes to the development of a An educational psychologist has assessed a
child? Furthermore, how to do so in a way young person and written a report drawing
that would enable soon-to-be teachers, youth up the results of the assessment and recom-
workers, psychiatrists and psychologists to mendations in terms of concessions made
cultivate an understanding of children and for examinations. A board made up of
to nurture a respect for the complexity of ‘experts’ is set up so that a decision may be
each individual child? The lecturer consults reached as to whether the request for
obligingly titled variations of ‘Developmental concessions is to be granted. Members of the
Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence’ and board are divided in their opinions, so those
realises that the job is made easier because who are accustomed to working with the
the child is laid out in chapters, the first few numbers listed in the report skim through
dealing with physical development followed them and focus on the interpretation and
by chapters on sensation and perception. professional judgement written beneath the
Language development follows, with a table of statistical information. Others, who

66 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Petit narratives in educational psychology practice

do not normally work with such numerical indeed, more scientific, make the original,
data, prefer to consider the information dare we say, noble motivation turn to ‘what
provided by the figures alone. They ignore works now’. Thus, representations are used
the text that the educational psychologist without reference to the historical, cultural
had felt necessary to include in the report and political processes that produce them.
explaining the reasons for these recommen- Dividing the lectures mentioned in the first
dations and allowing for contradictions in vignette into clean, separate aspects of devel-
the explanation. The figures exceed the opment seems to be the most practical way of
range listed in the examination regulations presenting the unit to students. The need to
allowing for concessions and the results of fit it all in supersedes all, so the complexity
the assessment surpass the stipulated cut-off of individual children and their environ-
point, but the psychologist’s report lists the ment is sometimes left aside ‘for later’,
reasons why the student nonetheless merits a time that never comes. The shorthand
concessions so the disadvantages incurred by gives us a closed picture of the child – the
his difficulties can be reduced and the acces- ‘otherness’ is left out.
sibility of the examination paper can be Our argument is that, in using this short-
maximised. hand, we are in turn being produced by it.
The representative nature of the statistics Jean-François Lyotard’s work, particularly
and the arbitrariness of the numbers The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowl-
(notwithstanding the standardisation of edge (1984), helps us question the nature of
scores) is seen as objective by some. the knowledge that the shorthand produces
However, those who regularly carry out in relation to his writing on narratives. The
assessments are aware of the dilemmas in age of modernity is characterised by its
which they sometimes find themselves when search for what can be validated and legit-
carrying out an assessment. Considering that imised: Lyotard argues that we have resorted
these small situations occur regularly in to grand or meta-narratives to legitimise
psychometric assessments, how can figures science, as scientific knowledge is more
be taken in isolation? This is the argument of valued and privileged than narrative knowl-
the practising psychologist, but this is coun- edge that is seen as primitive – not sophisti-
tered by the other members of the board cated and only fit for women and chidren.
whose clinching argument is that a prece- There is the necessity of imparting scientific
dent would be created if allowances are knowledge to others – therefore, education
made for this individual case. becomes central. This also implies a total-
ising knowledge at the expense of silencing
Shorthand producing reality otherness and difference.
Both vignettes give everyday instances of The modern event is thus seen by
decisions taken according to some logic that Lyotard as concerned with establishing a
silently overcomes the original aims of the grand narrative that ‘claims to be the story
person acting. Both the lecturer in develop- that can reveal the meaning of all stories, be
mental psychology and the educational it the weakness or the progress of mankind’
psychologist were earnest in their aims to (Readings, 1991, p.63). It is ‘a global or total-
convey a sense of the child to their listeners ising cultural narrative schema which orders
or readers. This is not to say that there is a and explains knowledge and experience’
wholeness missing from the aforementioned (Stephens & McCallum, 1998, p.17). Its legit-
compartmentalisation , but that there is the imisation comes from establishing itself
danger of ironing out the complexity of the through the power others (such as the state,
concept of child and children’s situations. universities, etc.) invest in it, revealing the
However, constraints caused by what seemed singular truth that is inherent. Grand narra-
to be more professional or more efficient, tives are a ‘conceptual instrument of repre-

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 67

Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

sentation’ (ibid.) in the sense that every- example of the validation of the shorthand –
thing is read, interpreted and understood in bureaucratic and administrative require-
relation to the production and transmission ments encourage its use and the system
of meaning created by the grandnarrative. becomes self-perpetuating, so that there is
They do not allow for any other possible an economy of exchange where shorthand
interpretation or understanding of knowl- users and shorthand itself are caught in a
edge besides the dominant one. cycle of validation and corroboration. In
Following Lyotard’s idea of grand fact, Lyotard writes how the State invests ‘to
narrives, we would like to argue that short- enable science to pass itself off as an epic:
hand in psychology is in itself a grand narra- the State’s own credibility is based on that
tive. Institutes, centres, universities, journals, epic, which it uses to obtain the public
training courses, support services and state consent its decision makers need’ (Lyotard,
institutions are created with titles that 1984, p.27–28).
present themselves as specialised and that Law’s (2004) writing on methodology
promise expert professional support. Invest- can be applied in this context as he reminds
ment and funding is relatively easily allo- us that the statements we use are not just
cated to such initiatives, as they promise a ‘about reality’ but also produce the realities
feeling of safety and security for children themselves.
and their needs, for the educational environ- It is not just a philosophy of method, a
ments and the people working in them. In methodology. It is not even simply about the
return, the shorthand terminology is created kinds of realities that we want to recognise or
and implemented, and thus validated. An the kinds of worlds we might hope to make. It
example that comes to mind is a recent is also, and most fundamentally about a way
debate that one of the authors had with a of being. It is about what kinds of social
person working within a service provider for sciences we want to practice. And then, and as
children with autism. The psychologist was a part of this, it is about the kinds of people
told that some of the behaviour of the child that we want to be, and about how we should
in question fell within the spectrum, but live. (Addleson, 1994; Law, 2004, p.10)
since the child was coping with minor Thus, in the first vignette the immense task
support, the mother expressed that she did of conveying a topic is broken down into bits
not want to stick on a firm label. The that, in reality, are only representative of the
meeting was held to make a plan to convince numerous controversies, contradictions,
the mother to tell the child that she had debates and inconsistencies that make up
autism. The ensuing debate with the such a topic. The claims of time, conven-
consulting psychologist at the meeting ience and practicality are given precedence
concerned the tenuousness of this label, with over these. The child is divided into these
the autism service provider insisting that if classifications and categories and the
the child is not formally diagnosed with lecturer teaches it as though it is clean,
autism, he could not get involved. The simple and systematic. The building blocks
psychologist pointed out the dangers of such that constitute the theories showing linear
a position, wondering whether it was ethical stages of development further contribute to
practice to push a case that did not fit such impressions. The lecturer in the
towards autism for the sake of being eligible vignette succumbs to this compartmentalisa-
for support. It seemed to be a fallacy of the tion because it helps her teach and also
vicious circle (petitio principii). Happily, the helps the students study. She uses it to make
service provider left the meeting ruminating sense of the human person, as it would
and later sent an email thanking the other otherwise be too complex and she would not
participants for a debate that had been know where to start. Through working with
something of an eye-opener. This is an segments, it is believed that identification of

68 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Petit narratives in educational psychology practice

what is going wrong and what needs to be ‘closed economy’ that gives us a particular
fixed is easier. understanding of children. Standish writes
The shorthand becomes a reality in itself that there ‘is something curiously self-rein-
and thus takes on a life of its own, so that it forcing, self-perpetuating and, for some,
is no longer seen as a product of discussion seductive about this entire way of thinking’
and debate but as what causes, and also (p.57). It is possible that we become lulled
settles, such discussion and debate into a sweet sense of security. When writing
(Mercieca, 2011). The students in our about scientific practices, Law (2004) argues
lecture theatre are given the impression that that statements are turned into taken-for-
the points are factual and laid on the most granted assumptions and become part of the
solid of foundations. The ifs and buts and routine, thus constituting reality. When we
the niceties that surround any so-called facts do not acknowledge what the shorthand
about people are missed out and the represents – how the political process
presented content is seen as the starting resulted in such terminology and practice –
point of debate, rather than one of the the traces of how the shorthand came about
emerging points within such debate. Such are kept hidden and subsequently forgotten.
lectures convey the impression to students The processes in which the shorthand is
that children can be divided into component produced are also deleted, so that the reality
parts and that a clean start and finish can be that supports the shorthand is standardised.
worked with. This is strengthened by the In the second vignette, practitioners are
kind of assignments given to students at the obliged to resort to standardised assessment
end of the course and by the setting of procedures to evaluate students’ level of
summative assessments. The suggestion that ability and achievement of skills required to
different aspects of children may be fitted sit for examinations. Such assessment is
into compartments is reinforced. made compulsory through the regulations of
The importance of timing is stressed in the examining board. This means that
Latour and Woolgar (1986, cited in Law, report after report is sifted through in an
2004). As an example, the psychiatric attempt to decide to whom to allocate
manuals that provide the criteria on which concessions in the examinations and what
diagnoses are based, although appearing: form these concessions are to take. The fact
more scientific, …were bedevilled by circular that psychometric assessments are just one
arguments (for example, with categories being way of estimating a student’s ability and skill
asserted and evidence being found post hoc to is forgotten – as, indeed, are also the never-
back them up). Moreover, diagnosis serves a ending debates surrounding such product-
wide variety of interests – research, legal and oriented assessments.
administrative – and are supposed to reflect a The shorthand on which this second
consensual view, thus some decisions are voted vignette sheds light not only refers to the
on. (Parker et al., 1995, p.38) passing over of theoretical controversies and
We forget that we, too, are political. This is objections underlying the very existence of
what is happening in the second vignette psychometric tests, but that it should be
where, ultimately, the argument that wins representative of the abilities and achieve-
the day is a political one; a performative one. ments of the individual students undergoing
The threat of creating precedents seems to assessment. Books have been written about
clinch the argument, as the ensuing ques- the development of the idea of intelligence
tion would be ‘Where would it all end?’ yet, even so, in a recent conference the
(quoting the television series ‘You Rang conclusion to a debate on the nature of intel-
M’Lord’). ligence was that ‘intelligence is what intelli-
Using shorthand implies engaging in gence tests measure’. However, in most
what Paul Standish (2005) termed a form of reports outlining the results of assessments,

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 69

Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

intelligence is simply represented by a for the sake of convenience, practicality and

number. At best, the final intelligence score simplicity. These bits of courses take a life of
is shown as made up not of a myriad of their own, and become objects that we
concepts and theories that sometimes also attempt to manage, forgetting that, through
contradict each other, but of two or three their very existence, it is they who are
other numbers, namely verbal ability, non- managing our thoughts.
verbal reasoning ability and spatial ability. The lifelessness that is shed on the
In turn, these too are representations. Since children through our use of shorthand also
such awareness of politics and subjectivity overshadows us. We start to lose a sense of
would undermine the importance of the what it was in the first place that spurred us
shorthand, this awareness is put aside: to follow such a line of work. As Clark (1953)
This deletion of subjectivity is crucial. In writes:
natural and social science research statements And it is we, the specialists in the commodity,
about objects in the world are supposed to issue who have so refined our studies that we are
from the world itself, examined in the proper starting to lose interest in ourselves.
way by means of proper methods, and not from Furthermore we are more and more speaking a
the person who happens to be conducting the language that no one but ourselves can
experiment. If this is not achieved, then understand, and so we are losing out on our
independence and anteriority are not achieved influence and contact with disciplines outside
either. If the scientist appears in her text, if she of the social sciences as well as losing touch
appears as a person, then this undermines any with our culture. The latter is a tragic thing.
statement about reality. (Law, 2004, p.36) …Back in the 17th century certain satirists
Reality is attributed more to the shorthand declared what they called a War on Dullness.
and less to the subject that it represents. Psychologists had better begin a similar war,
‘Consequently an inversion takes place: the for if dullness is not killed first we are going to
object becomes the reason why the state- have several dead journals on our hands, not
ment was made in the first place’ (Latour & to speak of a sterile science. (p.748)
Woolgar, 1986, p.177, cited in Law, 2004, On an interesting note, when delving into
p.37). The result is a creation of a world that old issues of psychologist journals we came
is assumed to be independent of and prior to across articles that put forward the benefits
our sense of children. In the second vignette of ‘condensed writing’ and ‘notehand’:
the numbers have an inherent meaning, are Condensed writing is the most difficult for the
objective, above board and uncontaminated writer and the most considerate for the reader.
by the subjective judgements that profes- It should be required. Particularly in recent
sionals may form following further interac- years, practically every article in the
tion with a child. The child’s ‘mental age’ is American Psychologist could have been
asked for and taken as fact, oblivious of the improved in a simple fashion: Cut it in half.
issues involved in such representations, (Tyson, 1977, p.381)
issues that cause discomfort for practitioners By abbreviating most of the hundred common
employing assessment tools that provide, as a words and all of the four hundred other
result, a measurement of a child’s mental words… psychological writing is reduced, by
age. Law’s (2004) argument indicates how actual measurement, about 30 per cent.
the traces that produce reality are covered (Taylor, 1947, p.106)
up – it is as though the symbols that consti-
tute our shorthand have always existed, and In between grand and small narratives
will always continue to exist (Foucault’s Lyotard writes that, not withstanding its
genealogy). We tend to forget that the claims to objectivity, transparency and truth,
reason for which the holistic person is cate- scientific knowledge is caught up in the
gorised and compartmentalised into bits is complexity of language. This may be, as

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Petit narratives in educational psychology practice

Usher and Edwards (1994) write, ‘obscured represented within a general history without
or veiled [as] science assumes a tranparency the loss of its singularity, its reduction to a
of language’ (p.156). However, Lyotard’s moment. (p.57)
language games expose this as highly ques- Lyotard, in The Postmodern Condition, argues
tionable: ‘its denotative utternaces thereby that ‘small narratives’, as opposed to the
have to be examined as moves within those grand narrative, are the event. The small
games rather than establishing the truth they narratives are sites of transformation and
espouse’ (p.159, italics in original). The dispute in the grand narrative and they
‘postmodern condition’ consists of the dele- ‘resist… incorporation into such totalising
gitimisation of the grand narrative of scien- histories of cultural representation or
tific knowledge, following the development projects for culture’ (Readings, 1991, p.63).
of technology after the Second World War, The term ‘narrative’ is used both in the
capitalism and the focus on the individual, terms ‘grand narrative’ and ‘little narratives’.
even if the focus shifted on the performa- However there is a difference in how the
tivity of systems. Efficiency and effectiveness term ‘narrative’ is understood. In the
(the input–output relationship) have also former, narrative is only the instrument of a
became a grand narrative, leaving ‘no room subject and knowledge is not narrative, while
for caring’, as Stephen Ball argues (2003, in the small narratives, the narrative is knowl-
p.224). It is not a question that the grand edge. The small narratives are able to
narrative of science has been replaced with displace the assurance of the dominant
that of performativity, but rather that the language in the grand narrative. The grand
grand narratives of science and efficiency are narratives are able to break down in the face
able to co-exist. of event, that is, the small narratives. The
Within the Lyotard framework of small narratives tell stories from a different
thought that makes him different from other assumed position, and they also have some
critics of postmodernity, the postmodern level of power, value and knowledge (see
event is not a follow-up from the modern ibid., p.65) that is different from that of the
event. So, instead of thinking of the post- grandnarrative. The power, value and knowl-
moderity as a linear progression from edge that they have is not only to displace
modernity, the two are interwined: the grand narrative but also themselves.
Postmodernity is not a new age, it is the Each small story does not aim to tell ‘the’
rewriting of some features modernity has tried story, but ‘rather... evokes new stories by the
or pretended to gain, particularly in founding manner in which in its turn it has displaced
its legitimation upon the purpose of the general preceding narratives in telling a story’
emacipation of mankind. But such a (emphasis in original, ibid., p.69).
rewriting, as has already been said, was for a The first vignette concerning the psycho-
long time active in modernity itself. (Lyotard, logist as lecturer continues as follows:
cited in Readings, 1991, p.53) The lecturer resolves to start her lectures by
The postmodern event is the creation of a challenging her own presentation and the
‘space’ in the modern. The event is that students’ perceptions of children, starting out
force that disrupts the linear thinking of the by pointing out that, although the course will be
modern. As Readings (1991) argues, the taught in a compartmentalised way to ensure
event: that all material is covered and also to aid
…is the occurance after which nothing will systematic studying, they should not lose sight
ever be the same again. The event happens in that this method of presenting children is one
excess of the referential frame within which it which is motivated primarily by convenience
might be understood, disrupting or displacing and practicality. The students and the lecturer
that frame… The event is the radically rotate their discussions around narratives of
singular happening which cannot be real children, so as not to be lulled into a false

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Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

idea that children can be dealt with in terms of March, to think of the month in which the
solely their emotional aspect, for example, or assessment was being carried out – he
their cognitive needs, or social difficulties. panicked a little and said that he went blank.
These aspects are all intertwined so that focus Saying the months backwards was, as expected,
on one aspect necessitates taking all the others considerably harder. However, recalling digits
into account. There needs to be a focus on the said to him backwards was not as difficult for
individuality of children and the complexity of Harry as I thought it would be – I realised then
their situations, rather than on the sameness of that he was accustomed to reversing the order
their development. of numbers when subtracting. Thus, a strategy
The second situation is different because it which was very time-consuming and laborious
concerns writing, another level of represen- in a mathematical operation stood him in good
tation and one which is more permanent stead in this task. (Excerpt from report,
and more political. The psychologist adheres March 2004)
to the requirements of the examining board In both scenarios, the psychologists writing
and ‘gives them the numbers’. However, the these reports refer to assessments that are
psychologist qualifies this use by inserting standardised and that yield results that are
pockets of petit narratives when writing that viewed as objective. However, both psycholo-
aim to convey a sense of the individuality of gists do not stop at the presenting number
the child in question. The following are but relate it to the stories of the children in
some examples of such writing: question, both examples of petit narratives
I am purposefully not including the overall that leave an effect, a dent if you will, in the
score showing John’s General Conceptual grand narrative of scientific standardised
Ability as he needs to be thought of as assessment reporting.
functioning in two very distinct levels. Indeed,
although his specific language impairment Being aporetic
influences his understanding of many tasks, It is not our aim to advocate that psycho-
still one must always keep in mind that John’s logists should stand aloof from using short-
abilities, aside from those which are verbal, are hand – the grand narrative gives us structure
very high. Thus one cannot expect less from and we cannot be in a state of non-structure
him, nor can one allow him to give up too all the time. The systematic society is here to
easily and expect less from himself. Of course, stay and we would not be doing any favours
John does experience considerable difficulty in to the children with whom we work if we do
school as he finds it hard to understand not speak the language that others under-
instructions sometimes – his difficulties are stand. Psychologists themselves are part of
semantic as well as possibly phonological. this system that seeks to be efficient and
(Excerpt from report, August 2004) effective. Knowing the shorthand
Laborious strategies were implemented to carry contributes to making us psychologists and
out some of the arithmetic tasks, with Harry to making us practitioners who achieve
counting on his fingers, and also counting results. Yet we are sometimes aware of
backwards in subtraction. When asked certain discomfort, as though we are colluding with
multiplication tables, Harry was mentally this structure that is bigger than us. Not only
adding up and then recognising the answers do children have to fit into this structure; we,
as he came to them. He used numerous too, find ourselves abiding by it as otherwise
strategies, but not very efficiently, as he was we find we are not easily understood. We
literally just coping. The most difficult task set have to work with this shorthand; we
to him in this test was asking him to say the contribute to it and we improve it. We use it
months of the year in order. He did not start while at the same time standing away from it.
from January and consistently skipped certain We find this reminiscent of Derrida’s (1998)
months. It did not occur to him, when he forgot writing on being monolingual:

72 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Petit narratives in educational psychology practice

It inhabits me… It is impassible, indisputable: vulnerable and may resort to tried and
I cannot challenge it except by testifying to its trusted shorthand to help us cope. The
omnipresence in me. It would have always shorthand tries to do away with aporia and
preceded me. It is me… I would not be myself create structures in which all is made to fit.
outside it… Yet it will never be mine, this Aporia opposes the shorthand that assumes
language, the only one I am thus destined to that it is the origin, the moment of begin-
speak, as long as speech is possible for me in life ning, from which ideas originate and refer
and in death; you see, never will this language to. However, through petit narratives,
be mine. And, truth to tell, it never was… psychologists can create pockets in which
When I said that the only language I speak is complexity is given a space. For Derrida,
not mine, I did not say it was foreign to me. working with contradiction implies that we
(p.2) are just and, in fact, according to Critchley
These are logical contradictory statements (1999), injustice is when we try to do away
with which we need to live. Although unset- with contradiction. Instead of the opposition
tling, their paradoxical nature and the and contradiction, ‘one simply applies or
accompanying uncertainty causes us to keep implements a programme’ (Derrida, 1992,
on our toes, to be aware that ethics imbues p.41).
our every movement. Jacques Derrida refers
to these logical contradictions as ‘aporia’ that Conclusion
constitute undecidability in experience Although we are to a certain extent bound
(Derrida, 1993). The experience of aporia by this shorthand, it is crucial, even ethically
for Derrida gives us the possibility to ‘analyse speaking, that acknowledgement of such
all the hidden assumptions which are restriction is made. In fact, Richard Smith
implied in the philosophical, or the ethical, (2007) writes that at times the acknowledge-
or the juridical, or the political’ (Derrida, ment of aporetic moments is all that can be
2001, p.178). Derrida in his book, Aporias done. Following a similar line of thought,
(1993), writes about the not/possibility of Gert Biesta (2009) suggests ‘witnessing’, that
crossing borders. To cross a border one must is, ‘trying to point at those moments where
take a step in that direction. However, at the conditions of possibility and impossibility
same time, the border marks the impossi- “cross” each other’ (p.400). In their crossing
bility of taking that step. This step/not is of they can provide us with an opening that
great interest for Derrida – this is what serves as ‘an entrance for the incoming of
becomes a ‘problem’, that is, ‘the step that something new, something unforeseen – or,
crossses borders and renders compromised in more “personal” terms, someone new,
the invisable edge that is intended to hold someone unforeseen’ (ibid.).
the identity of a border in place’ (Calarco, This is what we are suggesting, that we
2002, p.18). Derrida reminds us that the ourselves become more aware of our use of
etymology of the word ‘problem’, from such language and practices and that we
Greek, signifies both pro-tection and pro- make this awareness more explicit through
jection: either a task to be accomplished or petit narratives. It is possible to show
as a shield to guard. Therefore borders ourselves as uncertain because of the individ-
‘serve as protection and project’ (ibid.). uality of particular scenarios that just do not
Aporia means being in a state where there is fit, while still retaining our professionalism.
no longer any problem – therefore, no accom- In fact, our claim is that this makes us more
plishment or guard. The ‘place of aporia is a professional through the prudent use of
point of nonpassage and absolute exposure’ ethics and judgement.
(ibid.). Narrative colours the way we use the
When finding ourselves faced with this shorthand and present it to others – with a
undecidability, as psychologists we feel healthy critical attitude, one can admit the

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 73

Daniela Mercieca & Duncan P. Mercieca

shortcomings of the language that one is become conscious that we miss children.
using and resist as much as possible its Petit narratives allow us to adopt a style of
acceptance as a measure of one’s profession- thinking about children, of talking or writing
alism. The discomfort that accompanies about children and of being with children
living with uncertainty leaves also space for that allows space for their complexity.
children to surprise and astonish us, whereas
the certainty that accompanies shorthand Address for correspondence
for the sake of convenience, speed and prac- Duncan Mercieca
ticality, sees children as stale, stagnant and Department of Education,
predictable. The representation of children Old Humanities Building,
when using the shorthand as outlined above University of Malta,
is very weak – it makes us stop at the level of Msida MSD 2080,
the representation rather than allowing us to Malta.
reach children. Such a state of being is quite Email:
dampening and we have, in such situations,

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education: Why quasi-transcendentalism matters. Uncertainty in research and practice with children.
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74 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Engaging with young people through
narrative co-construction:
Beyond categorisation
Kate Warham

This article provides a brief introduction to narrative and narrative research and reflects upon how a
narrative methodology was used within research which sought to explore stories co-constructed between the
researcher and two young people who were both looked after in local authority care and who had experienced
exclusion from school. The rich and complex stories were interpreted to construct narratives which both
resonated with and resisted narratives which dominate the research literature surrounding looked after
children and young people. A narrative approach has much to offer the researching and practising
educational psychologist by creating a space which enables children and young people’s voices to be heard
and multiple, alternative realities to be created. This article has been contributed to by one of the young
people who took part in the research, in order that we might both articulate our experiences of the process of
this co-research.
Keywords: ?????????????????????????????????????????????????

N ORDER TO situate the current study is shaped, ordered and given meaning.
within a methodological context, this Stories are social, involving speakers as well
article attempts to provide an overview of as listeners and in this way narratives are
narrative and narrative research. This shaped by the social world of the listener as
provides a rationale for my choice of they are constructed through the interaction
approach to research with two care-experi- (Elliott, 2005). Individuals are part of many
enced young people. As with all narrative social worlds and in turn may re-author their
research, it is essential to acknowledge the stories depending on the context. It is, there-
context of our work and, therefore, I have fore, essential to consider narratives within
reviewed the narratives that I perceive to their specific social, historical and cultural
dominate research literature concerned with context. Elliott (2005) argues that narratives
looked after children and young people. are also shaped by available cultural reper-
The article then briefly outlines the method- toires of stories that frame and structure
ical approach, discusses narratives them. These cultural repertoires may
constructed within the research and both provide guidelines that influence stories, but
myself and one of the participants reflect they cannot determine the content of each
upon the process of jointly constructing individual’s actively constructed narrative.
narratives. Public narratives may be maintained and
remain stable over time, but they also have
Narrative and narrative research the capacity to change. The interplay
Riessman (2008) argues that the narrative between these existing public cultural narra-
impulse is universal, present in every place, tives and new individual narratives can
society and age. Hiles and Cermak (2009) create alternative possibilities.
suggest that narrative is essential to the Although the narrative turn in
meaning-making process through which psychology is relatively recent, there is a long
events and actions may be understood. The history to psychology’s interest in story. The
experience of an event becomes a story as it analytic study of narrative has social

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 75

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Kate Warham

constructionist foundations and offers a tional achievement of children in care have

model of contextualism, recognising that developed rapidly over the last decade and
stories do not occur in isolation (Gergen, recently have become more integrated
2001). Through narrative analysis, one is within policies relating to children and fami-
able to remain open to social processes that lies (Brodie, 2010).
are present in the construction of personal
narratives and embrace contradictions and Poor attainment and life chances. Research and
multiple possibilities within narratives rather published statistics consistently position
than seeking coherence (White & Epston, looked after children and young people as
1990). having limited life chances in comparison to
Elliott (2005) suggests that, by embracing their non-looked after peers. In comparison
narrative research, researchers are able to with children in the general population,
develop a deeper understanding of their statistical research suggests that those in the
research subjects’ perspectives. Through looked after population are four times more
telling their experiences in a story form, likely to suffer from a mental health
individuals reflect on their experiences to problem, are 13 times more likely to receive
select aspects they perceive to be important a statement of special educational need, and
and order them into a coherent whole, are more likely to be without a school place
giving meaning to experience. Researchers for extended periods of time (Martin &
are able to accumulate rich detail about an Jackson, 2002). They are 10 times more
individual rather than fragmenting accounts likely to be excluded from school and up to
into categories, such as in grounded theory. 30 per cent are out of mainstream school
By honouring each individual’s narrative because of truancy or exclusion (DCSF 2009;
within its own context and not splitting it Dearden, 2004). Published statistics continu-
and pooling with others to make a general ally indicate that looked after young people
statement, particularities and individual obtain fewer GCSEs than the non-looked
agency and intention are retained after population (DCSF, 2009). Such statis-
(Riessman, 2008). This offers an approach tics provide snapshot measures and do not
that recognises the complexity of life without tell us anything about the complexities of
trying to reduce it. experience. Taking a statistical approach
Although this methodology can give could be seen to be a reductionist way of
voice to some of the most marginalised considering the situation, one that paints a
people in society, Elliott (2005) cautions us problem-saturated picture of failure for
that it can also be oppressive by telling looked after children and young people and
stories that draw on culturally available provides us with a thin description of their
narratives that express broad social struc- lives that ‘…allows little space for people to
tures of power and inequality. However, articulate their own particular meanings of
narratives may also open up other possibili- their actions and the context within which
ties, such as counter-hegemonic narratives they occurred’ (Morgan, 2000, p.12).
that challenge rather than maintain power
differentials in society. Explanations constructed for the current
situation. Explanations proposed within the
Dominant narratives surrounding research literature consider a range of inter-
looked after children and young people related factors as contributing to the current
Research relating to the educational reported low achievement of looked after
outcomes of looked after children and children and young people. These include
young people has been increasing since the pre-care experiences, societal, structural and
late 1980s. Government publications, poli- professional factors.
cies and legislation relating to the educa-

76 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Young people through narrative co-construction

Some authors have highlighted adverse friendships; professionals to listen and

pre-care experiences such as social depriva- respond quickly to bullying or abuse at home
tion, poverty, neglect and abuse and the and school; to be encouraged and supported
value that birth parents have placed on to become involved in the social life of their
education (Francis, 2000; Harker et al., school; stable placements; educational facili-
2003). However, others argue that it is the ties at home and good communication
care system itself which is at fault, disadvan- between home and school. Emerging
taging young people after ‘having inter- themes that Martin and Jackson (2002) iden-
vened in order to try and stem the flow of tified in their interviews with high-achieving,
perceived disadvantage’ (Fletcher-Campbell, care-experienced young people included the
1998, p.4). importance of having a ‘normal’ experience
at school without being singled out as
Resilience. Studies adopting a resilience- different from their peers. The importance
based approach have sought to identify of foster carers, residential workers, social
protective factors which support looked after workers and teachers holding high expecta-
children and young people to overcome tions, providing support and encourage-
negative experiences and to make a success ment for academic achievement and
of their lives (Dent & Cameron, 2003). overcoming negative stereotypes was also
Such identified protective factors include: raised. These young people valued opportu-
a parent or carer who values education; nities to develop interests and hobbies away
a supportive teacher; regular school atten- from the care system, relationships with
dance; stability and continuity; developing valued mentors and supportive social
interests beyond school and the care system; networks.
and a mentoring relationship with a signifi- These studies exploring care-experi-
cant adult offering support and encourage- enced children and young peoples’ views
ment (Dent & Cameron, 2003; Gilligan, and opinions help to provide thick descrip-
1999; Jackson & Martin, 1998). Although tions (Geertz, 1973) of young peoples’ expe-
resiliency-led research may be conceived to riences, thoughts and feelings. These, in
offer a reductionist view of young people’s turn, both deepen our understanding
situations, it starts to move away from beyond reported statistics and acknowledge
presenting a problem-saturated story of that people’s lives cannot be reduced to
looked after children and young peoples’ simplistic interpretations.
The current study
Children’s voices. A number of researchers The aim of my study was to provide insight
have consulted looked after young people and understanding into the narratives told
about their experiences of education, what within my work with Jimbo and Zacharay, two
has been helpful or unhelpful and what has looked after young people who had experi-
helped them to succeed (Dearden, 2004; enced school exclusion. By focusing upon
Harker et al., 2003; Martin & Jackson, 2002). our jointly-constructed narratives I was able
Within these studies children have reported to acknowledge the social aspect of the
high levels of exclusions and care placement construction of knowledge, meaning and
changes, resulting in unwelcome school power (Emerson & Frosh, 2009).
changes. They wanted to be treated as indi-
viduals and to be consulted about their views Co-constructing narrative data
and wishes (Harker et al., 2003). Dearden I took a narrative approach to interviewing
(2004) reported that the young people she in which the interviewee is conceived as a
interviewed wanted the following protective storyteller and it is the interviewer’s respon-
aspects in their lives: strong supportive sibility to be a good listener (Mishler, 1986;

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 77

Kate Warham

Hollway & Jefferson, 2000). The use of life methodological approach of narrative
history grids (Elliott, 2005; Holstein & enabled the complexities of these stories to
Gubruim, 1995; Riessman, 2008) was emerge. To give readers a feel for these
adapted to produce school history grids stories, I have attempted below to describe
within initial interviews with the participants, and comment on our co-constructed narra-
asking each young person to structure their tives, but it must be borne in mind that
time in school into chapters. Each partici- through this process of reducing and
pant was then asked to talk about the chap- summarising the stories many rich details
ters that they had identified. Two interviews and complexities are lost. Readers may wish
were held with each young person so that I to refer to Warham (2011) for the more
was able to take a preliminary reading of the detailed stories and transcripts which are
first research conversation before meeting to referred to below:
follow up and further explore themes, to I was only in there for a few weeks ‘cos I moved
check meanings and to give individual young from… oh God, I forgot the name of that as
people a chance to talk about anything that well… (Zacharay, transcript 1, lines
they had been thinking about or reflecting 141–142).
on in between our meetings (Hollway & Both stories contained narratives of move-
Jefferson, 2000). ment and created for me a sense of fragmen-
The transcripts from our first interviews tation and confusion. Perhaps my feelings of
were returned to each young person and we confusion also reflected the inherent diffi-
met to discuss these and to offer each partic- culty of trying to understand how another
ipant the opportunity to remove, change or person has made sense of and talks about
add to the material before further analysis. their experiences and would be part of any
Similarly, I offered to share my analyses and co-construction process where we try to
drafts with each participant so that I was able negotiate a coherent story together.
to ask for their views and amend my work in When you are in care they they will move you
the light of their comments, facilitating a to a school. Just chuck you in, ‘oh we’ll chuck
process of on-going informed consent. him in here, we’ll put him in here, he’ll be all
To analyse our interviews I drew upon right’. And when that care home gets up they’ll
Emerson and Frosh’s (2009) version of move you on and chuck you in another school.
Critical Narrative Analysis, developed from That’s how they work now. (Jimbo,
Gee’s (1991) linguistic approach to narra- transcript 3, lines 195–200)
tive. This attempts to retain the critical gains Both stories constructed moving between
of Discourse Analysis through social under- schools as an inevitable result of living within
standing and construction and combines the care system, although exceptions were
this with a focus upon individuals’ processes illustrated. Care placements were
of active construction within their narratives. constructed as transient, often breaking
down and leading to both boys moving
The narratives around the country and having to change
The narratives were written up as two self- schools. At times, these placement moves
contained stories that were individual and were sudden, with instant notice and were
very different, but I felt that I interpreted constructed almost brutally. Published
themes within each story that both resonated research literature also contains dominant
with those occurring within the other young narratives of frequent movement between
person’s story and also with dominant narra- placements and schools that disadvantage
tives within published research literature. looked after children and young people
I was also able to trace resistance to these through structural factors of the social care
dominant narratives, highlighting contradic- system (Fletcher-Campbell, 1998). Within
tions and counter-narratives and felt that the the co-constructed stories we heard this

78 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Young people through narrative co-construction

dominant societal narrative; but their stories not something that he could say. The
went beyond this and constructed the powerful care system was constructed as too
specific meaning of this within their own rigid to ever be any different and had left
lives. him no possibility of voice within it. Power
I was predicted like Bs and As and Cs mostly. differences developed in Zacharay’s story
It was a C in English. A what A in science. when he was held down by five members of
A in maths and B in ICT and a few other staff to control his behaviour and when he
subjects but I can’t remember what they were. was moved between care placements.
But because I couldn’t sit them I couldn’t get However, their stories contained narratives
them so I left. Well I got to college with like no of resistance to those of powerlessness.
GCSEs. (Zacharay, transcript 1, lines These were constructed when Jimbo ran
471–483) away from a care placement, taking control
Both stories constructed a disrupted educa- of a situation he had had no choice in and
tion. A placement move within one story when he worked with his peers to take over a
preceded a wait of several months for a school, normally the professional adult’s
school placement. Within the other story it domain of power. Narrative methodology
prevented taking GCSE exams or enables us to construct such alternative real-
completing coursework requirements. ties away from dominating narratives that
Dominant narratives within government allow little room for agency.
publications and research literature That was just a behavioural school that.
construct looked after young people with Everyone were just running round riot and
poor educational outcomes such as fewer they didn’t do no work, they didn’t do
and lower grade GCSEs than their peers nothing… it weren’t a school, it weren’t a
(DCSF, 2009; Dearden, 2004; Martin & school. Well it was sposed to be a school, but
Jackson, 2002). This positions many looked I didn’t see it as a school. I just saw it as a
after children and young people as unsuc- place to go to to chill out. (Jimbo, transcript
cessful learners, and our narratives chal- 3, lines 61–65)
lenge this. I feel that by studying these I felt that the narratives constructed within
narratives and giving voice to individuals both stories contained several conflicts and
behind statistics, we start to create more real, contradictions that would have been lost had
human and complex pictures of young I tried to reduce the stories further to
people within this system, deepening our summarise them. There were elements of
understanding of how these lower educa- illusion within both stories, of things being
tional outcomes develop and effect young not as they seem such as an ‘uncaring’ care
people. system and schools that were not real
I stormed out, ran off... I ran off to one of me, schools. I feel that this reminds us of the
like a respite carer’s house where I knew where importance of looking deeper in our profes-
it were. I got the train and I went to their house sional practice, and asking young people
and I went ‘right, I want to move’ and they how life is for them, not how things appear
rang social workers and told ‘em situation and to be.
then I got put in a different place. (Jimbo, Both stories constructed narratives about
transcript 3, lines 327–332) the functioning of rigid care and educa-
The individual stories constructed narratives tional systems in which young people are
of power imbalances between young people ‘chucked’ into residential homes, how
and professionals from the care and educa- schools have to offer looked after children
tional systems. For example, Jimbo’s story and young people a place and how funding
painted a picture of Jimbo having no choices for university is available if young people in
in his life and, when asked how things might care enrol up to the age of 21. It also
have been different, he replied that that was included a narrative around the advantages

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 79

Kate Warham

of being in foster care rather than residential cases such as these, individuals can bring
care, the stabilising effect that it had upon more understanding into their work with
school placements and how it served to young people and effect change from a
normalise experiences. This narrative of bottom-up level, alongside top-down
normality, of the importance of not being approaches of training and system design.
seen as different to non-looked after peers, I had a gang of friends and we did like a
has also arisen in previous research (Martin performance. ‘Cos we did like an ‘X Factor’
& Jackson, 2002). thing, yeah like a talent show and we like did
I felt that a conflict between the powerful a song or whatever, dance routine sort of like
education and social care systems developed that. About five of us, in front of the whole
in these stories. These systems were school. (Zacharay, transcript 1, line 183)
constructed as acting independently from I set the scene for stories relating to the care
each other and not being able to fit together. system to be developed in our interviews
Zacharay’s story created an educational through my initial request to work with
system not able to cope with the care system looked after young people who had experi-
through the narratives of Zacharay having to enced school exclusion. However, the narra-
chase his English coursework when he tives also resisted this genre and their stories
moved, and of being moved at times of were not exclusively concerned with being in
educational importance. The powerful care care or being excluded. Both young people
system ensured that a school placed him on chose to develop narratives of normality and
roll, but the educational system did not give were positioned within their stories along
him a physical place within that school. with their peers. I felt that, within these
Tensions between different facets of the local narratives, they were not choosing to define
authority were being played out in themselves as ‘looked after’ or ‘excluded’
Zacharay’s story. Perhaps considering such and perhaps resisted my attempts to do so
tensions between these systems may help to through my request to work with excluded
unpick the question raised by Firth and looked after young people.
Horrocks (1996) as to why looked after And they said that like one of their staff (from
children and young people experience such the residential care home) had to sit in class
high exclusion levels when they have the with me in school as well to monitor my
support of the local authority to secure their behaviour and stuff. It let people know that
rights to education. This constructed narra- I was different from the other people… It does
tive has political implications for the way that feel strange cos you’ve got some member of staff
services work with or against each other and sitting next to you and everyone is asking like
comments on the reality of how the govern- ‘Who’s he? Who’s he?’ and stuff like that so
ment agenda of creating children’s services you like explain the situation or whatever and
and joined-up-practice is working. you might not necessarily want to. (Zacharay,
The need for multi-agency professionals transcript 1, lines 251–255)
to receive adequate training and guidance to In contrast to these choices made by Jimbo
support their working relationships and for and Zacharay to position themselves with
school staff to develop deeper understand- their peers, these stories positioned profes-
ings of the care system and children’s experi- sional adults as resisting these narratives of
ences has been identified previously normality and constructing Jimbo and
(Fletcher-Campbell, 1998). Case examples Zacharay as ‘different’. Zacharay’s story
such as these illustrate why this is so neces- included episodes where residential care
sary, but also raise questions about how staff had to stay with him in school to
professionals’ can effect change through monitor his behaviour, and this demon-
their individual practice. Perhaps through strated his difference from his peers and
increasing their knowledge of individual forced his disclosure of being in care.

80 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Young people through narrative co-construction

Zacharay was positioned in his story as prior research, but also created narratives
wanting to start new school placements as a that resisted these and offered alternative
full-time member of the school. However, possibilities for these young people away
when he was in residential care staff would from these dominant, limiting narratives.
put him into school on a part-time timetable, Foucault (1980) writes about disqualified
contradicting his wishes. Connelly and knowledges that are denied the space in
Chakrabarti (2008) argue that we should be which to be performed, such as those that
challenging the commonly made assump- conflict with knowledges held by those with
tion that looked after children and young authority (i.e. researchers or professionals).
people will cope better by being given a These may include Jimbo’s and Zacharay’s
narrow curriculum and Zacharay’s story adds narratives of being a successful learner, or of
weight to this argument, with reference to exerting control which contradict dominant
his experience. Jimbo’s story suggested that published research narratives. Foucault
professionals ‘chuck’ looked after children suggests that, through searching for and
and young people into new placements, highlighting details of these knowledges, we
presuming that they will cope and that this can offer and provide a place for their
would not happen to young people who live performance and can develop a criticism of
with their family. These stories constructed dominant knowledges.
professionals as lacking specific understand-
ings of what Zacharay and Jimbo wanted and Reflections upon the process of this
needed. I feel that this demonstrates that research
professionals working with looked after I strived to equalise the relationships
children and young people need to find ways between myself and Zacharay and Jimbo by
to ask and to listen to them so that decisions conceptualising us as co-researchers
and services can be personalised to them. throughout the research process. Therefore,
Both Jimbo’s and Zacharay’s narratives when it came to reflecting upon process of
concluded with unfinished futures that constructing narratives together I felt that
offered positive potential for alternative such a reflection would be incomplete if it
narratives in which they could take control came only from my perspective. Zacharay
and construct desirable future lives. has contributed to this article and in the
Zacharay constructed a rich and detailed section below his words are quoted. I was
projected future, full of optimism and possi- attracted to following a narrative method-
bility. I felt that Jimbo was more resistant to ology because I felt that it respected the
the possibility that things may be different contribution of participants and enabled a
for him, countering our construction of how more equal research relationship to develop.
he might like his future to be, with the possi- I hoped that the narratives would still feel
bility that he might get sent to prison and like they belonged to each participant,
would, therefore, not have this choice. although I acknowledged that as the
Axford (2008) has postulated that if looked researcher and author I had the ultimate
after young people have continuously felt decision about how the narratives would be
that they have a lack of choice and control edited and what I chose to include. Zacharay
over their lives, then they may also develop a wrote the following about our research rela-
sense of having very little hope for their tionship and whether he was retained some
future. This resonates with me when I ownership and influence over the written
consider the very dominant theme of a lack narratives:
of choice and control within Jimbo’s story I had choices within the research like when I
and his constructed future narrative. was free to meet and I felt that our relationship
Through Jimbo’s and Zacharay’s stories was pretty equal, 50:50. It was good to read
we developed narratives previously heard in everything that we’d said and how we had said

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 81

Kate Warham

it, but it was also interesting to see and find made me reconsider the decisions and
out about how it had been written down and choices I had planned to make. I felt that it
analysed. After the analysis, the narrative still was important that I was ethically answerable
felt like the same kind of stuff that we had to the young people rather than just to the
talked about. It still sounded like the same research ethics committee. We were able to
experience that I had gone through. It still felt negotiate aspects of the research, such as
like the story belonged to me, even though the Zacharay keeping his first name within the
towns and cities had been changed to weird research. However, there were aspects such
names. I was able to say if I wanted something as disguising local authorities and school
to be changed or taken out from the transcripts, names that I was unable to change and ulti-
analysis and interpretations. I had an mately my power as researcher meant that in
influence over the process and was happy with these negotiations I made the final decisions.
the way my story had been represented. This emphasised to me that, although we
By following this process, I encountered the may aim to work in partnership with our
possibility that my analysis would be rejected participants, the research relationship can
or that I would need to reconsider how never be truly equal.
I represented the narratives for readers of Although I did not set out to create
the research. This created some uncertainty change for either Zacharay or Jimbo,
for me as the control of the publication was I remained aware that narrative studies can
negotiated between us. Ultimately, I felt that have components of both research and
this process was ethically sound and enabled therapy. Through the process of narrative
Zacharay and Jimbo to provide their interviews, participants are able to reflect
informed consent at each stage of the upon their lives. This is not a neutral activity
research process. I had initially planned to and may facilitate positive change (White &
use pseudonyms for both participants, but Epston, 1990). As part of my ethical consid-
this was challenged by Zacharay, who felt erations I tried to plan for the occurrence of
that this would take away from his story. He any negative reactions after taking part in
writes: this research and I hoped that the research
It was important to me that I kept my first experience would be a positive one.
name and did not use a pseudo name. It was Zacharay writes about this below:
my story and I wanted my name on it. I Working with Kate in this way was more in
wanted it to be published as my story and I am depth than other work I have done with
happy that I made this choice. I would have professionals; this meant I spoke in more detail
liked to the place names to have remained the which was good. Social workers just tell you
same so that people could see where I have what to do and at school they try and steer you
moved to, it might have helped people to in the right direction. Working with Kate has
understand how far I have moved and the been more relaxed which has been helpful
distances between places. I understand that because I was able to give more of my opinions.
they had to be changed and it might have been The process didn’t make me think about my life
saying that some places are better than others in a different way, but it did show me how
and you are not allowed to do that. many schools I’ve been to and got excluded
For me, the process of trying to create more from. I don’t feel that there were any negative
equal relationships as co-researchers chal- aspects of taking part, I was happy with all of
lenged the decisions and assumptions that it. I think other young people would benefit
I made as researcher. By working with young from taking part in something like this, it
people as co-researchers, we assume their would make them think as they go through all
competence and move away from a model of of their story and see how it looks. It was also
researcher as expert. Reactions such as interesting to get Kate’s perspective on it.
Zacharay’s request not to use a pseudonym

82 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Young people through narrative co-construction

Zacharay wrote about having my perspective This research made me consider my

of his story and this was something that I approach to my educational psychology case
tried to emphasise throughout the research work, whether I enable such rich, complex
process; that ultimately my interpretations and multiple realities to develop for the
did not represent an ultimate truth and that young people and families whom I work
other readers, or indeed Zacharay and I, may with, away from the problem-saturated narra-
interpret the narratives differently in the tive of referral forms. I feel that a narrative
future. approach to research and case work offers
As part of my analysis of the narratives me a way of listening and of enabling
I identified some themes that I felt resonated children and young people to bring their
with those that had been raised in previous pertinent issues to our discussions rather
research literature. However, through the than constraining their voices to my topics.
process of detailing the stories, these themes Narrative offers the exciting possibility to
became unique in the ways that they devel- facilitate, hear and share rich alternative
oped and played out within the individual stories with young people, and the family
narratives. The process of searching for and and professionals in their lives that is espe-
highlighting complexities and contradic- cially important when negative dominant
tions to these themes helped to develop narratives abound around them.
richer narratives and prevent me from devel-
oping and presenting a reductionist view of Address for correspondence
Zacharay and Jimbo. Kate Warham
Through this attempt to co-construct and Sheffield Educational Psychology Service,
present rich pictures of two young people Bannerdale Centre,
the narratives were able to develop stories Carterknowle Road,
that focused not only upon aspects of their Sheffield S7 2EX.
narratives which related directly to being Email:
looked after or excluded, but presented
unique identities away from these labels.

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 83

Kate Warham

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84 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Narrative analysis of former child soldiers’
traumatic experiences
Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

Narratives are an integrative part of every culture and narrative exposure serves not only therapeutic
purposes but also a social and political agenda (Schauer et al., 2005). This paper will focus on the second
aim – using Narrative Analysis to inform and raise awareness of the experiences of child soldiers in
northern Uganda. The children involved in this study range in age from 13 to 17 years (M=15.25) and
spent from 12 to 108 months (M=48) with the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army. The paper begins by providing
a context for the narratives by exploring the extant psychological literature in the field, the conflict in
Uganda and the psychological impact of soldiering on children. Next, the paper outlines the steps taken to
analyse the children’s narratives before the study’s findings are discussed in relation to how the children use
distancing during narration to protect themselves from overwhelming negative emotions and how
traumatic bonding appears more strongly in child soldiers who fought with the rebels than those who did
not. The way abductees make sense of their ‘new’ reality as child soldiers through juxtaposition and
internalisation is also outlined, as is the finding that a mother’s death can result in greater psychological
distress than exposure to extreme violence. Lastly, policy implications and future research directions based
on these findings are proposed.
Keywords: child soldiers; narratives; traumatic bonding; internalisation; traumatic grief.

Child soldiers

T IS ESTIMATED that as many as 300,000 of loved ones may influence this decision
children under the age of 18 currently (Betancourt et al., 2008). A child’s limited
serve in government forces or armed mili- ability to assess risks, their feelings of invinci-
tias around the world (Coalition to Stop the bility and the fact that military commanders
Use of Child Soldiers [CSUCS], 2008). view them as more malleable, obedient and
Between April 2004 and October 2007 easier to indoctrinate (Schauer & Elbert,
children were actively involved in armed 2010) also makes them more vulnerable to
conflict in government forces or non-state recruitment.
armed groups in 19 countries or territories –
half of which were in Africa (CSUCS, 2008). The conflict in northern Uganda
However, the term ‘child soldier’ has Since 1986 northern Uganda has been
caused confusion and has been criticised for engulfed in an atrocious war characterised
promoting a misleading image of boys with by extreme brutality, abductions, encamp-
weapons (Betancourt et al., 2008). UNICEF ment and general loss of human dignity
(2007) define a ‘child soldier’ as any boy or (Amone-P’Olak et al., 2007). This conflict is
girl under 18 years of age who is associated unusual in that it does not have the structure
with an armed force or armed group in any of a traditional civil war or ethnic conflict.
capacity, such as combatant, porter, cook, The LRA is more aptly described as a
servant, nanny, messenger, spy or concubine. warlord’s militia and the local Acholi
While some children are abducted by community are treated as a resource base for
rebel militias and forced to become child food and abducted fighters (Veale &
soldiers, others voluntarily join armed Stavrou, 2007). Abducted children are ritu-
groups. However, poverty, hunger, a need for ally terrorised, sexually exploited, forced to
protection or a desire to avenge the death(s) watch beatings, maiming, rape and killings

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 85

© The British Psychological Society, 2012
Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

and sometimes even forced to kill friends studies used different measures and, even
and relatives (Okello et al., 2007). Derluyn et when the same measure was used, different
al. (2004) claim that up to 90 per cent of the cut-off points for clinical significance were
Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) recruits are used (e.g. Amone-P’Olak, 2005; Derluyn et
abducted children and adolescents. While al., 2004) making it difficult to meaningfully
this figure has been disputed (Eichstaedt, compare trauma levels in different popula-
2009), we do know that since the late 1980s tions.
between 25,000 (CSUCS, 2008) and 60,000
(Annan et al., 2009) children and adoles- Reasons for high PTSD rates among
cents have been forcibly recruited into the child soldiers
ranks of the LRA. Of these abducted While exposure to extreme violence causes
children, 75 per cent are boys (UNICEF, high PTSD rates, it appears that exposure
1998, cited in K. Amone-P’Olak et al., 2007). alone is not sufficient to account for the high
Of great concern too is the plight of girls rates of psychological distress in former child
(Wessells, 2006). The rebels believe young soldiers. Okello et al. (2007) found that LRA
girls are free of sexually transmitted diseases abductees had significantly higher rates of
(STDs) and cannot infect them (Amone- PTSD, depression and anxiety than other
P’Olak, 2005). Instead, it is the girls who non-abducted yet war-affected children.
become infected with rates of 67 per cent Kohrt et al. (2008) found that even when war
(vaginal candidasis), 60 per cent (gonor- experiences were controlled for, child
rhoea), 54 per cent (genital warts), 52 per soldiers in Nepal were still at greater risk of
cent (syphilis) and 28 per cent (genital developing PTSD and depression than non-
herpes) found in a sample of 123 former conscripted youth. This suggests that there
LRA female abductees from northern may be something intrinsic to the experi-
Uganda (Amone-P’Olak, 2005). ence of being a child soldier that results in
higher levels of psychological distress.
Effect of war on child soldiers Betancourt, Borisova et al. (2010) found
In addition to physical injuries and sexual that the age at which children were involved
health problems, survivors of war and in military action played a role in how
conflict may also develop specific mental depressed they were; the younger the age the
disorders. These include post-traumatic more severe the depression. While all 150
stress disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, child soldiers in the study witnessed severe
substance abuse, suicidal behaviour, social violence, children who had killed or injured
withdrawal, low self-esteem, loss of trust, another person or who had been raped
excessive guilt, hostility and aggression. Of exhibited markedly more aggressive behav-
these disorders, PTSD is the most prevalent iour in the years after the war. One reason
(Neuner et al., 2008) and the most for this is children who participated in atroc-
researched (Jordans et al., 2009). ities or were raped were more likely to be
Three recent studies found that 34.9 per stigmatised by their communities (Betan-
cent (Bayer et al., 2007), 26.8 per cent court, Agnew-Blais et al., 2010). In additional
(Okello et al., 2007) and 33 per cent (Klasen to stigma, other daily stressors found to
et al., 2010) of Ugandan child soldiers met hamper psychological recovery are insuffi-
DSM–IV criteria for PTSD. Post-traumatic cient money, food, clothing and illness (Mels
stress symptom rates of 97 per cent (Derluyn et al., 2010). Also of concern is the finding
et al., 2004), 98 per cent (Amone-P’Olak et that child soldiers with PTSD are less open to
al., 2007) and 99 per cent (Amone-P’Olak, reconciliation and have more feelings of
2005) were found in the same population. revenge (Bayer et al., 2007). This desire for
However, caution must be observed in inter- revenge can hamper recovery and fuel trans-
preting the studies above. Some of these generational conflict (Schauer & Schauer,

86 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Former child soldiers’ traumatic experiences

2010), thus making the solution to existing some had spent considerable time in the
conflicts even more intractable. bush without access to calendars, diaries or
Yet, despite the significant physical and watches, so all ages are estimates. At the time
psychological challenges they face, child of the study all were attending a school for
soldiers are not helpless victims at the mercy war-affected children in northern Uganda.
of inevitable mental illnesses they can do Gladys and Mercy attend a vocational
little to prevent or mitigate. Indeed, such an tailoring class. Nancy and Noah are in Year 6
emphasis on deficit that overlooks children’s in primary school. Mercy spent a year with
remarkable resilience (Klasen et al., 2010) is the rebels in the bush, Nancy and Noah
now giving way to an understanding that spent three years, while Gladys was born in
most former child soldiers are functional the bush and lived with the rebels for nine
and, with proper support, can transition to years.
positive lives as civilians (Wessells, 2006).
One such support is helping child soldiers Data collection
process their experiences through co- Pupils in P5, P6, P7 and the vocational class
constructing narratives – a therapeutic were screened for post-traumatic stress symp-
approach this study sought to use. toms (Impact of Events Scale Revised; Weiss
& Marmar, 1997). Four pupils with the
Method highest score on the IES-R were offered the
Aims of the study option of receiving four weeks of KIDNET
Remembering and telling the truth about (Schauer et al., 2005). KIDNET is a child-
terrible events are pre-requisites for the friendly version of Narrative Exposure
healing of individual victims (Herman, Therapy (Mueller, 2009) in which the trau-
1992). This study’s primary aim is thera- matised child constructs a detailed lifeline
peutic: To help former child soldiers work using a rope, flowers (for happy moments)
through their traumatic memories through and stones (for sad moments). Over six to
narration of past events (Schauer et al., eight sessions of one hour, the child
2005). This practice enables the processing describes in detail the events symbolised by
of painful emotions, causing habituation the flowers and stones. This occurs in the
(Ertl et al., 2011) and significant emotional form of a semi-structured interview in which
recovery. A secondary aim is to use the testi- the therapist and the child co-construct a
monies (with the children’s permission) to narrative based on the questions the thera-
raise awareness about human rights abuses pist asks (e.g. who was present, when did the
of children in northern Uganda – something event occur, describe an event that occurred
this paper is seeking to do. Thirdly, by in vivid detail) and the responses a child
providing children with documentation of gives. An interpreter translates the thera-
their experiences in a chronological and pist’s questions and the children’s responses
coherent format, former child soldiers can and it was these accounts that were used for
(if they choose) use their testimonies in civil the current study.
or criminal proceedings. Thus, narratives
can serve in the pursuit of justice and Ethical concerns
compensation for the gross human rights This proposal was approved by the research
violations these children have endured. university’s Psychology Department’s Ethics
Panel and complied fully with the Helsinki
Participants Declaration (WMA, 2008) and the British
The children’s names have been changed to Psychological Society’s Code of Ethics and
maintain anonymity. At the time of the study Conduct (BPS, 2009). Consent for the study to
Gladys was 16, Mercy, 17, Nancy, 15, and take place was obtained from the principal
Noah, 13. None had birth certificates and and head of the counselling department at

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 87

Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

the school. The aims of the study were In contrast to the snapshots of experi-
explained at a school assembly to all the ence afforded by single interviews, NA
children involved. The children were accommodates a temporal dimension and is
informed of their right to withdraw at any sensitive to a narrator’s shift in identity
time and were given an opportunity of reflec- (Murray, 2002) over time. Since transitions
tion and to ask any questions they may have. are a key component of child soldiering (e.g.
Once the screening was completed and the abduction, adjusting to life as a captive,
most severely affected students had been release from captivity, etc.) it was felt that
selected, individual oral consent from each NA’s temporal dimension would be the most
participant was sought to proceed with the appropriate approach to record this. In addi-
therapeutic phase of the study. The freedom tion, NA uses semi-structured interviews to
to withdraw from the intervention at any stage elicit narratives. This is a culturally sensitive
during the therapy sessions was also method since stories are at the heart of all
explained, as was the potential negative short- human and social meaning making. Narra-
term impact of re-visiting past traumas. As an tives also provide in-depth information on
additional safeguard, the school counsellor experiences that sensitise a researcher to
was asked to monitor the four students closely cultural practices and methods of meaning
during the intervention. The researcher and making very different to their own.
interpreter visited the children during the Lastly, as this research project was also a
weekends to make sure that they were not therapeutic intervention, narratives were
overwhelmed by feelings or thoughts about selected because of their ability to facilitate
their trauma that the therapy had raised habituation of traumatic memories leading
during the week. It was hoped that the school to a remission of PTSD symptoms (Schauer
counsellor could also be trained in the use of et al., 2005). Chaotic experiences are the
KIDNET and deliver this therapy to addi- hallmarks of the life of a child soldier and so
tional students identified as needing support narratives provided the channel through
but, sadly, school commitments meant this which a former child soldier can reflect on
was not possible. The researcher had been these experiences in a therapeutic setting
trained in the use of KIDNET by the authors and begin to order and make sense of them
of the therapy and had lived and worked in and thus ‘render them safe’ (Bruner, 1990).
East Africa for two years prior to this study.
The researcher lived in Gulu for the duration Analytic process
of the research where he met with local health The transcripts were read a number of times
workers, humanitarian staff, teachers and in order to allow the authors to familiarise
international researchers from a range of themselves with the texts. The first stage of
disciplines to gain a greater insight into the the analytic process involved looking for
impact of child soldiering on the children generic elements of the narrative and noting
affected. The interpreter was an Acholi them (content). These are features such as
woman and had worked as a counsellor on who is included or excluded from the narra-
similar NGO projects in northern Uganda for tive and the role that they appear to play
more than five years. (e.g. parent as hero, rebels as villains,
abductees as victims), and whether the story
Methodology features elements of tragedy, romance,
The data was analysed using Narrative suspense, and so on. This phase also looks at
Analysis (NA). NA is a qualitative research temporal features of the narrative, such as
approach in which the researcher listens to what time point the narrator chooses to start
participants’ stories and seeks to understand the narrative.
the relationships between the experiences of The second phase looked at the details of
individuals and their social framework. each individual transcript, such as the role

88 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Former child soldiers’ traumatic experiences

taken by the narrator, the allocation of indifference to the sufferings of others. The
ingroup/outgroup membership to other children’s somatic responses during these
individuals and the way in which the indi- horrific events belie this. It is only after the
vidual describes specific events (form). event, when recounting traumatic incidents,
The final phase involved generating that the distancing appears. This suggests
themes from features of the narrative and that emotional numbing has occurred to
considering the degree to which they serve as a protective psychological barrier to
applied to all the transcripts and what prevent the children being repeatedly over-
aspects were unique to particular individuals whelmed by the horrors that happened in
(traditional cross-sectional analysis). the past.

Findings and discussion Traumatic bonding and the identity of combat-

Distance of the narrator ants versus non-combatants
When people are asked to talk biographi- There is considerable difference in the way
cally, they usually put themselves at the the four children talk about the rebels.
centre of their narrative, emphasising their Margaret describes her abductor as a man
own role in any description. The first person with ‘a cruel, aggressive voice’. Later, she
singular pronoun ‘I’ is commonly used in describes the commander as ‘a fat, dark-
personal accounts, implying personal skinned, always aggressive man’. Nancy and
agency. This is particularly noticeable in indi- Noah’s narratives are somewhat different.
vidualistic cultures. Nancy talks of how ‘The UPDF (Uganda
However, the use of ‘I’ does not neces- People’s Defence Forces) soldiers disap-
sarily imply a positive perspective. Individuals pointed us and never turned up so no one
tend to portray themselves as either heroes, was killed that day’ while Noah describes his
villains (less often) or victims (of circum- commander as a ‘nice man’ and uses the
stances or the actions of others). In the child pronoun ‘we’ to talk about himself and the
soldier narratives the children do not portray rebels: ‘we hadn’t moved far from the IDP
themselves as victims. But interestingly, camp when the UPDF attacked us with a heli-
neither do they portray themselves as heroes copter… we shot the tail of the helicopter
or villains. Instead, there is a distance between with an RPG.’ This dysfunctional identifica-
them and the atrocities they describe as well tion with their abductors occurs only in the
as an absence of personal agency. They speak children who received military training and
of themselves as unwitting bystanders, power- fought with the rebels. This suggests that
less to intervene and powerless to influence military combat, exposure to similar dangers
their own destiny or the destiny of others. and having a common enemy can accelerate
Gladys describes the day her mother, father, a shift in identity over time (Murray, 2002).
brother and neighbour were killed by the This shift was also facilitated by the change
rebels in a detached, matter-of-fact manner. in status of child abductees upon completion
She uses no emotive language nor describes of military training – a status that offered
any feelings for the rebels who killed her them access to an omnipotent in-group who
family. Her subsequent factual, disinterested ordered killings and ‘danced, drank beer
account of the most horrific day of her life and ate goat meat, beef, fowl and pork’ after
suggests child soldiers can become so desensi- battles.
tised to violence that they appear emotionally Another example of traumatic bonding
numb when recounting traumatic experi- appears in the justifications the child
ences at a later date. combatants give for rebel atrocities. Noah
It is important that the distance apparent describes how a rape victim ‘was selected
between the child soldiers and their narra- because she was good-looking’ and ‘The
tives is not mistaken for ambivalence or unlucky rebels who didn’t get a woman were

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 89

Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

the ones who raped the girl’. The use of the Making sense of the senseless
work ‘unlucky’ offers a victim position to the Time and again in the children’s narratives
rapists rather than the girl who was raped as they give examples of common conventions
well as a plausible explanation for their being inverted, social norms being perverted
involvement. Nancy also uses justificatory and the abnormal existing side-by-side with
language when she speaks of a multiple rape the normal. This juxtaposition has the effect
incident that ended in murder: ‘After the of normalising gratuitous violence and
rape, the rebel wanted the woman all for offering a rationale for inexplicable acts of
himself, but another rebel came and raped cruelty.
her too. So the first rebel killed the woman In Acholi culture the elderly are the
by stabbing her with his bayonet in the back custodians of knowledge and experience
so that the other rebel could not have sex and afforded great respect. Yet, for the
with her.’ rebels, the elderly are an inconvenience,
The fact that combatant child soldiers slowing their progress through the bush.
were more likely to show evidence of trau- Mercy recounts this perversion of cultural
matic bonding than non-combatants norms in her account of a ‘young boy’ who
suggests that a qualitative difference exists was forced to chop an old man’s head off.
between children who bear arms and Similarly, mothers are honoured in
children who do not. The research of Betan- Acholi culture and older woman are referred
court, Borisova et al. (2010) confirms this to as ‘Auntie’ – a term of respect. But for the
finding and offers an explanation for this rebels, women are little more than sex slaves.
distinction. They found that child soldiers There is something deeply disturbing in
who had killed or injured others during the Noah’s account of the gang rape of a woman.
war showed long-lasting psychological effects During the incident, he runs away and hides,
(e.g. hostility) that were not present in other fearful that he might be forced by the rebel
children who had witnessed similar atrocities commanders to rape a woman old enough to
but did not participate in them. Thus, perpe- be his mother.
trating violence is a significant variable in the Nancy recounts an incident where the
future psychological recovery of former rebels firstly give a group of distressed
child soldiers and so psychosocial and children some sweets – a normal compas-
mental health interventions for former child sionate and nurturing act of an adult towards
soldiers must address this issue in their treat- a child – before smashing the children’s
ment modules. heads against a log. Gladys describes in
Evidence of traumatic bonding is also of haunting detail how an unnamed rebel girl
concern, for it suggests that a child who has soothes an ill child, gently wraps her in a
been brutalised can internalise the behav- white shawl and then shoots her in the head.
iour and attitudes of the aggressor and This juxtaposition of kindness and unspeak-
perpetrate the same acts on others. Worse able cruelty shows the contradictory and
still, a desire to curry favour and identify incomprehensible nature of the events
more fully with their captors led to some observed; events the children simply cannot
abductees egging on the rebels and taking make sense of and so report as if they are
pleasure in watching the torture they meted normal.
out. Parallels can be drawn with children The children also attempt to make sense
who are originally coerced into criminal of the senseless by internalising the irra-
gangs (Garbarino et al., 2004) but then start tional and arbitrary code of their kidnap-
to perpetuate the same violence that they pers. Nancy describes how ‘the rebels arrived
themselves were subjected to, resulting in a at the gate of the hospital and ordered the
spiral escalation of increasingly brutal watchman to open the gates. He refused and
attacks. they shot him once in the chest and he died’.

90 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Former child soldiers’ traumatic experiences

The implication here is that if he had obeyed violent death of one’s mother was more
the rebels he might have survived. Mercy distressing than massacres, mutilations or
tells of a woman who lied to the rebels about being ordered to kill other people.
the location of a trading post and is killed as The devastating consequences of losing a
a result. There are many incidents where mother in conflict situations was observed by
abductees are killed for being too tired to Schaal and Elbert (2006) and Derluyn et al.
walk or dropping loot that they were (2004). After balancing for the confounding
supposed to carry. In all these descriptions, variables of gender and traumatic exposure,
the children show little surprise or revulsion Schaal and Elbert (2006) found Rwandese
at the rebels’ actions, suggesting their genocide survivors living in child-headed
actions are not ‘senseless’ but logical and households were more likely to suffer from
understandable in the context. Rather than PTSD due to the daily reminders of their
questioning or criticising the rebels, the parents’ deaths. Derluyn et al. (2004) noted
children seem to have internalised this new that the death of a mother led to higher
ethic – an ethic their very lives are avoidance of traumatic reminders among
dependent on being able to follow. adolescent child soldiers in northern
Traumatic grief and the impact of a mother’s
death on a child soldier Relating the past to the present
One of the most disturbing things for the Mercy is one of the few who explicitly relates
children was the experience of returning her experiences with the rebels to her
home to discover that others had died. current life. She refers to the benefits of
Nancy states that: ‘Of all the things I’ve seen therapy, but also talks about having specific
in the bush, the death of my mother upsets nightmares related to incidents such as
me the most. If I’d come back from the bush being chased. There is deep poignancy in
and found my mother alive it would be her attempts to find life lessons from those
better, but as she is dead, life has no meaning experiences. Having seen a young person
and at the time I also felt I’d like to die.’ killed by having his neck broken she is
Nancy witnessed more massacres than any of anxious when she sees boys in school grab-
the others and yet traumatic grief caused her bing each other by the neck, for she knows
more distress than anything else. A clue as to how vulnerable the neck is and how easy it is
why lies in her description of her mother at for someone to be killed.
the beginning of her narrative. She says,
‘I remember my Mum buying clothes, shoes Implications and future research
and books for me and carrying me when directions
I was little. One day my Mum bought me The findings of the studies will now be
running shoes and a special ready-made discussed in the light of their implications
dress for athletics.’ Without her mother to for research and practice in the field, with
provide for her, Nancy’s future is bleak and suggestions for possible future research.
very uncertain with the risk of hunger,
poverty and school drop-out as daily PTSD measures
concerns. When describing the day her family was
Contrary to previous research (Mels et killed, Gladys employs somatic descriptors
al., 2010), this study found that the death of rather than cognitions or feelings to
a mother was one of the most difficult war describe her reactions. She talks of starting
events the children had to cope with. While to ‘shiver’ and ‘headaches and heart-burn’.
it was always thought that the death of a She loses control of her bodily functions and
mother would be a catastrophic loss for any collapses. Her ‘heart was pierced’ and ‘it was
child, it was unexpected to find that the non- very painful’. She refers to ‘feeling dizzy in

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Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

my eyes’ and having ‘fearfulness in me’. This experiences the children have gone through
psychosomatic discourse is a recurring and tailor their interventions to address
feature of all four children’s trauma narra- these specific experiences.
Thus, current measures of PTSD in war- Bereavement modules
affected children need to take account of This study suggests that ‘childhood trau-
these somatic responses in their checklists matic grief’, involving both unresolved grief
and clinical interviews. The Impact of Events and PTSD symptoms (Cohen et al., 2006),
Scale Revised (Weiss & Marmar, 1997) is must be considered when working with child
widely used to measure post-traumatic stress soldiers since symptoms can be both long-
symptoms. Yet, it groups all somatic symp- lasting and highly distressing. Psychosocial
toms into one single item (hyper-arousal) or mental health interventions for war-
and does not ask about shivering, feeling affected children should include a bereave-
cold or feeling pain. Instead it focuses on ment module to help children come to
cognitive responses such as trying not to terms with the loss of a primary caregiver.
think about events, removing images from While some trauma treatment protocols
one’s memory and dealing with feelings include this module (e.g. Cohen et al., 2006
about the traumatic event. This requires a [Trauma Focused Cognitive Behaviour
meta-cognitive ability (i.e. an ability to be Therapy]; Smith et al., 2002 [Teaching
consciously aware of your mental states) not Recovery Techniques]), not all do (e.g.
described by any of the child soldiers in the Schauer et al., 2005 [Narrative Exposure
study. This absence questions the validity of Therapy]; Shapiro, 2005) [EMDR]). In addi-
using meta-cognitive items in PTSD tion, humanitarian aid agencies working
screening tools and suggests that new with former child soldiers need to be aware
research needs to be carried out to design of orphaned children’s increased vulnera-
PTSD measures that reflect more closely the bility in post-conflict situations and prioritise
language children use to describe their these children when providing food, shelter,
responses to traumatic events. health and educational services.

Use of qualitative research to inform Preparing communities for child soldier

quantitative studies returnees
This study found that the war experiences of NGOs responsible for repatriating former
these four child soldiers were multiple and child soldiers must never assume that home-
varied. However, the breadth of experiences coming is always a happy experience for the
the children narrate is not always accounted children. This is because in the children’s
for in quantitative studies that use war expe- post-release narratives there is little sense
rience checklists with former child soldiers that the present is necessarily a happier
from northern Uganda (e.g. Amone P’Olak, place than the past. This may in part be due
2005; Bayer et al., 2007; Derluyn et al., 2004). to the length of time spent with the rebels.
For instance, none of the checklists above For example, Gladys was born in the bush
looked at Ugandan children’s experiences of and spent her first nine years with the rebels.
massacres. Both Derluyn et al. (2004) and She says that in 2005 ‘the rebels brought me
Bayer et al. (2007) omitted to ask about the back home and left me on the way’. There
witnessing or participating in mutilations, a was no happy family reunion for her since
key traumatic experience in three of the four her family had all been killed in the bush.
children’s narratives. Thus, any future Instead, she was taken to live with ‘some old
research or interventions with child soldiers lady’ and put to work digging a field in the
needs to have extensive qualitative research cold without any shoes.
carried out beforehand to know exactly what

92 Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2

Former child soldiers’ traumatic experiences

Veale and Stavrou (2007) describe the soldiers and so it is important to find out if
ambivalence that child soldiers face on their these findings may be generalised to other
return back to their local communities while child soldiers in Africa or children affected
Annan et al. (2009) noted that 34 per cent of by war and conflict outside of Africa.
their sample or 23 LRA abductees reported Secondly, all the narratives were translated
having difficulties with their communities on into English and some words, phrases or
their return. What is often forgotten is the signs may have been lost in translation. It is
plight of ‘returnees’ who have no family or also possible that the interpreter may have
community to return to. As this study shows, subconsciously nuanced the children’s feed-
children who were born in the bush and are back to conform to her understanding of the
then freed or escape from the rebels may be situation. This study also lacked multiple
sent to foster families and continue a life of perspectives on war experiences. No parent
domestic servitude that may be more oppres- or teacher narratives were included for
sive than their chores in the bush. This analysis and the children’s lack of schooling
group of vulnerable children have neither a and cognitive ability may have led to some
family nor a community to return home to inaccurate descriptions, faulty biases and
and are at great risk of recruitment back into incorrect memories of events. Lastly, having
the rebels again. This may in turn make it the same person carry out both the research
more difficult for them to view their past in and the therapy may have affected how freely
negative terms when compared with the the children talked about events they had
present or a perceived similar future. More perpetrated while with the LRA. This role
longitudinal research is required to follow confusion arose from the fact that the thera-
returnee children and examine the difficul- pist (in his role as researcher) provided a
ties and mental health problems they face report to the school on the progress of the
upon returning home. study and may have led to the children not
being as candid as they might have been if
Use of narration to evaluate therapeutic the researcher and therapist were different
interventions people. While recognising these limitations,
This study has shown that therapeutic inter- we nonetheless feel that this study
ventions may be evaluated by analysing narra- contributes to a largely under-studied field
tives. This analysis reveals that young people’s and offers important directions for further
process of sense-making can be problematic research and humanitarian interventions.
or even unhelpful. By comparing pre- and
post-therapeutic narratives, a therapist can Acknowledgments
measure the effectiveness of cognitive This project is indebted to the young people
restructuring to see if a young person and teachers of Laroo boarding school in
construes events differently after therapy. northern Uganda who were involved in the
Narratives leave open the possibility of study, as well as the support and help of John
guiding child soldiers in reconstruing past McMullen and the advice of John Eakin of
traumatic events in alternative and more Queen’s University Belfast.
constructive ways (Wainryb & Pasupathi,
2009), such as turning ‘survivor guilt’ into Address for correspondence
‘survivor purpose and meaning in life’. Paul O’Callaghan
David Kerr Building,
Limitations and challenges of the study Queen’s University Belfast,
The current study has a number of limita- Belfast BT9 5BP,
tions. Findings are based on a small conven- Northern Ireland.
ience sample of former Ugandan child Email:

Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 29 No. 2 93

Paul O’Callaghan, Lesley Storey & Harry Rafferty

Amone-P’Olak, K. (2005). Psychological impact of Ertl, V., Pfeiffer, A. & Schauer, E. (2011). Community-
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