Therapeutic Storytelling – Workshop by Didi Ananda Devapriya

Report by Ada Merz

Stories are fundamental and play a special role in NHE. As a collector of stories, Didi Ananda Devapirya used stories not only for children but for adults. She found story telling the easiest and most memorable way to share spiritual teachings. She was attracted to people’s real experiences and to the Buddhist tradition that are full of stories about the relationship between the spiritual master and the students. Stories, especially spiritual stories contain so many different layers of meaning. They have something magical that you can keep coming back to all throughout your life. The meaning in stories is fluid and changing. Every time that you hear it, it might resonate with you on a different level and you will discover a new meaning, a new interpretation of it. We all have experienced such stories in our lives. Even our own life, how we understand ourselves is a story. We are constantly telling the story of our life. At different points in our life, as our understanding changes, we can tell the same story in a different way. When we feel ourselves to be a victim, the story is told with anger, and later on we can tell the same story as a humor story. We are constantly reinterpreting and understanding our lives through narratives. Even what we are thinking and how we are sharing our experiences with people is a form of narrative.

In education, as a learner what you remember are the stories. They can stay with you for years, while the information comes in and goes out. Stories grow inside of you and give you meaning. Stories can feed us on a deeper level. This is the message in the story of Frederic the Mouse who before the winter set in, collected the ‘rays of the sun and the colors of the flowers’ to brighten and warm the hearts of his mice friends during the dark winter days. These were his winter supplies. This particular childhood story stayed with Didi. Stories like this can feed the mind. Every one of us has childhood stories that resonated with us and we still remember them. Stories are magical and we can use this magic in education; not only for children but adults. Stories can contain many different layers of meaning and they continue to work inside our mind. They contain powerful messages for our life. Information doesn’t have that stickiness.

There are ways to create stories for classroom needs. You can utilize your personal experiences as a resource for storytelling. Now how to design stories that facilitate an inclusive environment and channelize behavior problems? So much of life happens on a deeper level. It is interesting that at the deepest level you have the narrative, the myth.

“A people are as healthy and confident as the stories they tell themselves. Sick storytellers can make nations sick. Without stories, we would go mad. Life would lose its moorings or orientation… Stories can conquer fear, you know. They can make the heart larger.” ― Ben Okri

Stories provide a mirror for the world, a mirror to see ourselves and understand ourselves better. A lot of discrimination is not overt. It’s implicit. The experience of certain children is not visible. So many materials for children have implicit assumptions e.g. many of the books might depict the situation of father, mother, brother, sister, the idea of the family. Children who don’t fit into this paradigm have difficulty in finding themselves or having their experience validated. That is the sensitivity you need in choosing stories. A lot of the stories that were handed down until recently do not have this awareness. And so, there is still a lot of invisibility of certain type of experiences. No matter how enlightened a society might be, it is difficult to create a story for everybody. But we do not need to limit ourselves to prefabricated stories. As a teacher, we know exactly the experiences going on for each and every child. We can tailor things according to the needs in our class. We can look for specific ways to create that mirror so that all children can find their experiences reflected and understand their place in the world and move away from certain states of uneasiness and show them potential pathways towards healing and towards feelings of inclusion.

Simple structures for designing therapeutic stories for children

The three elements for designing a story:

  • Metaphor
  • Journey
  • Resolution
The metaphor

The metaphor is the starting point, the seed. This is where you have to do some poetic work. The story cannot be too literal, otherwise it doesn’t have the poetry and also if it is too literal it becomes obvious to the child that it is about them. That will close them down and also lead to finger pointing by the other children. For example, for a pinching child, a crab would be a good metaphor. So, start your story by looking for a metaphor that fits a real situation or problem in your class. Your metaphor can be an animal or other entity to represent that. The story has to resonate poetically with the situation and does not need to be exactly like it. It is a lot easier to let the child see the situation in the mirror rather than tell them directly how they should behave. You have two major metaphors: One that represents the problem and the other is the helping metaphor, an element that represents wisdom. It can be something magical, a type of creature or fairy. In selecting metaphors you can choose objects from nature such as shells, stones or from fairy tales. Avoid stories that are too literal. They are moralizing and written from an adult’s point of view. You need to have a metaphor that captures the child’s imagination. Therapeutic stories are not only therapeutic for the child but also for the teacher because you have to change your frame of reference. Instead of reacting you empathize and try to find out where the child is coming from, what is the cause of their problem. You come down to their level. This reframing helps you to choose a metaphor that resonates with them.

The journey

There has to be some conflict and tension, some state of imbalance. You have to go from imbalance to balance; you need to have obstacle metaphors that increase the tension. Tension can also be created through repetition like in the story of the big radish, where more and more characters are brought in to pull the radish out of the ground, or through repetitive rhymes like in the story called A Dark Dark Tale where the word ‘dark’ keeps being repeated to build up the tension. At the end of this story there is a release of tension, a resolution.


This is about finding a way for the situation to come back into balance. Do not ask questions after finishing the story – like did you like the story or what should the hero have done etc. This takes the magic away from the story.

Self-made stories

If you make your own story, the child will feel your love. As an example, Didi read out The Jeweled Web, a beautiful story she made for a child with special needs. For this child who is slower in her movements and needs more time to get things done, a spider with only six legs was used as a metaphor. The spider being slow in building her web, was teased by her peers. The helping metaphor was a wise owl who encouraged and praised her for her dedication in making a beautiful web.

A recommended story is the Red Pony for ADHD children by Susan Perrow, a well-known Australian writer of therapeutic children stories. The metaphor for the child is a red pony who gallops, is restless, kicking, moving and the helping metaphor is a brush. When the red pony gets brushed, the brush is really happy and the pony becomes all quiet. The actual child in the classroom for whom this story was written even volunteered to be the red pony and get brushed. It was very settling for him to get massaged by the other children.

The following is a good resource book that will help you to create your own therapeutic stories. Therapeutic Storytelling: 101 Healing Stories for Children by Susan Perrow. She has also just published a new collection of therapeutic stories that are wonderful for use in the classroom: An A-Z Collection of Behaviour Tales: From Angry Ant to Zestless Zebra