A safe space of stories

Reading and exploring picture stories together can help children, including those with communication problems, understand their feelings and support each other, says Sheila Hollins

Teacher in front of group of children at school

It’s hard to learn when you’re hurting inside. That’s why Feelings Groups were created by primary school teacher Marie Grant, incorporating books from my charity Beyond Words.

Feelings Groups help children understand and talk about their feelings, using Beyond Words’ picture stories. They are making a big difference in mainstream and special needs schools, encouraging empathy and reducing loneliness.

Given the crisis in children’s mental health, it’s vital we give all children a safe, supportive environment so they can express how they feel, especially those who may struggle to communicate.

Feelings Groups began as a bereavement group in spring 2018 in a South Yorkshire school where year six teacher Marie Grant realised there was a higher than usual number of bereaved children.

These groups developed into Feelings Groups for pupils enduring any kind of trauma – bereavement, abuse, parental imprisonment or a family break-up – but who did not have the language or a safe space to talk about it. Using pictures from the Books Beyond Words series, which have no text, she brought children together to gain peer support.

This allowed them to discuss the characters and what they might be feeling in their own words, using their creativity and experience to describe what they were seeing.

Over time, the children began to relate the stories to their own lives. They developed the emotional vocabulary to express how they felt and show empathy to their peers. Not only did the children learn how to express themselves but also their school attendance and scholastic achievements improved.

A big family

One year six pupil said: “Feelings Group is like a big family that’s always there for you. They helped me get through it all. It helps with our feelings and mental wellbeing. It is a safe place.”

After Feelings Groups were set up in Grant’s school, SATs went from 17% of children achieving expected standards to 84%.

Inspired by the Feelings Group model, Gloucestershire special schools have started using our pictures to support children and young people with learning disabilities to explore situations and emotions they find frightening or difficult to understand.

Early outcomes have been very positive, with pupils increasingly able to recognise and describe their emotions and experiences.

Pupils with learning disabilities often have to cope with trauma as well as communication issues, and trauma limits abilities to engage with others. Through Feelings Groups, learners are empowered to tell their own story and develop a narrative using their own language.

In Gloucestershire, sessions usually run for around 40 minutes and are adaptable to school and communication styles, with time to process and explore language.

They helped me get through it all. It helps with our feelings and mental wellbeing

Books used include Making Friends, Feeling Cross and Sorting It Out, Ginger is a Hero, Mugged, Finding a Safe Place From Abuse and Loving Each Other Safely.

Once set up, the groups are cost-effective to maintain. The only investment schools need to make is in staff time for training.

A licence for the BWStoryApp, which contains all our stories and many shorter scenarios, is on sale. Membership of Beyond Words, to provide e-learning and allow discussion between schools running Feelings Groups, is being planned.

Our BBC Radio 4 appeal this year raised just over £20,000, enabling us to roll out training. We welcome enquiries from schools about this.

We know from our experiences of co-creating books and running book clubs for people with learning disabilities how transformative the power of reading images can be. n

Baroness Sheila Hollins is the founder and chair of Beyond Words