The Little Elf Returns to School: turning to narrative in a pandemic
The ‘Little Elf and the Flowers of Hope and Bravery’ is a therapeutic story written to help primary aged children explore feelings about returning to school during the coronavirus pandemic.
We hope that school staff, parents and carers can use the story to connect with their children and talk about feelings relating to the uncertainty and challenges they are facing.
This is the second instalment of the adventures of the Little Elf. In our first story, ‘The Little Elf who missed his Birthday Party’, The Little Elf explored feelings of sadness about missing his birthday party when all of the elves had to stay at home in their trees because of a mysterious, unknown dark green cloud that descended over their woodland community. We re-join the Little Elf the day before he returns to school, as the cloud is beginning to break.
‘Over the last few days, the Little Elf had noticed that the cloud had become a little smaller, a little less mouldy and a little less dark… The Little Elf felt warm inside too, thinking about how the big, green cloud might be starting to shrink. He had also noticed the grown-up elves changing in the last few days. Their faces looked a little less frowny, a little less worried and a little more relaxed.’The Little Elf and the flowers of Hope and Bravery, pg. 1
The Little Elf is feeling a little worried but also excited about returning to school. He thinks he will probably miss his tree which is so cosy and warm. He meets his friend the Little Pixie who is feeling very differently. Little Pixie often finds school difficult and not having been for some time, he is worried about returning. When he is worried, his wings grow really big and he wants to fly away.
The wise character in this story is the Woodpecker who helps the Little Elf and his friend to find their own ideas about how to cope with their strong emotions. He takes them to see the Flowers of Hope and Bravery, which are special flowers that release magic bubbles to help us in times of trouble. The bubbles help the characters to think about what might help them to feel brave and hopeful enough to return to school.
The Little Elf decides to take a transitional object, a leaf from his tree, in his pocket when he goes to school tomorrow to remind him that his tree will be there waiting for him at the end of the day. The Little Pixie figured out he could make his wings bigger when he felt worried, to let other people know that he needed some help. The story ends with both characters feeling hopeful and brave but still uncertain about what the first day of school will bring.
Writing therapeutic stories during the pandemic
We thought that therapeutic stories would be particularly useful in a time of uncertainty when school staff and parents do not have the answers to many of the questions children are asking them. Therapeutic stories are designed to help children to explore and understand feelings.
Based on narrative psychology, this taps into storytelling as a therapeutic tool. This story is not about problem solving or finding answers, it is about understanding the emotional connection we have with the story and the characters. In Nottinghamshire EPS, we have developed our use of therapeutic stories within the Emotional Literacy Support Assistant (ELSA) training programme for schools, based mainly on the work of Margot Sunderland.
Telling stories to process our experiences is a universal human instinct, evidenced throughout history and across cultures. The use of narrative and metaphor helps us to explore the world in a non-threatening way, to tell our stories and to explore timeless human emotions such as fear, loss and happiness, that we all experience. Stories can help to provide explanations, to suggest options and to explore emotions. As Martin Seligman suggests in his work on optimism, we can’t always control our experiences, but we can control our explanations.
What are the key messages in the story?
The story draws on three psychological concepts and shares these in the form of key messages for children to consider and discuss.
Resilience and Hope
Some people might be feeling isolated, helpless and scared at the moment. We can’t change the situation, but we might be able to change how we feel, think and act about the situation. Feeling hopeful can makes us brave enough to engage with uncertainty. We have tried to tap into the psychology of resilience encapsulated in the words of Jon Kabat Zin ‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.
In the ideas the characters come up with after visiting the Flowers of Hope and Bravery (e.g. taking a leaf from the tree to school as a transitional object and asking for help from others), we also draw on Masten’s well-evidenced assertion that resilience is made up of ordinary rather than extraordinary processes.
Sense of Belonging
This situation is happening to everyone, in different ways, all around the world and there are ways we can still feel connected.
It’s ok to talk about the feelings you are having, and these are normal feelings in an abnormal situation. Different people are having different feelings, at different intensities and at different times, and that is ok.
Reaction to the Story
Having previously used therapeutic stories and helped ELSAs to write their own, I learned a lot about the psychological mechanics of this therapeutic tool from writing my own from scratch and learning from my colleague Jo, a passionate narrative practitioner. Several EP colleagues in our service shared the stories with their own children and found them a useful tool to start conversations and explore feelings.
One of the most exciting outcomes to observe has been the further creativity and narrative storytelling that has developed from the stories as a starting point. Class teachers have been developing videos, puppet shows and a range of interactive follow-up activities based on the adventures of the Little Elf. EP colleagues also showed their creative sides during lockdown. Julie created the character of the Little Pixie with wings that reveal his emotions. Pippa crafted the beautiful illustrations and Kath also developed an audio and animated version of the story. You can download all of these resources for free via our website.
The Little Elf story was created by Jo Marriott, Kath Butterfield, Julie Smith, Órlaith Green and Pippa Pal (illustrator) from Nottinghamshire Educational Psychology Service.
Masten, A. S. (2001). Ordinary magic: Resilience processes in development. American Psychologist, 56 (3), 227–238.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1991). Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life. Psychology.
Sunderland, M. (2018). Draw on Your Emotions. Second edition (illustrations by Nicky Armstrong), Routledge.
Sunderland, M. (2000). Using story telling as a therapeutic tool with children.