Psychology Wiki

Life story work is a psychotherapeutic technique, most often used in social work intervention with children and adults designed to recognise their past, present, and future. It is a structured approach to recording and undertanding the details of a persons life to enable them to develop strategies to deal with the aspects of their past that are difficult for them

It is prominently used with children who will be adopted, people with learning difficulties and older adults as part of reminiscence therapies.

  • Life story books are often incorporated into this work to give a visual aid and reminder of important events or feelings. Through talking and writing (or having written down for them) people can build a narrative of their own history which enables them to build an account in an autobiography of their own experience. Used with orphans, those with extensive fostering or institutional care histories, or those with many changes an life events this process helps them deal with not only their past but to help them think and understand their present, and to plan for their future.

The process can help people develop self esteem through understanding that they were perhaps not responsible for past events, they do not need to take the blame for being rejected by their parents, for their sexual abuse etc.

The life story book can stay with the person and can be used with later staff and carers to help them understand the issues being worked on and provide continuity of care.


Life story work as a concept has dated back to at least the 1960s, possibly further.[1] The application of the concept to children in foster care and adoption was discussed in academia from the early 1980s onward.[2] Life story work is well documented in the UK and Australia[3] and has been incorporated into UK Adoption legislation. More recently it has been used in Eastern Europe.[2]

Preparing and planning

Who should be involved Life story work?

  • Social worker - Social workers should take the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that children who are expected to be adopted or to be in long term care have a life story book.[4] Social workers often hold the most factual information about the child's background and reasons for becoming Looked After or Adopted and it is important that they provide this information for use in the life story work.[5]
  • Birth Parents - Birth Parents are a critical part of the life story work with adopted children as they can offer information to construct a family tree and provide pictures or descriptions of family members.[7]
  • Any other willing adult - Some suggest that life story work can be completed by any adult who is able and willing to spend time with the child and build a trusting relationship.[7] However, some feel that some professionals such as student social workers, trainees and foster carers should not be encouraged to complete the life story work as they may not have the experience, training or ability to support the child with life story work over a long enough period of time.[8] The person's needs must be taken into account regarding the gender, ethnicity, religion or culture of the adult assisting with the life story work.[6]


Life story books

Life story books have been a part of adoption social workers practice for over 30 years; though the quality of them has varied.[9] It should take around 12 months to complete it[2] though it may need to be updated as the child’s understanding develops.[10] Life story work is distinct from life story books, the process of life story work is to assist the person to understand and internalise the feelings associated with their past. However, a life story book does not need to involve the person and can be done by others, this is especially the case when done by social workers before placing a child for adoption. Rees & Goldberg state that a life story book should not include professional reports, later life letters, structured chronology (though this could be recorded in another, more child friendly, format), photo album and should not be an extension of the foster carer's memory book.[9] However, life story books can often be seen as complementary or as an end product to life story work.[6] A life story book is a system of recording information to answer the questions the participant may have in the future.[9] It is an overview of a person’s life to help them recall memories and understand their past.[11] A child who does not fully understand their history is at risk of developing an imagined story of fictional family members leading to a misplaced sense of identity as they mature.[12] Often, life story books are written from the perspective of the Past-Present though it has been suggested that writing it in this way causes the child anxiety as past issues may be too painful to come to terms with. Therefore, it has been suggested that a new approach: ‘Present – Past – Present – Future’ allows the child to feel that their life with their current family is secure and symbolically encourages the child to feel contained by their family.[9]

Interactive approach

It has been identified that ICT can assist with the presentation of life story work such as amending colour schemes to make it personal to the individual, and correcting spelling or grammatical errors. Hardware peripherals such as scanners, digital cameras and printers are also useful.[13] Computer programmes have been developed to complete life story work with children in a way which they feel comfortable and do not find threatening.[14]

Digital life story work

The importance of digital technologies and digital media in the lives of children and young people has seen a growth in interest of the ability of these technologies to support self-reflection and build narrative coherence. In seeking to make the benefits of conventional life story work accessible to adolescents, Hammond and Cooper[15]integrate the ideas of narrative psychology and build upon established approaches of undertaking life story work with younger children. Recognising that adolescents communicate differently than younger children, Hammond and Cooper incorporate a range of accessible digital technologies to provide interactive and practical activities which aim to support practitioners to empower adolescents to take the lead in the creation of, and reflection upon, their own autobiographical narratives.


Creating stories for children that can create a link between their lives and behaviour and that of a fiction character can develop their understanding of why they think and feel the way they do.[16]

Service User Groups


The Children's Rights Director in England found that 71% of adopted children thought it was important to know about their lives before adoption. Specific questions that these children wanted answers to included why they were adopted and why they could not stay with birth families.[17]

The Adoption and Children Act 2002 outlines the Local Authorities' and Adoption Agencies' expectations to provide information regarding individual's history upon request.[18] Guidance relating to this Act specifically mentions Life Story Work to help them 'explore and understand their early history and life before their adoption'.[19]


Some Local Authorities in the UK have developed procedures which outline the need for all children who are Looked After to have life story work completed with them; usually in conjunction with the social worker and foster carer. Much of the foster carer's role is to collect items for the child's memory box or book and to encourage the child to participate.[6][20]


For more details on this topic, see Reminiscence therapy.

Life story work is used for people with dementia to support them to be able to tell the story of their life and to create visual tools to help their memories of past events.[21] Present and future goals or plans should be identified.[22][23]

It has also been found to be beneficial as a therapeutic tool for family members to assist in reviewing the person’s life and enabling them to remember the person prior to the onset of dementia.[24] Staff and carers of the person may also find it a useful tool to help them better care for a person. Furthermore, research shows that families feel reassured about staff care after life story work has been completed.[25] It was also identified by staff to be a fun and interesting activity to do with dementia patients.[24] Life story work should identify a person’s achievements throughout life so this can allow the person with dementia to feel proud of themselves.[24] Life story work has been linked to person centred/individualised care of people with dementia[25][26] and national UK guidelines make particular reference to staff being able to learn about individuals' life stories.[27]

Learning disabilities

An Australian study of ex-prisoners with 'intellectual' disabilities suggested that life story work may be beneficial to allow this group of people to better communicate their experiences.[28] It has also been identified as a tool to promoting self-advocacy.[29]

Criticism of life story work

Research conducted within in-patient older adult mental health wards found that there was sometimes a shortage of qualified staff to complete the work and a reluctance to get involved due to other commitments and responsibilities. There were also limits to the amount of time they had available to complete the work and access to resources such as computers and scanners was identified as a problem.[30]

See also


  1. Aust, Patricia H. (September/October 1981). Using the Life Story Book in Treatment of Children in Placement. Child Welfare 60 (8): 535.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Walker, Tony Ryan, Rodger (2003). Life story work, 2nd rev. ed., London: British Agencies for Adoption and Fostering.
  3. (2012) Levesque, Roger J. R. Encyclopedia of adolescence, New York, NY: Springer.
  4. Blake, Jo, Neil Candlish, Maureen Cavanagh, Tom Murphy, Fiona MacKirdy, Katherine Peddie, Julie-Anne Saunders, Vivienne White Life story work with Looked After Children. Children Looked After Policy and Procedures. Bedfordshire County Council. URL accessed on 13 December 2012.
  5. Rose, Richard; Terry Philpot, Mary Walsh (2005). The child's own story : life story work with traumatized children, [Online-Ausg.]., 49–50, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 Life Story Work. North Somerset Council. URL accessed on 13 January 2013. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Somerset" defined multiple times with different content
  7. 7.0 7.1 Ryan, Tony; Walker, Rodger (2007). Life story work : a practical guide to helping children understand their past, New ed., 15–17, London: British Association for Adoption & Fostering.
  8. Nottinghamshire County Council Life Story Work and Preparation for Adoption. URL accessed on 13 December 2012.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 Goldberg, Joy Rees ; foreword by Alan Burnell ; illustrated by Jamie (2009). Life story books for adopted children : a family friendly approach, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  10. Nicholls, Edith A.; Nicholls, created by Edith A. (2005). The new life work model : practice guide, Lyme Regis: Russell House.
  11. Fahlberg, Vera I. (2003). A child's journey through placement, New ed., London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  12. Kammer, Betsy Keefer and Jayne E. Schooler ; illustrated by Jack G. and Kristi Anne (2000). Mystery history : helping your foster-adopted child understand the past, Westport: Bergin & Garvey.
  13. Using ICT in activities for people with dementia. Social Care Institute for Excellence. URL accessed on 13 January 2013.
  14. Ahmad, Afshan, Betts, Bridget My Life Story CD Rom. British Association of Adoption & Fostering. URL accessed on 13 December 2012.
  15. Hammond, S. P. & Cooper, N. J. (2013) Digital life story work: Using technology to help young people make sense of their experiences. London: BAAF.
  16. Lacher, Denise B.; Nichols, Todd; May, Joanne C. (2005). Connecting with kids through stories using narratives to facilitate attachment in adopted children, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
  17. Morgon, Roger (2006). About Adoption: A Children's Views Report, 28–29, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, UK: Office of the Children's Rights Director: Commission for Social Care Inspection.
  18. Adoption and Children Act 2002: Chapter 38. The Stationary Office, UK. URL accessed on 13 December 2012.
  19. Department for Education Adoption Statutory Guidance: The Adoption and Children Act 2002. Department for Education. URL accessed on 13 December 2012.
  20. Telford & Wrekin Council 4.13.4 Life Story Work. URL accessed on 8 February 2013.
  21. Life Stories. Dementia Care. URL accessed on 13 January 2013.
  22. Bruce, E.; Hodgeson, S.; Schweitzer, P. (1999). Reminiscing with people with dementia : a handbook for carers, London: Age Exchange.
  23. Gibson, F., Carson, Y. (May/June 2010). Life Story Work in Practice; Aiming for Enduring Change. Journal of Dementia Care 18 (3): 20–22.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 McKeown, Jane, Clarke, Amanda; Ingleton, Christine; Ryan, Tony; Repper, Julie (1 June 2010). The use of life story work with people with dementia to enhance person-centred care. International Journal of Older People Nursing 5 (2): 148–158.
  25. 25.0 25.1 Thompson, R (2010). Realising the potential: Developing life story work in practice.. Foundation of Nursing Studies Dissemination Series 5 (5).
  26. Life Story Work. Dementia UK. URL accessed on 13 January 2013.
  27. Dementia: Supporting people with dementia and their carers in health and social care. National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence & Social Care Institute for Excellence. URL accessed on 13 January 2013.
  28. Ellem, K, Wilson, J (2012). Life Story Work & Social Work Practice: a case study with ex-prisoners labelled as having an intellectual disability. Australian Social Work 63 (1): 67–82.
  29. Meininger, Herman (September 2006). Narrating, Writing, Reading: Life Story Work as an Aid to (Self) Advocacy. British Journal of Learning Disabilities 34 (3): 181–188.
  30. Thompson, R. (2010). Realising the potential:Developing life story work in practice. Foundation of Nursing Studies Dissemination Series 5 (5).

Further reading

  • Ryan T. & Walker, R. (1999) Life Story Work. London:British Agencies for Adoption andd Fostering