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Jackie Baldwin jackie@story-lovers.com
Kate Dudding kate@katedudding.com

Innovative Projects

Storytelling for Emotionally Challenged Children by David Ponkey

Keywords: elementary school, middle school, high school, disruptive behavior, peer group influence, storytelling techniques, self-esteem, solving social problems


While working for 20 years as a residential counselor with abused children in the Sunny Hills Children’s Center, as well as associated group homes and schools throughout Marin County, California, David Ponkey became interested in the effect that storytelling had on their behavior. His repertoire includes:

  • The Kalevala: The Mythology of Finland
  • The Eddas: Tales of the Viking Gods
  • The Ossian Cycle: Stories from Ancient Ireland
  • Tales of King Arthur: Focusing on the lesser known Knights and Ladies
  • Beowulf: The great Anglo-Saxon epic
  • The Volsunga Saga: The basis for Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas
  • The Iliad and The Odyssey: The foundations of the Western literary tradition
  • Stories of the Greek Gods: The mythic underpinnings of Greek culture

Clients with even the most severe behavioral issues would enter a calm, almost meditative state during his performances. Of course, it may take a child, new to the program, a few weeks to work past the attitude that storytelling is “for little kids” but they quickly came to recognize the difference between “The Three Little Pigs” and “The Iliad”.

Eventually Ponkey began to pursue the art of storytelling as a full time occupation, and was drawn again to special needs populations. Ponkey has come to believe that high quality storytelling performances are the “pill” for attention deficit disorder. It is a rare child who will not fall under the spell of Beowulf of the Viking Gods. They will sit motionless, with an open posture and a transfixed gaze, picturing the tales in their minds. Over time, this open attitude will work its way into other aspects of their lives, giving them the confidence and knowledge that they can focus if they are properly engaged.

Further, the old tales can give the children a wider cultural framework for their own issues. Abused children are frequently isolated from the rest of society, and come to feel that they are alone in a hostile world. While listening to the classic stories, they are given an opportunity to see that their challenges are universal. Even King Arthur was taken from his home as an infant, mistreated by his foster brother and threatened by powers beyond his control. Hearing of Arthur’s triumphs and tragedies offers the children a sense of perspective for their own struggles.

Ponkey has found that lessons in History, Biology, Geography, Astronomy and a wide variety of other disciplines can be easily taught when anchored to a story. Once children have been exposed to different cultures through stories, they are much more interested in the context from which those stories arose. Most importantly, though, stories offer children a metaphorical language with which to express feelings that may be too hard to articulate in any other format.

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Copyright 2007 by Jackie Baldwin and Kathryn Eike Dudding. All Rights Reserved.