About Kashfi Khan and Ezra Hewing
Kashfi Khan works with children who speak English as an additional language (EAL) aged 5 to11 years old at Hounslow Town Primary School, London.
Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at the mental health charity, Suffolk Mind.
In our work, we’ve found that introducing stories or metaphors, including the children’s stories written by Idries Shah, helps children to overcome barriers which may be contributing to difficulties with learning, behaviour and even the symptoms of children’s mental ill health. We’ve found that this strategy can be particularly powerful, especially when change may be resistant to appeals to reason alone. By flying under the radar of emotion and analytical thinking, the patterns contained within a story can shift children’s perspective, to let them ‘own’ the meaning for themselves.
Kashfi works with children who speak English as an additional language (EAL) aged 5 to11 years old at Hounslow Town Primary School. “For the children I work with, reading can be a challenge if they are new to English. When they hear stories written in both English and the language spoken in their home, like the bilingual editions of Shah’s children’s stories, it can motivate children to learn new words. Parents, too, benefit from reading and telling stories to their children, and also knowing that it’s okay with the teachers if at first they tell the stories in the language spoken in the home.
“Idries Shah’s stories are also recommended to parents and children because they allow children to think on their own, learn problem-solving skills, predict the outcome of an action, and support the development of social and emotional attributes like empathy.”
Shah’s stories can work to bridge cultures. A father who read The Farmer’s Wife with their child, told Kashfi, “I knew the story from my country,” having come to the UK from India. After sharing the tale of problem solving and an unexpected solution, the father said, “My son has become more willing to attempt maths problems alone,” while previously he had insisted on his parent’s help, before having a go without them.
The Lion Who Saw Himself in the Water tells the story of a lion, who is scared to drink for fear of the lion he can see, reflected back at him in a pool of water. When children at Kashfi’s school were asked what they learnt from this story, children replied that “no matter what, you should never give up quickly” and to “be brave”. After hearing the story, the following day a boy said, “I’m not afraid of the dark now,” For the first time, he’d been able to go to sleep with the bedroom lights switched off.
A girl, lacking confidence with her reading, persevered to create a news report about the importance of water for the inhabitants of a Tudor village. When asked what had inspired her, she smiled at the toy lion in the corner of the classroom, a reminder of the importance of water and the lion’s persistence in seeking it.
The Lion Who Saw Himself in Water has also been shared with children at a primary school in Ipswich, where Ezra’s work with Suffolk Mind helps children learn about emotional well-being and to support those experiencing mental ill health. “Up until age seven, children, especially if they are distressed, may struggle to tell the difference between real and imagined fears, and anxiety around separation from parents, as well as phobias and worries, are quite common.”
Following a special school assembly, where parents came to hear about what their children had been learning, Ezra received feedback from a mother that, “My child has been struggling with anxious feelings at bedtime. After the school assembly, we practiced a calming breathing technique we’d learnt, and then retold The Lion Who Saw Himself in Water together. I was surprised and relieved when he went to sleep easily for the first time in ages.”
A challenge we sometime have when using stories in education settings, is that all too often teachers are expected to provide the rationale or explanation of the meaning of a story to justify telling it. The danger then is that, by explaining away the meaning of a story, the child loses the opportunity to discover it for themselves and allow the story’s kernel to enrich the patterns through which they experience life. A story which captures the tendency to over-analyse in search of meaning concerns the boy who wanted to know how flies work: after dissecting a fly which he had captured under a glass, he was left with a collection of legs and wings and body parts, but couldn’t understand where the fly had gone.
Of course teachers are under huge pressure – any stress or anxiety they experience needs to be supported too. And so, to put them at ease, we will always send them lesson plans and explanations ahead of a visit from Suffolk Mind. But sometimes to introduce a story, we need to use a Trojan horse approach. Neem the Half-Boy, is the tale of a boy who, in order to become ‘whole’ must overcome challenges – including a dragon reluctant to stop breathing fire over people. Neem comes to a compromise with the dragon by agreeing to provide an oven which the dragon can use to cook its food – thereby sparing people from his fiery breath. However, rather than dwelling upon the meaning of the story, once it has been told, we follow it with the introduction of breathing techniques to lower stress and calm anxiety or anger – alternatives to breathing fire over people! In this way the children – and the teachers and parents – get to learn a useful stress management tool, while at the same time the pattern in the story is left alone to work its magic.
A traveller stopping near a village for the night lit a huge bonfire which attracted the attention of the villagers like moths. The villagers were able to enjoy the warmth of the fire, while the traveller retreated to a safe distance to read a book by candlelight, free from interruption. Our experiences show that, while reading Idries Shah’s stories can help children with reading and writing, the stories can also help them transcend fixed patterns of emotion and behaviour which may be getting in the way of learning and emotional well-being too.