Journaling and diary-keeping have been used for a very long time by people to express their inner lives. From the therapeutic point of view, writing provides a safe and private way to begin or expand personal growth and supplement psychotherapy, as well as encouraging reading and writing which supports learning in the school setting.
Diary-keeping is generally considered a way to record feelings, thoughts and events in a person’s life, and journaling is generally considered the recording of ideas on specific topics and exploring them in greater depth. A main objective in teaching students how to keep a diary or journal is to help them learn how writing can be an important means of exploring thoughts and expressing feelings while developing emotional literacy. (It is important to clarify that a student’s diary is a private matter, and a journaling assignment is a learning opportunity overseen by the teacher or therapeutic professional.)
In this article, we focus on the prescription of journaling not only as a creative and therapeutic activity in itself but also as a warm-up that can deepen into an experiential vignette of simple psychodrama or sociodrama.
Journaling may involve specific prompts – for instance, write about any incident that occurred during the day, how you felt and how you responded in words and action. Prompts provide a focus so that the young person can explore a particular topic that is designed to promote school learning or personal awareness.
However, the helper may also encourage what Karen calls “free-style” writing – writing about whatever you wish. This choice may be especially helpful as an assessment – what will the chosen topic be? – as well as give the young person autonomy over their choice of writing.
Diaries and role reversal
Children’s book authors often use the diary method to tell stories, such as the popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series, “Jedi Academy” and “Dork Diaries.” Historical fiction like the “Dear America” or “Royal Diaries” series help kids put history into perspective by placing the reader in the main character’s shoes.
Journaling may also integrate popular press books, like “When They Bully: Rainbow Girl,” and classic books like the beloved “The Diary of Anne Frank” that have certain themes that young people will quickly identify with.
English and literature teachers often include The Diary of Anne Frank in the curriculum as a history assignment. The diary, written by a young Jewish girl while in hiding with her family during the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands, also may be used for therapeutic purposes.
For instance, reading excerpts from Anne’s diary can introduce students to the process of personal writing, particularly when living in a traumatic environment. Exploring questions like these can encourage imagination, thoughtfulness and empathy:
- “Can you imagine how you might feel in Anne’s situation?”
- “Are there any ways in which the pandemic lockdowns, mask mandates and being kept out of school (tele-school) may have given you more understanding of Anne’s feelings?”
- “What similarities and what differences do you see between yourself and Anne?”
As psychodramatists, we often use role reversal and other psychodramatic techniques in working with narratives. As an educator, Linda has used role reversal to help students gain understanding and insight into historical or literary figures. This allows the young person to step into the role, speak from the “I” rather than the “she” and discover more about the character and themselves.
Sometimes follow-up narratives may be employed. For example, in addition to “The Diary of Anne Frank,” there is another book, “Anne Frank, Family Secrets, the Untold Story of Her Sister Margot.” Margot, who was Anne’s older sister, also kept a diary that was lost, meaning that her story was never told in the first person.
Telling students what we know of Margot and having them role reverse with her develops imagination. Then, assigning a journal entry about what Margot may have written will provide the opportunity for students who felt unseen or unheard to express their feelings through Margot.
Older students may watch the film “Freedom Writers” to learn and practice stages of journaling by viewing the film in segments and following the progress of the students in the film who are angry members of warring gangs.
The film stars Hilary Swank and is based on the innovative work of Erin Gruwell, the teacher and founder of the Freedom Writers Foundation, who wrote the book “The Freedom Writers Diary.” In the film, students who initially view each other as enemies experience a shift in their feelings when they tell their stories.
This shift occurs when the teacher uses a sociometric intervention called step to the line which reveals that all students had lost someone to gang violence. This shifting of the interpersonal dynamics paved the way for Swank’s character to educate the students about the history and the meaning of the Holocaust in a profound and unexpected way. Again, providing an opportunity for students to journal about what they imagine the characters are thinking and feeling eases them into the exploration of their feelings.
This way of introducing journaling is particularly helpful to students who are reticent to write or to express themselves verbally. Because journaling is so versatile it can be used in a variety of subject areas.
General suggestions on journaling
- Warm up to the journaling process. Having a few moments of meditation, dancing or simple yoga postures allows preparation for journaling, in addition to taking time to explore the materials to journal or talking about the writing topic.
- Encourage writing by hand rather than by typing. A 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that regions of the brain associated with learning were more active when participants completed a task by hand instead of on a keyboard. In addition, the study’s authors found that writing by hand frequently promoted “deep encoding” in a way that typing does not.
- Refrain from critiquing spelling, grammar, writing style or punctuation. Make it clear that the activity is designed to express feelings and thoughts for therapeutic purposes.
- If the young person insists that he/she/they are uncomfortable with writing, give options for bullet journaling, where the focus is on words, phrases, lists and other bits of short writing.
- Give the young person the option to write and read aloud an excerpt from the journal to the helping professional or group — but NEVER insist that a journal entry be read aloud if the child resists. Offer the option of having the helping professional or a trusted peer read aloud.
- When reading happens, there is no criticism by listeners; instead, say, “Thank you.
- The reading of an excerpt may produce an additional prompt, to write more about a part of the original writing.
- The helper may design prompts to suit therapeutic goals or borrow prompts from online resources. Check out Pinterest for hundreds of options for journaling activities.
- Include art materials and art processes for journaling options, such as providing colored pens, markers, and collage materials for the cover as well as inside pages.
- Make a book by using sheets of thick or interesting paper, such as rectangles cut from brown paper bags – which may be stapled, hand sewn, or machine sewn for the binding – or several greeting cards that are folded inside of each other and fastened together. Older students might make a handmade book with the help of an art teacher or art therapist.
- Make a “smash book,” a kind of a modified scrapbook in which you can write, draw, paint and glue on embellishments and memorabilia. (You can find instructions for making smash books online.)
Integrate other media into the journaling process:
- Watch a movie or YouTube or TikTok video or listen to music and write from the viewpoint of the main character in the media of choice or one of the other characters.
- Using a deck of oracle cards, such as Louise Hay’s “Power Thoughts for Teens” or “Empowering the Teenage Soul Oracle Deck,” have the young person pick a card from the deck, examine the picture and message on the card and write about it. Or you may make your own “cards” out of magazine pictures that are glued to card stock.
- Use music or sound as a warm-up to writing. This may include live or recorded music, playing drums or other percussion instruments in a group setting, or using sound tools such as singing bowls or gongs. Music may also play while the child or teen is writing.
- Journaling may also involve taking photos or watching videos. Instagram, the app which focuses on photos and captions, is one option or “vlogs,” or video blogs, may be created on a theme or for the prompt of “A day in my life.” A follow-up option may be to write about the process of making the photo or video.
Focused journaling prompts can serve as a starting point for the development and practice of more refined and expressive skills while supporting the maturation of emotional intelligence. Educators and helping professionals who wish to use psychodrama and sociodrama to supplement journaling are advised to find training to learn the basics of the method and its techniques.
Karen Carnabucci, LCSW, TEP, is a board-certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy and the founder of the Lancaster School of Psychodrama and Experiential Psychotherapies in Lancaster, Pa. She is also certified as a facilitator in Family and Systemic Constellations. Learn more at www.realtruekaren.com.
Linda Ciotola, M.Ed., TEP, is a board-certified trainer, educator and practitioner of psychodrama, sociometry and group psychotherapy and a certified trainer in the Therapeutic Spiral Model, a psychodramatic model for trauma survivors. She has a background in education, having taught at all levels of fifth grade through university and adult education and is a certified health coach and yoga instructor. She is the co-creator of ACTS, an online training program for using psychodrama with survivors of trauma. Learn more at www.healing-bridges.com.
Karen and Linda are authors of the book “Healing Eating Disorders with Psychodrama and Other Action Methods: Beyond the Silence and the Fury.” They have published journal articles and occasionally offer trainings together.