Differences in narrative style and structure between European American and African American children: Implications for storytelling in psychotherapy

Keith Henderson Crabtree


Ethnic differences in language usage between the clinician and child often represent an obstacle to effective psychotherapy. A clinician, for example, might perceive the psychotherapeutic narrative of a child belonging to another ethnic group as incoherent and then make an erroneous judgment about the child's psychological functioning. S. Michaels (1981) documented the existence of ethnic differences in the narratives of first-graders in Sharing Time (ST), a recurring literacy-related activity in many first and second grade classrooms in the United States that requires students to tell about important events or cherished belongings. The European American students predominantly told topic centered narratives that developed a single topic and followed a clear temporal order. In contrast, the African American students predominantly told topic associating narratives that developed themes by anecdotal association and non-linear organization. The present investigation extended this research by eliciting narratives with a procedure analogous to psychotherapy. The sample included 40 first-grade students, 20 European American and 20 African American children, who attended a YMCA childcare program in Louisville, Kentucky. The story-elicitation procedure was derived from Gardner's (1971) Mutual Storytelling Technique (MST), and the resulting narratives were analyzed with the Narrative Style Index (NSI; L. B. Cross, 1993). In addition, the temporal order and elaboration/complexity of the narratives were analyzed. The results indicated that the ethnic groups did not significantly differ from each other on any of the measures. Of the 40 children, 67.5% told topic centered or very topic centered stories and 10% told topic associating or very topic associating stories. The remaining 22.5% told stories with a mixture of topic centered and topic associating characteristics. Thus, African American first-grade students were not limited to a topic associating narrative style. The findings suggest that the typical European American clinician would be able to appreciate the MST story of the typical African American child in treatment and respond with a corrective narrative. Nevertheless, clinicians need to be prepared to recognize and appropriately respond to children in treatment who tell MST stories using a topic associating narrative style.