Bibliotherapy in Education and Much More with Dr. Dale and Dr. Bob.

The Founders Story

I sat on a luxuriously important chair, surrounded by oak panelled walls and a grand piano in the founders room of Misericordia University as Dr. Dale Pehrrson (Dr. Dale), a leading academic in the field of stories, told me with pride the story of how the University was founded. The story involved an inspirational lady named Catherine McCauley from Dublin, Ireland who had been adopted into a wealthy family as a child. When she grew up, she saw other orphan children who had not been as fortunate as her who were spending their days on the streets, and she decided to start a school for them. When the Bishop in Dublin saw this, he was impressed and asked her to build a religious order around her work, so she founded the Sisters of Mercy Religious order, for woman to join who wanted to make a difference to the lives of the poor. After many successful years working in Dublin the sisters were invited to bring their work to Pennsylvania, U.S. This is where they built the impressive Misericordia University.

Sisters stand up to The Klu Klux Klan

Once settled in Pennsylvania, the Sisters were not greeted with open arms, instead they gained the attention of the Klu Klux Klan who were not happy with the arrival of foreign religious women in the area. The Klu Klux Klan started to appear outside the building every evening burning crosses and threatening the sisters. However, these sisters from Dublin were not deterred and every evening they would light candles one window at a time creating a ripple effect of lights across the building, symbolising their unity and strength. Eventually their steadfastness overcame the Klu Klux Klan and they stopped appearing at night. The sisters have remained in the area ever since and over the founders room inscribed in clear, proud letters is ‘Here worthy women wait to lift the latch of Wisdom’s door and let you in…’ (Sr. Miriam Gallagher)

ACE Fellowship

Dr. Dale is currently based at Misericordia University on an ACE (American Council of Education) fellowship in higher education leadership skills, where fellows get placed at different Universities around the country. Dr. Dale was attracted to spending her fellowship year at the University because of it’s rich history and it’s strong values. The university's values are religious and still continue the good work that Catherine McCauley started in Dublin. 97% of students who attend the university receive financial support.

Warming Tea

Another value of the university that I fully support is the value of hospitality; the founder Catherine McCauley, believed that everyone who visited the university should be warmly welcomed with a cup of tea. However, the secret of a really welcoming cup of tea is a drop of Irish Whiskey!


As soon as I got off the bus to meet Dr. Dale and her husband, Dr. Bob for my day in Pennsylvania Dr. Bob asked ‘So, you are interested in stories are you?’ This led to a fascinating discussion over the next few hours where I learnt more about their inspirational work over a delicious lunch at Tomasino’s Italian restaurant.

Language Fantasy Approach

We started by discussing some of their joint projects and they informed me of some work they had done on The Language Fantasy Approach.

‘A group process that empowers youngsters as they, guided by a therapist, create a mythological story, as a series of six to eight episodes. The therapist facilitates the group process as heroic characters work together to meet and overcome challenges. Each child in a group of three or four creates a character who behaves courageously and develops heroic qualities. As the story characters learn to co-operate in overcoming challenges so do their creators. Youngsters with peer relationship issues, learning challenges and related fears become increasingly more courageous and embrace their personal and collective experiences, while learning to negotiate, and to cooperate with peers.’

Language fantasy approach: A therapeutic intervention by creating myths with children-Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson & R. S. Pehrsson

The program was initially designed to improve literacy, but it became clear that there were many more benefits than simply academic, this was seen in the response from the parents of children who had taken part in the program:

‘Although they were pleased with the results of the reading program, they often noted that so much more than their child’s reading had improved. Many stated that everything changed and that their child was more co-operative, less tense, less fearful, and much more confident. Overall, they noticed a positive change in the child’s attitude, and improved interactions with peers and family members. ‘

Language fantasy approach: A therapeutic intervention by creating myths with children-Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson & R. S. Pehrsson

Through the characters the children can explore feelings and achieve a sense of liberation as their characters have limited boundaries. One of the few boundaries that the characters do have are that the characters are not allowed to kill themselves or each other and Dr. Dale and Dr. Bob have put a lot of thought into how the work that they do can be safe and beneficial. They discuss these boundaries with the children before they start co-writing the stories.


This is just one of the many programs and techniques that Dr. Dale and Dr.Bob have worked with in relation to story-telling and after lunch I went with Dr. Dale to her office at Misericordia University where we chatted for another few hours about her work before going on a tour of the campus.

I had originally got in touch with Dr. Dale because of her work on the Bibliotherapy in Education project. Dr. Dale explained to me that there are two definitions of Bibliotherapy:

  • Clinical Bibliotherapy is implemented by trained helping professionals dealing with significant emotional or behavioral problems.

  • Developmental Bibliotherapy may be used by teachers and other lay helpers to facilitate normal development and self-actualization with an essentially healthy population.

The Bibliotherapy in Education project falls into the category of Developmental Bibliotherapy and assists practitioners to be able to use literature with competency in their work with clients and students.. Through an online platform, they connect individuals with reading material to promote personal and professional growth. Practitioners can search for books that are based on certain feelings or challenges and that are suitable for certain age groups.

Dr. Dale explained the emotional benefits that can be achieved through reading as a therapeutic tool:

  • Relieving feelings of isolation by learning that others shared their experience (universalization)

  • Gaining comfort or reassurance

  • Finding hope from hearing how others had dealt with similar situations in a positive fashion (an expectation for a good outcome)

  • Being motivated to act differently

  • Temporary escape from pressing problems

  • Emotional release or relief (catharsis)

Clinical Bibliotherapy

Dr. Dale also uses stories in her clinical work with her patients of many different ages and backgrounds, from toddlers to the elderly. She has also written on how the work can benefit young people suffering from specific mental health problems including grief and anorexia. In her work with Joy Robbins on Anorexia and Poetic and Narrative Therapies, she explains that:

'... anecdotal evidence through clinical work supports that narrative and poetry therapies have helped women with AN (Anorexia Nervosa). The approach of distancing by giving AN a proper name and a voice offers women with AN a chance to relinquish self-blame and to avoid totalling descriptions of self. Further, narrative techniques such as poetry assist women in reclaiming their power and in finding encouragement. They can rewrite their living story and have an opportunity to exist more fully.'

Anorexia Nervosa: A Synthesis of Poetic and Narrative Therapies in the Outpatient Treatment of Young Adult Women- Joy M. Robbins & Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson

Dr. Dale also gave an example of using stories with a toddler who had experienced extreme trauma in early life. The toddler was able to name and work with her fears through reading a children’s book called ‘Go Away Big Green Monster’, through repeating the simple phrases in the book, the young girl was able to use this as a coping tool when she felt the monsters approaching her in real life.


Not all children will easily be able to express themselves through reading and writing, so Dr. Dale explained the process of co-storying where a facilitator and child co-write a story. A well-trained facilitator in this technique can provide the right prompts and sentence starters to help a young person who has trouble getting started with expressing themselves through writing.

Much More

It would be impossible to write in one blog post about all the work that Dr. Dale and Dr. Bob have done on providing emotional benefits through reading and writing, but I hope that these few examples give you an idea of their inspirational work. It was an honour to be able to share my ideas with them and they have pointed me in the right direction and fuelled my desire to learn a lot more about their work. If you want to learn more there are many articles here:

A Memory of Christmas Tea

The last picture in this blog, as seen below is Dr. Dale carrying one of her favourite stories ‘A Memory of Christmas Tea’ by Tom Hegg, about a lady who is so busy in the grind of life, that she has neglected a lot of things that are important to her. After finding a tea-set that belonged to her aunt and was the centre of christmas gatherings in her childhood, she realises that she needs to slow down and appreciate what is important again. I had a quick read through the story, and after a busy two weeks navigating the hustle and bustle of New York, I realised that my trip to Misericordia University had provided me a wonderful opportunity to slow down and really stop to appreciate how interesting working with stories is. I realised that I need to make regular opportunities to stop, have a cup of tea and reflect on what an amazing experience I am having. And if there is the opportunity to add a warming drop of whisky to the tea, then all the better!

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