We talk a lot about using visual strategies to support language skills. We have talked about other visual strategies in the past – see this post about why visuals help, this post about signing, a handout on the freebies page, and this post about visual timetables. Today, I’m going to talk about social stories. This is not something I consider myself to be an expert on at all, so this is just an overview with suggestions of where to find out more.
Social stories are used to help children who struggle with social situations. For example, you could use a social story to help a child with lining up, losing a game or staying in their bed at night-time. They are frequently used with children on the autistic spectrum but can be useful for other children too. The system was designed by Carol Gray, who has a website all about social stories with a wealth of information on it here.
The idea is that you write out exactly what happens and why, how it makes the child feel and the expected response. Usually, it’s useful to have pictures to go with it – I like photos of the child and the situation where possible. For some children, using symbols to support the written words can be really useful too.
There are 3 types of sentence in a social story – descriptive, perspective and directive.
Descriptive sentences – These describe what is happening. They cover information such as who is there, where the situation occurs, what happens and why. For example, “all the children go in the playground at breaktime” or “At the end of breaktime the bell will ring”.
Perspective sentences – These talk about what other people think and how they feel. For example, “the teacher knows when it is time for breaktime to end” or “some children don’t want to go inside when the bell rings”.
Directive sentences – These are the ones that explain what the child is expected to do. For example, “when the bell rings, I will try to go and stand with my class”. It’s really important that these are phrased in a positive way and always talk about trying, not “I must” or “I will”.
The purpose of a social story is to explain a situation to a child, so there should only be one or two directive sentences and the rest of the sentences should be descriptive or perspective sentences. Sometimes some other types of sentence can be included too, such as “this is ok”.
This is just a very brief description of social stories – for more information see here and here. What I am going to talk about more though is some advice about writing social stories, based on various ones I have seen, written and used over the years.
- Target one (very specific) thing at a time. The more specific the story, the more useful it is likely to be. A social story about how to behave in the classroom generally would be covering too many things. However, one about putting your hand up rather than shouting out might be more useful. Pick one thing to start with and make it something that is really important.
- Keep the language simple. Here, be aware of the level of language the child understands, and make sure the language you use is at that level. If the child only understands 4-6 word sentences, don’t fill your social story with long sentences joined by conjunctions. If your child only understands a few words, a social story may not be the best strategy yet. If you do use one, make sure there are lots of pictures and symbols to support their understanding.
- Keep it positive. Talk about what the child does well. Focus on what they will try to do rather than what not to do. Instead of “I won’t push to the front of the line”, try “I will try to stand behind the other children”.
- Make sure you really understand the situation first. With a younger or less verbal child, take time to watch exactly what happens – what exactly is it that the child finds difficult and why? If they are feeling upset, angry or scared, what can you do to help and what can they do to help them with these feelings? With an older or more verbal child, talk through the situation with them. You could role-play it or even video it. Listen to what the child says about what is difficult and why. If you are not describing the situation as the child perceives it, the strategy is not likely to help.
- Don’t give up too quickly! I have often talked to TAs or teachers who said that they wrote a social story for a child but it didn’t work. When asked what happened they only actually read it with the child once or twice. Learning takes time! Keep going for a few weeks before you give up and try another strategy. Also, remember that there are likely to be good and bad days too.
For older children, there is a similar strategy that works well with some children, called Comic Strip conversations. You can find out more about these here. If you have access to video editing facilities, you could also try video modelling.
What is your experience of using social stories? What other strategies do you use to help children who have difficulty with social skills?