Once upon a social story: Advantages, writing and presenting social stories

Personalized stories can help children learn new patterns of behavior and prepare them for new experiences.

Social stories use photographs and descriptive words to guide children through real-life situations.
Social stories use photographs and descriptive words to guide children through real-life situations.

Social stories are stories written with the specific purpose of teaching a child or children specific behavior patterns. They are often written when a child is struggling with a behavior, such as hitting. Using photographs and descriptive words, these stories take children through real-life situations and attempt to guide their behavior.

Social stories have often been used to help children with autism or other disabilities to learn coping and social skills, as well as to work through behavior management strategies. But social stories can have benefits for all young children. They can help children understand expected behaviors, work through interpersonal issues, practice conflict resolution skills and help them understand new perspectives.

Social stories can specifically help with:

  • New experiences – first day at school, going on an airplane.
  • Transitions – moving from one activity or environment to the next.
  • Social skills – sharing, taking turns, resolving conflicts.
  • Learning routines – bedtime routine, morning.
  • Setting expectations for behavior – visiting the library, road trips.
  • Specific behavioral issues – spitting, hitting, name-calling.

When adults want to learn something new or start a new experience, we often start with some sort of manual – a set of instructions with steps to follow, things to remember and processes to learn. Social stories can be miniature manuals for young children. Presented through the art of storytelling, we can teach children about behavioral norms, routines and expectations in an engaging and relatable way.

Advantages of using social stories

  • Memory development. Reading and rereading stories that include a series of events helps young children practice their memory skills, including prediction.
  • Empathy. Social stories address the feelings and opinions of characters, meaning several points of view can be represented. When children are exposed to others’ perspectives, it encourages the development of empathy or understanding of how one’s actions affect and impact others.
  • Concrete instruction. Creating social stories for young children is an opportunity to connect with a child’s personal experiences and build upon their current understanding. Children are more likely to learn from the strategies used in the literature if they can relate to them.
  • Clear communication. When children clearly understand what is expected of them and they are given specific instructions, they are better prepared to learn strategies and norms and follow them through.
  • Literacy skills. Any opportunity to practice building literacy skills with your child is beneficial.

Writing a social story

According to “Using Social Stories to Ease Children’s Transitions” by Jennifer Briody and Kathleen McGarry, writing a social story involves four different parts, and each story should include the:

  • Descriptive. It is important to include details like who, what, where, when and why. “At playtime, I want to use the cars, but Kim is playing with them.”
  • Perspective. These sentences talk about the opinions and feelings of different characters in the story. “I feel angry because Kim is using all the cars.”
  • Directive. Definite choices should be presented in the story. Describe what the desired behavioral outcome is from the child’s perspective. “I can ask Kim if she will share the cars.”
  • Affirmative. The story should point out what value or belief is being shared with the child through the story. “Sometimes we have to wait or take turns with toys.”

Stories should be written from the child’s point of view. It is easier for children to identify with the moral of the story and it makes the lesson more concrete. Try making the story personal by using photos of your child or class or including original artwork from the children. Children can literally see themselves in the story when they have a hand in helping to create it.

Presenting a social story

Once your story is complete, introduce it to the child and ask probing questions. “How do you think he feels?” “What could he do?” It takes several tries and hard work to understand and chance behaviors, so it is important to read and reread the story. Leave it out where the child can access it independently and reference it when the issue arises. “Remember what happened in the story?” “Let’s go see how she solved her problem.”

Social stories are a fun, engaging way to introduce children to new experiences and expectations. For more information and resources, check out these examples:

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

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