By Cheri J. Meiners, author of the Free Spirit Learning to Get Along® series
A friend once asked me for advice regarding her two-year-old child. She was concerned about her daughter’s biting and throwing tantrums. I offered to help her write a story for her daughter. Social stories are useful behavioral tools for teachers, counselors, and parents when working with any young child, and have particular benefits for children who struggle with communication and social skills.
True social stories—as defined and developed by Carol Gray, an author and consultant to students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD)—must include specific clinical criteria. But the stories themselves are short and simply worded, and your own stories can be patterned after these principles. Basically, a social story explains to a child behaviors or skills that can be useful in a social setting. Desired actions and outcomes are laid out in a logical step-by-step process. Through frequent readings of the story, a child can become more prepared for social interactions, routines, and situations.
To begin, you will want to observe the current behavior of the child, considering the factors that may be influencing it. Young children are often limited in their ability to communicate, express emotions, and understand social expectations, and may not acquire new behavioral skills spontaneously. That is why a clearly written social story that is easy for a young child to comprehend can be such a useful tool in learning about social expectations.
One of the first tips I gave my friend was to write her story from her child’s perspective—in the first person. This is an essential element of a good social story. Hearing the word “I,” a child can easily identify with, remember, and retain the instructional phrases.
A good introduction will start at the child’s current developmental level. Lay out the beginning situation or problem. My friend’s story might have started: “Sometimes I play with other children. If I don’t get my way, I may feel angry.”
In the body of the story, write almost every sentence as a positive, affirming statement. Some people suggest that you first discuss the undesired behavior, and then the desired behavior afterward. It is my preference to avoid writing about negative behavior altogether. In my mind, it can give the undesired behavior too much attention. My rule of thumb is to use only positive statements unless the problem behavior can hurt someone or damage property. My friend’s story was one of those times, so we may have included a directive, like, “I won’t bite or hit people.” We could then follow up with a simple explanation, such as, “Those things hurt. They won’t solve my problem.”
Throughout the rest of your little book, you will want to give instruction on the target skill. My friend’s story could talk about ways to calm down and feel in control again. The length and level of detail in your story will depend primarily on the child’s comprehension level, but always strive for an organized, succinct telling. Four types of sentences will typically be used in any social story:
- Descriptive statements objectively describe the setting or situation. My books in the Learning to Get Along series—which use many concepts of the social story—actually incorporate few descriptive statements. I prefer brevity, relying on good illustrations to fill out the setting. You will typically want to have one statement and illustration for each page. An example from my friend’s story could be, “Sometimes I play with other children.”
- Perspective statements include the feelings, thoughts, and opinions of the people in the story, such as, “I may feel angry.”
- Directive statements are instructional. These statements are really the reason for the story. They tell the child what the desired behavior looks like. For example, “I can take deep breaths to help me calm down.”
- Affirmative statements might reinforce things the child is already doing well, or they might encourage the child to try a new behavior. A child will identify with and be receptive to a story that is upbeat and empowering. End your story with an affirmation, such as, “When I talk about my problem, I may feel better.”
As mentioned earlier, it is recommended that your text be enriched with colorful, engaging illustrations that will add life to your script and make comprehension easier. Because young children are concrete thinkers, illustrations can help explain and solidify the message, as well as increase retention. When I write a handmade, individualized story, I like to use pictures from children’s magazines and workbooks, along with hand drawings. You might also use clip art that you find online. Each of the four statement types above can be enhanced with illustrations. Visual cues can help describe the setting; show the perspective and emotions of the characters through facial and body expressions; help directives appear more realistic and desirable; and affirm and reinforce the message.
Once the story is written, the fun part is to present it to the child. Plan to read the personalized story to the child in a calm setting. Reread it frequently—even daily, at first, to help the child become familiar with the concepts. Then the story can be used as a reference when a problem situation arises.
One of the central features of a social story is that it is tailored for a particular child. While my Learning to Get Along books are for general use and don’t use specifics like a child’s name, your own story can include specific names, pictures, and personal touches that the child recognizes. For instance, for a handmade social story I wrote on “Friends and Strangers,” I collected random pictures of people from magazines as well as photographs of the child’s family and friends to illustrate the book and to use for a sorting activity afterward. In another instance, I personalized a story called “Everything in Its Place” by cutting out pictures of toys, clothes, and items that the child owned. The book pages had drawers, boxes, and doors that opened to hold the items to be put away.
Be creative and have fun writing your stories. Your child will likely treasure a unique story and ask for it to be read again and again. Maybe that’s because a social story is not only a great learning tool, but it provides a unique opportunity to encourage, motivate, bond, and build trust with the children in your life.
Please share any suggestions or experiences with writing social stories in the comments below.
Cheri J. Meiners, M.Ed., has her master’s degree in elementary education and gifted education. A former first-grade teacher, she has taught education classes at Utah State University and has supervised student teachers. Cheri and her husband, David, have six children and two grandchildren. They live in Laurel, Maryland.
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.