What is a social story?

What is a social story?
Social stories can help children with special needs understand situations that might crop up at school or at home. Primary school SEN Inclusion Lead Julie Steele explains how they work.
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A social story is a learning tool that helps parents, professionals and children with special educational needs (SEN) to exchange information with each other in a way that’s meaningful and understandable to the child. They were invented in the 1990s by autism consultant Carol Gray.
A social story is a written narrative with accompanying pictures, made to illustrate certain situations, problems and challenges, and how children can deal with them. They help children (and adults) with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) and other special educational needs, and children with anxieties, to understand social norms and learn how to communicate with others appropriately.

Social stories contain information that we often take for granted and assume someone knows: for example, how to have a bath.
The person who writes the social story – whether that’s a parent, teacher or other caregiver – is known as the author, while the person who receives it is the audience.

How children benefit from social stories

The goal of a social story is not to change the child’s behaviour, but to share information in a way that makes perfect sense to them and help them cope with the situations they’re in.

There are many benefits to social stories, including:
 
  • Helping children learn self-care and social skills and reduce anxiety.
  • Allowing children with special needs to understand their behaviour as well as others’ behaviour.
  • Helping ASC and anxious children to understand emotions such as anger, sadness, and happiness, and how to address them, and how to empathise and have compassion for others.
  • Helping children cope with various changes in routine and everyday life transitions. 
  • Encouraging children to work on developing relationships, and providing rewards for accomplishing social tasks.
  • Reinforcing accepted behaviours. 
  • Teaching autistic and anxious children how to join in activities, use their imagination, and play with others.
  • Providing the tools to help children with anxieties and special needs to make and maintain friendships, as well as to join in with group activities.
  • Building self-esteem, with praise written into every story.

What can social stories be used for?

Social stories can be used in most any common (and uncommon) situation where a child is struggling to understand the social rules and therefore does not know how to react appropriately, for instance:

Turn-taking 

For some autistic children, this is a difficult concept as they can’t view a situation from another person’s perspective. For example, if they are playing a board game where the winner has to get to the other end of the board first, the child may want to win by keeping hold of the dice, not sharing, and rolling until they have finished first.

They don’t understand that the rule of turn-taking is to allow everyone a chance at winning. Therefore, a short social story explaining the rules of turn-taking, and how it benefits everyone playing, could help.

The story would be illustrated with appropriate pictures to further aid the child’s understanding, and to help embed the appropriate behaviours in their long-term memory.

Social stories examples

Social stories can be used in a huge range of situations that might take place at home, at school or in other environments, including:
 
  • Transitioning from one an activity to another
  • Getting up and brushing their teeth in the morning
  • Why we need to brush our hair
  • Putting on a PE kit
  • Going shopping with the family
  • Having a haircut
  • Going to the doctor/dentist
  • Illness in the family
  • Travelling in a car and wearing a seat belt
  • A very specific event or situation, such as new mask-wearing requitements (we recommend Masks aren't scary!, which is free to download from the charity ChildCare Resources).

How to make a social story, step by step

Parents, who often understand their child far better than anyone else, are well placed to write social stories to support their communication and understanding.

Social stories can take a number of forms, but the most common are:

Social story: a text designed to target a specific behaviour or concept, supported visually with pictures. You can look through and download some social stories that Julie has created to use with the children she works with, with a focus on understanding and expressing feelings, getting rid of headlice and playing with kind hands and feet.

   

Social script: a flipbook of responses to a specific situation, helping a child to practice what to say and do, for example, ‘What to say if I want to join in a game of football,’ with a selection of agreed scripts to practise, such as ‘Go to the group and ask “May I join your game please?”’

Once you’ve understood the elements of how to write a social story, they’re very easy to make. The first and most important rule is that each social story addresses ONLY ONE behaviour or concept at a time, and it must be specific.

So, a social story about sitting at the table during dinnertime will help a child as it is specific and aims to address one behaviour. But a social story about ‘being good at dinnertime’ will not help, as it’s too vague and doesn’t address a specific behaviour.

There’s a format to follow when writing a social story.

1 Give it a title

 Such as ‘Having a shower or bath’

2 First sentences

The first sentences must be factual and state something that is common to everyone, or is known to most people. Each key word must have a relevant image attached. For example:

Everyone has a shower or bath to wash their body.

Or:

Some people shower or bathe every day. Everyone has a shower or bath to keep themselves clean.

Or:

Keeping clean is hygienic and keeps people healthy.

3 The next sentences

These introduce the problem:

Not everyone likes having a shower or bath. However, we must all keep our bodies clean and healthy.

Or:

When I have a shower or bath and I am washing my hair, the water gets on my face. I don’t like the water on my face. When water gets on my face it scares me.

4 Introducing how to solve the problem

My Mum/Dad knows that I don’t like getting water on my face, so my Mum/Dad will give me a towel to put on my face, so the water does not go on my face.

This will make me happy. I will not be scared when I put the towel on my face.

I will be able to keep my body clean and healthy.


5 What adults will do to help (this may not always be necessary)

My Mum/Dad will find a towel and will help me keep my face dry. If they forget I will remind them that I would like a towel for my face. I will say please.

6 The final sentences

These must be positive statements, like:

I like having showers and baths because the water does not get on my face. I like keeping clean and healthy.
 
Along with the written text, it’s important to use pictures of each action.

If you're producing social stories for your own use at home, Julie recommends using word publishing sofware to put them together. To add images, you could use Widgit symbols (an internationally recognised communication lexicon with simple images that support text), other images or clipart from the internet (as long as they’re only for personal use and not infringing copyright; search for vector free images), or photos you’ve taken yourself.



Once you’ve written and illustrated the story, read it through with your child. If there are any parts they don’t like – for example, maybe they’d prefer to use a flannel instead of a towel – you must change the story to reflect that.

As you read the story, point to the pictures: ‘There is the towel. There you are smiling’ and so on. Read through the story every day, at least two hours before the event (in this case, bath or shower time), until your child is happy with the situation (bathing and getting their face wet).

Social stories can be used to support your child with everyday tasks and events, new situations like going on holiday, or specific challenges, such as a family member having a serious illness. Keep it simple: in the latter scenario, the initial story would introduce the knowledge that sometimes people we love get sick. Exact details would be kept for a later date when the child has more understanding of the situation.

How schools can use social stories

School life can involve many challenges for children with additional needs, from moving to a new class at the start of the school year to understanding how to follow rules in the playground.

Schools can also use social stories to explain something the child misunderstands (like why they need to wash their hands before lunch), or to tackle a particular anxiety or fear (such as eating in a noisy dinner hall).

You might also ask your child’s school to make a social story if there’s a big change or important event happening at home, like going on holiday or going to the dentist.

Whatever the situation, the school will need as much detail as possible in order to ease any fears or anxieties and answer any questions your child may have. Your child must be involved in writing the social story, and if they have any questions, these are added, along with the answers, and the story is amended.

It’s vital to introduce a social story before any major change, new routine or event happens.

Once your child’s teacher, TA, SENCO (special educational needs coordinator) or other staff member has written the social story, it should be put in place at least a week in advance of any change. The staff member should read the social story with your child every day, when they are in a calm and receptive mood, and send a copy home so you can also read it to them every day.