Social Stories: What are they, how will they help my child and how do I make one?
The first time I heard the term "social story" was when my son, H, was about to turn two. He'd yet to sleep longer than a two hour stretch without waking up screaming. Putting him down to bed involved a series of steps more involved and more complex than a NASA rocket launch (you think I'm kidding!).
I was three months away from giving birth to my second son and had no idea how I was going to manage once he was born. I was effing tired!
During his weekly physical therapy session, I broke down crying...again. His PT had listened to me cry about my ridiculous sleep saga one too many times and, this time, she wasn't having it.
"This is out of control. He's almost two and you're about to have another baby. You CANNOT keep doing this! YOU BOTH NEED TO SLEEP!"
She was right and I knew what was about to come next.
"He needs to be sleep trained."
Before I could protest, she continued, "This is unhealthy for both of you. He needs to learn how to sleep. You need to think of it as a skill that you need to teach him. Of course he wants to be held, rocked, soothed, and sung to every time he wakes up and of course he wants you to hold him until he falls asleep, I mean what kid wouldn't?"
Here was the kicker...
"But, let me ask you something, if he wanted to eat a piece of chocolate cake right before bed, would you let him?"
"Of course not because IT'S NOT GOOD FOR HIM and neither is not sleeping!"
She had me there. I was convinced, yet terrified. We'd attempted sleep training when H was 10 months old and not only did it not work, let me just sum it up by explaining that I documented the experience in my phone notes and literally every other word is the f word. It was a monstrous disaster.
"Don't worry," his PT encouraged, "we're going to teach him the skill of going to sleep and going back to sleep in a compassionate and loving way. Our first step is to create a social story about his new bedtime routine."
To which I replied...
What is a social story?
A social story is an individualized, descriptive short story that uses simple language and visuals to explain specific occurrences, behaviors, social interactions, concepts or skills in a way that's easy for children with developmental challenges to understand.
The goals of a social story are to improve a child's understanding and expectations of a situation, to normalize feelings the child may have in response to a challenging situation or event and to support the child's social-emotional development.
Social stories are NOT intended to "fix" a child's sensory processing difficulties nor should they be used as a singular intervention. But, when used in conjunction with a sensory integration therapy program and a mindful parenting approach, they are the perfect complement to reinforce flexible thinking and the development of new skills.
What are the benefits of social stories?
Storytelling facilitiates deeper learning.
It's been scientifically proven that when we listen to a story, "not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are, too."
So, using a story to help a child with a problem he's experiencing, as opposed to talking directly to him about the problem, helps him access more parts of his brain for learning.
Social stories help kids:
- Gain insight into the perspectives of others
- Gain self-awareness
- Understand how their behavior impacts others
- Learn how to acquire new skills
- Process emotions
- Normalize emotions
How do I write a social story?
First you're going to identify the problem your child is having. Some common social story topics include:
- Learning how to ride a bike
- Going to the dentist/doctor/hospital
- Explaining people's differences or preferences
- Explaining safety rules
- Making friends/ being a kind friend
- Meeting new people
- Managing "unexpected" situations/events
- Trying new foods
- Picky eating
- Bedtime/morning routines
- Potty training
- Becoming a sibling
- Moving to a new house
- Starting school
- Being a good sport
- Keeping hands to myself (issues with boundaries and personal space)
- Parents separating
- Asking for help
- Getting a haircut
- Winning and losing
- Anger rules
- Bed wetting
- Looking while listening
- Taking medicine
- Going to a playdate
- Eating at a restaurant
- Separation anxiety
- Birthday parties
Next, you're going to pinpoint what exactly your child is struggling with and make a list. For example, if the issue at hand is potty training, is he scared of trying something new? Is it the sound of the toilet flushing? The new texture of the underpants? Is it a control issue? All of the above?
Do a freewrite and just jot down everything that comes to mind. You'll want to address each issue in the story.
Now you're ready to start writing your story. You'll need:
- Markers or crayons
- A stapler
That's it! Simple!
There are 7 key components of a social story (they don't have to be included in order):
1. Descriptive sentences. Describe the who, what, where and why of the situation.
2. Directive sentences. Include instructions on how your child can respond appropriately to the situation and/or give the steps for acquiring a new skill.
3. Perspective sentences. Describe how your child might be feeling about the problem/given situation and how others might feel about the problem/ given situation.
4. Affirmative sentences. Validate and encourage.
5. Cooperative sentences. Describe how you (or his teacher, people around him etc.) will help your child.
6. Control sentences. Provide strategies to help your child feel safe and in control.
7. Partial sentences. Include a "partial" sentence to encourage your child to make a guess about the next step- "I will feel __________ when I go pee pee in the potty."
Important note- For every directive or control sentence, you should aim for at least 2 descriptive and perspective sentences.
Here's an example:
Hunter's New Bedtime Routine
My name is Hunter. I'm almost two years old. At bedtime, Mommy rocks me to sleep and then puts me in my crib. If I wake up in the middle of the night, Mommy comes in and holds me until I fall back asleep. (descriptive)
The problem is that Mommy and I are not getting good sleep. We need sleep to keep our bodies healthy, so we're going to come up with a new plan for bedtime (descriptive).
Here is our new plan: After I take my bath, get in my PJs, read two books and sing one song, Mommy is going to put me in my crib, hand me my Lovey, give me a kiss and say goodnight. Then Mommy is going to leave the room and I am going to fall asleep with my Lovey (directive).
Mommy will keep the door a little bit open and she'll be right outside in the other room, so I won't be alone. I might feel sad because I like when Mommmy holds me until I'm asleep and I don't want to fall asleep by myself. It's ok to feel sad. I'll have my Lovey to snuggle and Mommy will be right outside (perspective and affirmative).
If I wake up, I might cry because when I do that, Mommy usually comes in and holds me. But, our new plan is that instead of Mommy coming in, I'm going to snuggle with my Lovey and go back sleep by myself (directive).
If I'm really sad, Mommy will come do a "check-in." She'll peek in, tell me she loves me and remind me that she's right outside my door. (directive, affirmative).
Mommy will be right outside. I won't be alone (control).
If I wake up, some other things I can do to help fall back asleep are: sing a favorite song, rub my cheek on my soft pillow, or play with my stuffed animals (control).
Mommy and Daddy are right down the hallway in their bed and I am safe (control).
When it's time to wake up, Mommy and Daddy will come in my room and say, "Good morning, Hunter!" and give me a big hug (descriptive).
I slept the whole night in my crib! Wow! Mommy and Daddy are so proud of me! (directive and affirmative).
Learning new things can be hard, but I have my Mommy and Daddy to help me and to keep me safe. (perspective and affirmative).
I'm learning new things all the time. I feel proud of myself for learning how to go to sleep and go back to sleep by myself. (affirmative).
Keep in mind that social stories:
- Are positive and they play on your child's strengths. Avoid saying anything shaming or judgmental (e.g. "I'm a big boy and big boys fall asleep by themselves").
- Are not strongly directive. You want to guide and support your child, not lecture him about what he's "supposed" to do (e.g. "Starting tonight, I have to learn how to sleep all by myself.").
- Use simple, clear language and visuals. We're not showing off our literary skills here! Though feel free to go to town with your artistic abilities!
- Are written in the first-person and in present tense. Your child is the star of the story.
As for our sleep saga, the bedtime routine social story was hugely helpful. We stuck to our plan and three nights later, H was going to sleep and staying asleep tear-free. It was completely life-changing! Special thanks to H's PT, Evelina Ricci, for basically saving my life!
We've used social stories for several other issues including welcoming H's baby brother, moving, starting pre-school, potty training, sharing toys, separation anxiety, starting kindergarten, and expressing anger.
If you have a sensory-sensitive kiddo, I encourage you to incorporate social stories into your parenting toolkit. Here's a social story cheat sheet to use as a guide.
Join me LIVE on Facebook at 11am PST (1pm central and 2pm EST) on Tuesday, April 9th for more social story examples plus another storytelling tool you can use to help your child's social emotional development.
Have you used social stories with your child? What topics have you covered? Have they been helpful? Leave your comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.