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What are Social Stories and How Can Families Use Them at Home?

6 min read
Clare Gill reads a social story with Clarke students.
Clare Gill, MED, Clarke teacher of the deaf, shares a social story with her students.

Anyone who’s ever taken a toddler for their first haircut has probably witnessed their confusion, panic and tears. Why the tantrum—you told them in the car that it wouldn’t hurt! But can such a meltdown be prevented, or at least mitigated? Some thoughtful preparation in the form of a “social story” might make all the difference.

A social story is a clearly stated, visually-supported explanation provided to a child to help them manage their expectations, feelings and behaviors during social situations or transitions. For example, to support a child going to the barber for their first hair trim, a caregiver might show them images of other young children getting a haircut, the type of chair they’ll sit in, the cape, the scissors, followed by warm reassurance that it will not hurt and an opportunity to ask any questions they have. For instance, Will you be cutting their hair? No, it will be a barber, but Dad will be there with you the whole time. Can they hold their favorite stuffie under the cape during the haircut? Yes, of course.

“I would define social stories as a way to explain a concept that might be kind of tricky for a young child,” says Clare Gill, MED, Clarke teacher of the deaf. “They can be used to explain a transition that’s coming up, something that might be new and different—or even a little bit scary.”

Why Are Social Stories Important for Children Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing?

Children who are deaf or hard of hearing don’t benefit from incidental learning the way that children with typical hearing do. Incidental learning is any kind of unintentional learning; it often happens by overhearing conversations or casually absorbing information during informal, non-academic situations. For example, a child with hearing loss attending a field trip at the zoo, may not understand what a zoo is, why they would visit one and could miss important new vocabulary discussed on the trip. These children will therefore benefit from a very clear explanation of what to expect on such a field trip and a follow-up review of the outing as well as the new vocabulary they learned.  

Before an outing or field trip, Clare suggests explaining how you’ll get there, what a zoo is and showing photos. “This is where we’re going, and show photos of the zoo,” she says. “We’ll ride in a bus and show photos of a bus. This is what we’re going to do, we’ll visit the different animals—using our walking feet. These are the expectations while we’re there, et cetera.”

She adds that this is just as important as follow-up.

“We use it as a post-teaching tool as well,” she says. “So, if we’re talking about children with hearing loss who have a target of using the past tense, we’d make a social story after the field trip and practice the past tense. For example, ‘We went to the zoo. We saw giraffes.’ So, we use it both ways—as a pre-teaching tool to know what to expect, but also as a post-teaching tool to reinforce whatever you’re working on.”

A social story can be used to prepare a child for new situations, routine triggers or life-changing experiences—like the birth of a new sibling.
A social story can be used to prepare a child for new situations, routine triggers or life-changing experiences—like the birth of a new sibling.

If a preschool class is working on learning the names of animals (a basic step in learning how to categorize, among other skills), then an educator might create a social story after a visit to the zoo, showing images of the animals they saw, along with their names and information about each.

“This way, it’s engaging and exciting, because it’s real and personal for the children,” notes Clare. “You’re not just reading a book about a giraffe. You’re talking about the giraffe you saw together.”

Social stories are valuable for more momentous occasions and situations as well, like transitioning to a new school, getting a cochlear implant or practicing self-regulation techniques.

“We always create a social story about getting a cochlear implant, so the child knows exactly what to expect,” says Clare. “For example, it would include, ‘You’re going to the hospital. You’re going to have some medicine; you’re going to go to sleep.’ It’s been very successful. We’ve gotten feedback from families that the doctors and nurses were so impressed with how ready the child was. I think it really reduces anxiety for children having surgery, which can be a scary thing.”

Opportunities for Using Social Stories

A social story can be used as preparation or follow-up for any event or experience in a child’s life. Consider creating a simple social story—a collection of screenshots on your phone works well—to support children through any of the following:

  • A new sibling on the way
  • Traveling
  • Getting a cochlear implant
  • A family member’s illness
  • Any first time (e.g., attending a birthday party, getting a haircut, going to the dentist)
  • Moving from a crib to a bed
  • Starting school or transitioning to a new school
  • Everyday experiences, like morning and nighttime routines
  • Common triggers or places they’ve had trouble in the past (e.g., when swim lessons or playdates come an end)
Social stories can help with self-regulation skills too, like this one about Tucker Turtle, from the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations.
Social stories can help with self-regulation skills too, like this one about Tucker Turtle, from the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations.

Clare notes that social stories are helpful with self-regulation and managing emotions, too. She recommends “Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think,” a free social story available from the National Center for Pyramid Model Innovations, an organization providing resources for social-emotional interventions for young children.

“This is really good for children who have trouble with self-regulation,” says Clare. “I use this as a teaching tool and explain sometimes we have big emotions. And when we’re feeling upset, this is what we can do. Then we go through the story and practice the strategies.”

Clare has a “calm down corner” in her Clarke classroom, where students are encouraged to go when they’re upset, take some deep breaths, squeeze something, draw a picture or hug a teddy bear. Once the student is feeling calm, Clare and her colleagues help solve whatever the problem was.

“I’ve had students that have trouble raising their hand,” she adds, “so we’ve done a social story about hand-raising. I know one of my coworkers has a social story about blurting out, which is similar. I’ve used one about interrupting all along those same lines, so these can be used to teach various expectations and social skills.”

Considering that roughly 40% of children who are deaf or hard of hearing experience other conditions in conjunction with their hearing loss—often including autism spectrum disorder—this type of social-emotional support around interpersonal dynamics and behavioral expectations is especially beneficial.  

How to Create a Social Story (And Keep it Simple!)

Social stories are ideal for families to use at home.

“I think families tend to get overwhelmed, thinking, ‘Oh, this is a teacher thing. I don’t know how to do that,’” says Clare. “And I never want them to try to reinvent the wheel!”

She recommends starting with a simple web search (“social story for getting tubes in ears”) on the situation you have in mind. In her experience, it already exists (and you may even find a customizable template for a small fee).

But when families don’t have access to computer software, printers or time to put together a personalized story for their child—a small album of photos on a phone works just as well. Using screenshots from the internet and/or photos from real life, a caregiver can put together an album which aptly depicts what a trip to an amusement park would likely entail. 

“And then if you wanted to do it in reverse,” says Clare, “You could make an album of a trip to Story Land, and then look at the pictures with your child, prompting them, ‘Where did we go and what did we do and who did we see?’ For very young children or children who have language delays, this can really reinforce language development, vocabulary and the ability to talk about things that are outside of the here and now.”

If you’ve had trouble with your child in the grocery store, snap some photos next time you’re there—the sign, the parking lot, the carriage, the checkout—create a small album in your phone and flip through it for a few minutes before your next shopping trip together. You could discuss the expectation to sit in the carriage, some items they can choose themselves (“red or green grapes?” “white cheese or orange?”), how they might have to wait in line for the cashier. Any small amount of preparation may ease the stress of being carted from place to place and provide young children with a sense of agency. This can go a long way.

Clarke students are supported to create social stories to share with their new classmates when they transition to a mainstream school.
Clarke students are supported to create social stories to share with their new classmates when they transition to a mainstream school.

Moreover, the simplest social story can be just as effective as the most elaborate. “Obviously families are busy, and they don’t have time to create beautiful, fancy, laminated booklets,” says Clare. “It doesn’t have to be that! It can be simple, and it can be basic, just as long as it works for your family.”

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