Saturday, November 23, 2019

5 Tips for Writing Effective Social Stories

Something weird is going on in the universe because we have been inundated with request after request for guidance on one topic: social stories.  We use social stories as simple, personalized guides designed to prepare an individual for an impending change, life event, or new experience.  I've written countless social stories on topics ranging from moving, having surgery, starting school, impending trips, behavior, responsibility, and on and on...
Why bother?  So often, we assume that children and/or individuals with special needs do not understand nor care about things that are happening around them.  We take for granted that they'll just adapt and come along for the ride.  In my experience, this mentality can yield really negative consequences and cause great duress for the individual and his/her family.  Social stories are a great way to prepare for change or a new experience by explaining what to expect in simple terms.  This allows an individual to acclimate to the topic, thus, discouraging negative emotions/behaviors that frequently occur when someone is caught off guard.  
Think about it this way; the world moves at a pace that is often uncomfortably fast for an individual with special needs.  When we see negative behaviors (stubbornness, refusals, tantrums), it is the individual's way of communicating "Wait!  I don't understand.  I'm not comfortable!  I don't like it!"  If we know a change or life challenge is coming up, and we can offer a friendly story explaining what to expect and offering coping tools, and we allow the individual time to digest the information and adjust, he/she will be far more comfortable and the outcome will be better.  Makes sense?  Okay, let's get started!  

There are tons of different approaches to writing social stories and trying to make yourself a subject matter expert before even opening a Word document will overwhelm and scare you away from the idea altogether.  Keep it simple! 

1.  Reading Level - A social story may look different depending on the reader.  One individual may need one simple sentence per page where as another individual may be able to handle paragraphs of explanation.  A good way to customize your social story for your reader is to look at the individual's favorite books and model that format.  

2.  Personalization - Josie and Leanne both love looking at photos of themselves and people they know so I try to use personal photos whenever I can.  With cell phones, it's quick and easy to take photos.  No printer?  No problem.  Take your phone to Walgreens and the photo lab tech can help you get them printed.  Or use Shutterfly to create a customized book.  If photos aren't an option, you can use a Google image search, Boardmaker, or an image search within your word processing software.  I use Windows products (usually Publisher but Word and Powerpoint also work well) and there's a function under "Insert > Online Pictures" that allows you to search for a relevant photo.

3.  Do your research - When Leanne had her EGD with dilation, I was unfamiliar with the procedure and recovery so I talked to people I know who have experienced it.  I even called the gastroenterology office and explained that I was writing a social story for Leanne and I asked her to tell me about the procedure in simple, easy-to-understand steps.  Medical professionals should be happy to assist you with a project like this.  

If we're going somewhere unfamiliar and I'm preparing Josie with a social story, I will go online and find pictures of the hotel and various landmarks around the city.  If we're going to be visiting relatives that Josie hasn't seen in awhile, I will insert their photos along with their names.  More than once, I've texted people asking for a photo of themselves that I can use in a social story.  

4.  Acknowledge the challenge or fear... - When it comes to medical procedures, if the recovery will involve pain or a cast or restricted activities, I will include that information.  I've written social stories that involve saying goodbye to friends and loved ones and I acknowledge that we will miss them.  

5.  ...BUT Keep it positive - It's always important to offer reassurance.  When Josie was having a tonsillectomy, her social story acknowledged that her throat would hurt but that each day it would feel better and better.  It stressed the importance of taking her medication in order to minimize the pain. 

When we were moving, I acknowledged that we would miss our friends but that Josie's family would remain with her and that we would make new friends.  

* Behavior Bonus Tip:  When writing a social story designed to correct a behavior, it's best not to place the emphasis on the negative behavior but rather focus on the replacement behaviors that we want to see.  In other words, don't tell the child to stop doing (negative behavior).  Tell them what you want them to do instead.  

This came up recently when I received an email from Kelli, about her 10 year-old son, Colin, who has Down syndrome.  Kelli asked me to help her write a social story addressing behavior concerns including being too handsy (Colin especially loves touching hair but sometimes it bothers his classmates), hugging too frequently for too long, and general boundary acknowledgement.  These are very common issues with children with Down syndrome so I asked for Kelli's permission to share the story on the blog.  

I set out to create a positive, instructional narrative that didn't make Colin feel like we were shaming or criticizing him, but rather we were outlining what Colin's goals were (friendship, being invited to participate in sports and games, enhanced communication, and proud teachers and parents) and we were offering him the tools he needed to achieve those goals.  Kelli went above and beyond by reaching out to Colin's friends and teachers and asking them to stage photos to appear in the social story illustrating the ideas presented.  They were happy to do this to help Colin.  

One last social story hack: Google it!  There are tons of social stories available online and on the website  Many are completely free.  While I generally prefer to write my own social story with my own photos, reading some online examples can give me inspiration for what to include in the narrative.  Here's a great place to start:

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