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Using social stories to teach SEN pupils

Julia Sharman

Julia has over 20 years’ experience working in the education sector as a specialist and advisory teacher for SEN and mental health, as well as a Local Authority Coordinator leading on educational projects and community learning in the public, private and voluntary sectors and freelance writer. She is a specialist teacher for children with dyslexia, and was previously an advisory teacher for children with mental health problems. Julia currently work with children with medical and health needs, including those with mental health issues.

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Over the years I’ve taught and supported quite a number of pupils with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC). I found frequently that a very easy tool to use to aid the development of social skills is social stories. They are a strength-based teaching strategy that helps to develop greater social understanding by providing a visualised plan of a chain of events or situation. The plan or time-frame can be in the form of pictures, sketches, stick figures, comic strips, simple text or photographs. Social stories were created by Carol Gray in 1991 “to help teach social skills to people with autism. They are short pictorial descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.” (The National Autism Society)

"Teaching social skills to any pupil is made easier and less taxing when using visual supports."

The use of social stories can also benefit other pupils who may have special education needs (SEN), pupils who find it difficult to organise their time, struggle to know ‘what next’ or where they need to be, so don’t rule them out if you don’t have children in your class with ASC. Social stories develop sequential processing from toilet training, tying shoe laces, lunch time or playtime routines to going out on a school trip. They are particularly helpful to alleviate anxieties of visiting unfamiliar places or when transferring schools.

Social stories are also particularly useful for visual learners or very young pupils who have not yet learnt the routines of the school day or week. They visualise the level of communication relating to an activity, event or time, and help pupils to understand class rules and timetables. Teaching social skills to any pupil is made easier and less taxing when using visual supports.

Social expectations, appropriate behaviour or ways to respond when interacting or communicating with people are typically learned by example. Individuals with communication difficulties or behaviour problems sometimes need more precise instructions. Social stories are designed to help children understand social situations, expectations, social cues, new activities or social rules. It’s essential that instructions are simple visual or descriptive stories that provide specific information regarding a social situation. The stories can be used to prepare a child for a new situation or teach new skills.

Knowing what to expect helps children with communication difficulties, and those who display challenging behaviour, how to act appropriately in a social setting. They can be used by teachers, support workers, parents, carers and other adults involved in a child’s life.

Using photographs, real life objects, descriptive sentences or sketches of feelings can help to encourage good behaviour management, alleviating feelings of anger and frustration, and are a highly effective way of teaching social norms and routines. They help individuals understand what is being said in a conversation or even replace verbal communication, which some children may prefer. Descriptive sentences offer a more positive approach if they begin with ‘I can try…’, ‘I will try…’ or ‘I will work on…’ for example. Far better to teach ‘do’ rather than ‘don’t’!

A social story is effective when used at the child’s level of communication; however they do need to be specific to individual children, group or situation. What works for one child is not likely to work for another. A social story showing a sequence of events or expectations does not need to be time-consuming – simplicity is often the key, and although they may not necessarily fix the problem, they do give information about a social situation an individual may find difficult or confusing.

I would recommend anyone thinking of using social stories to review the research by Carol Gray in order to understand how they can be utilised and used appropriately. There is a host of information, too numerous to mention, available on the internet.

Do you use social stories in your classroom? Share your experiences below.

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