Social stories

Teaching strategies

Social stories and their classroom application

Social stories – a visual resource used to teach desired behaviours (especially with students with disabilities). Students are stepped through desired behaviours in specific situations (such as turn-taking and making friends).

Social stories with students.

Social stories are used to teach desirable social behaviours to students with disabilities and disorders. In other words, what to do and what to say in situations that might be overwhelming, stressful, confusing or foreign. A social story is a list of steps that shows the student how to deal with a specific situation. It is usually written through the eyes of a cartoon character representing the student. Each step is comprised of a single-focused sentence and an image or drawing. In situations that cause stress and anxiety, the more rehearsed the student is, the easier it is going to be for them to follow each step (either automatically or via recall).

A social story is a list of steps that shows the student how to deal with a specific situation. It is usually written through the eyes of a cartoon character representing the student.

Common examples of social stories used with younger students include those focusing on making friends, sharing with others, sportsmanship, eating lunch and catching the bus. Appropriate social stories for older students can include those focusing on personal space, asking for help, keeping safe, shopping, dealing with bullies and avoiding confrontation. While social stories are primarily used for students with disabilities and disorders, students without disabilities can benefit from them as well. Teachers sometimes use social stories with small groups (or the whole class) for this reason. However, where specific issues are identified and need to be addressed quickly, social stories can also be used one-on-one.

Social stories are effective because:

  • they usually have an appealing visual element
  • they are short, clear, simple and focused; they are easy to follow and remember
  • they provide a process and system for students to follow in stressful situations
  • they help students to develop automatic responses and thereby improve the chance that desirable behaviour will replace undesirable behaviour
  • they help students to understand what is expected by adults
  • they outline the positive results (or rewards) of the desired behaviour.

Social stories are mostly used to instruct students with autism and other neurological disorders.i Children with autism struggle with many social aspects of their lives (including making and keeping friends). They may want to make friends, but they lack the social skills to do so in an acceptable way. Without a social story to guide them, some students might follow this common pattern of thought:

  1. I want to make friends with Alice.
  2. Alice does not want to talk to me.
  3. I need to get her attention.
  4. What will get her attention?
  5. Name calling, aggression (pinching or pushing) or stealing personal items will get her attention.
  6. I got her attention and will therefore repeat this behaviour tomorrow.

Notice that in the above steps, the student feels no need to consider the consequences of step 5. The goal from step 1 is so powerful a driver, that any punishment is considered inconsequential.

Social stories provide solutions to these situations. The first step in implementing a social story is understanding the root cause of the behaviour. In this example, a novice teacher may make the mistake of accusing the student of bullying. However, this is only surface behaviour. Treating surface behaviour may not prevent a repeat of the undesirable behaviour. The solution is to identify the root cause. In this case, the root cause is more than likely a lack of social skills combined with a high motivation to socialise. Once the root cause is established, a social story can be sourced or developed to target the issue at hand.

Social stories can be made using magazine pictures and colour cards. Alternatively, they can be made in a few minutes using a word-processing application. Try not to write more than 10-12 lines so students can easily remember the entire story. Social stories can then be laminated and hung in the classroom. There are also plenty of commercially available social stories that can be purchased online.

The standard practice for the delivery of social stories is as follows:

  1. Have the student/s sit on the floor (an individual, a group or the whole class).
  2. Tell the student/s what they are about to learn and why it is important.
  3. Read the title of the social story (or have the student/s read it out-loud).
  4. Ask questions such as ‘what do you think Arjun will do?’.
  5. Read the first line and say, ‘and here is a picture of…’.
  6. Slowly read each line, pausing to ask questions or to make the occasional comment. Do not rush.
  7. Towards the end, link the story to the students’ firsthand experiences with questions such as ‘what did you learn from this story?’.
  8. Repeat the story a few days later to reinforce the message.

When first introducing a social story, don’t expect an immediate change in behaviour. It may take several repeats before the student begins to adjust their behaviour. Gradual adjustments should be rewarded to encourage continual improvement. Expect the student’s behaviour to relapse temporarily. For some students, peer learning and parental support may provide additional firepower.

Hint: social scripts are slightly different from social stories. However, most people don’t worry about the distinction. A social script specifies exactly what to say in each situation like a movie script. A social story shows what to do in each situation.

Foot notes:

  1. Qi, C. H., Barton, E. E., Collier, M., Lin, Y. L., & Montoya, C. (2018). A systematic review of effects of social stories interventions for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 33(1), 25-34.

About the author

Image of the managing director of ITAC.


Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and a #1 best selling author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of ITAC, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.

Source: Teaching Skills and Strategies for the Modern Classroom: 100+ research-based strategies for both novice and experienced practitioners. Amazon #1 best seller in the category of Classroom Management.

Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to check his article for accuracy, information may be outdated, inaccurate or not relevant to you and your location/employer/contract. It is not intended as legal or professional advice. Users should seek expert advice such as by contacting the relevant education department, should make their own enquiries, and should not rely on any of the information provided.


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