Spotlight Strategy: Social Narratives (Part 1)

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I have found that many parents and educators use social narratives more than any other strategy for social understanding. This is not surprising, as these narratives provide vital explanations of the social world for individuals who lack natural understanding in this area. Social narratives help people navigate the murky waters of the world around them.

Social Narratives communicate social and behavioral expectations through written means. They may also highlight the perspectives, feelings, and intentions of those involved in a social situation. The narratives often provide examples of social overtures and problem-solving in order to increase the learner’s understanding of appropriate responses in a particular situation. They can provide insight into a common social norm (e.g., personal space), or a highly individualized event (e.g., describing how an unexpected schedule change has occurred and everything will be OK). Think of social narratives as instruction manuals that provide codes for understanding the complexities of the social environment.

A social narrative outlining steps to talking with a peer.
An excerpt from a social narrative describing how to talk to a peer. Simple illustrations can be helpful for younger students. Click the image to preview the full narrative.

Social narratives can be easily and quickly written and can provide helpful clarification on any number of issues. They can be as short as one sentence (“Kids become upset and scared when I growl at them…”) or they can be more in-depth and comprised of multiple pages (see examples here or click on the image below).

An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. Click on the image to preview the full narrative.
An excerpt from a social narrative on asking for help. This narrative uses a popular medium of exchange.  Click on the image to preview the full narrative.

Are social narratives only to be used for children with autism or related disabilities?  Certainly not!  I have written social narratives for many children (including my own).  Think of social narratives as mini lessons on any given topic.  It is a teaching tool.  Children with social learning challenges need the narratives more frequently, but all students can benefit from them, given the wide range of social/emotional understanding among children.

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This social narrative increases predictability in order to reduce anxiety when something new happens.

Social narratives are to be presented to children in a proactive, teaching manner on a regular basis, just like other academic content is taught. They are designed for use in the classroom, in the home, or anywhere else a learning opportunity might present itself.  They are not merely a tool to use after a child has made a mistake, as I have often seen.  As with anything, teach the skill regularly if you want children to learn.

This relates to a broader issue, namely that social understanding is generally not taught like other academic content is taught. Some skills for social understanding may be addressed in general education classrooms on occasion (particularly in early elementary grades), but largely, there is an assumption that social understanding is naturally acquired as children grow. While this may be true for many children, I have found that adults often overestimate how much children understand socially, and underestimate the amount of intentional teaching that needs to be done. Parents and educators will serve children well to support social learning through the use of strategies such as social narratives.

(Click here and here to peruse or purchase social narratives that I have created and used with students).  

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