February 1, 2021 by Dr Kathryn Hackman

How social stories help children

Explaining the world – and its rules – to my boys

I have two delightful little boys, each with very different ways of seeing and understanding the world. My curious and clever 5 year old has always been a little anxious. Although he has no issue leaping from boulders or riding his bike down the stairs, he needs extra time and assistance to prepare for everyday events and changes to his routine.

As he grew from an adventurous toddler to a fact-loving kinder kid, I noticed he often seemed unaware of the unspoken rules and expectations in social and educational situations. This resulted in accidentally upsetting his friends or being chastised by his teachers (and us, his parents). These situations would upset him, as he didn’t understand what had gone wrong and why the people around him were suddenly cross.

I was advised to help my son by giving him stories to explain what was expected in certain situations, as well as all the “rules” of interaction we adults take for granted. Such stories are often called “Social Stories”. Social stories are a learning tool originally designed to help with clear exchanges of communication between parents and children with autism. These stories describe a context, skill, achievement or idea in a clear and direct way, making it easy for children to grasp. Conveying such information in the form of a story can be useful for all young children. Stories can be used to teach coping and social skills, and help guide behaviour.

The term “Social Story” was coined by American educator Carol Gray (carolgraysocialstories.com). At the time, Grey was teaching students with autism and began writing stories to share information she could see they were missing. Social Stories as defined by Gray must meet ten defining characteristics (The Social Story Criteria). These stories persist as they have proven to be helpful for many children, especially those with autism or learning disorders. However, when I attempted to introduce Gray’s Social Stories to my child they did not resonate. He found the form overly didactic and boring.  As a curious and sensitive child, he found them too serious and I could not hold his interest when we tried to read them together.

How I created calm, confident kids

I began searching online and in libraries for appropriate explanatory stories for my two very different boys. However, I often found existing templates drab and uninspiring, or not specific enough. Wanting to engage my boys I began to create my own stories to prepare them for everyday situations, they used many of Gray’s guidelines (short sentences, simple language, one concept at a time) but were more lighthearted. I wanted to create something that was both informative and fun. Stories ranged from simple tasks like Where I put my Bag at Kinder to harder situations like I Have a Babysitter Tonight. I would take pictures of my boys as the “main characters” as well as using pictures of their own classrooms, bedrooms, and babysitters which became the story illustrations. Sometimes we printed these stories out, creating books we could return to, other times it was enough to simply show them the story on my computer.

Integrating these stories into our everyday routine was a simple way to prepare both my children for unusual or potentially challenging situations. When these moments arrived, my kids knew what was happening and why. Although they were still upset at times, we no longer had to negotiate meltdowns or tantrums because of unexpected challenges. The greatest achievement of these stories was that they were also fun! The boys loved seeing themselves as the main characters in each story. They were so proud to be the central heroes, they wanted to show these books to their grandparents, babysitters and even kinder teachers!

How this changed our family life.

Both my boys immediately responded to the stories. While I had initially set out to find a way to help manage my eldest’s anxiety, my youngest (aged three) also thrived off the clear explanations and instructions the stories provided. As he has always been a remarkably confident and social little person, I hadn’t realised the benefit they would provide. Stories helped him make a smooth transition to kindergarten, as well as helping enormously with everyday events like my husband and I leaving for work or our family having a meal at a café or restaurant. I realised that arming both my kids with clear descriptions of what was going to happen and their role in each situation resulted in calmer, more confident, and even happier boys.

Courageous Kids is the result of my own journey into creating “social” stories. These stories were so helpful for my children, friends started requesting copies. I began sharing my templates with family and friends.

The conversations I had with fellow parents and carers made me realise that others could benefit from the research and practice I had in creating these stories and inspired me to try to share my stories more widely. I cannot overstate how helpful this method has been for my children and I encourage you try it with your own. You can read my blog on how to create your own social stories here (LINK). Or, if you are lacking time or feeling stuck, you can use my tried and tested stories in the app. All of the stories available on Courageous Kids have been reviewed by a leading child psychiatrist.  The stories are fully customisable and you can upload your own photos or use our illustrations.  

Rather than having to start from scratch like I did, we give you the head start to begin creating stories to help your children be more self-assured, relaxed and excited about new events and milestones. My hope is that the resources provided by Courageous Kids will benefit other families in the way they have mine.

AboutDr Kathryn Hackman
Founder of the Courageous Kids children's storybook app, is a practicing clinician and loving mother of two beautiful boys.

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