“If your child keeps on hitting his classmates, he will get a referral and as a consequence can be suspended. Please talk to him so that he stops the hitting.”
As I read this note a parent recently shared with me, a part of me feels complete frustration. Another part is full of compassion for this teacher. As teachers we all want our students to flourish, to demonstrate certain “appropriate behavior,” to show the best of themselves. But do we all know how to help children do this? Sadly, it is difficult. When faced with certain behaviors, teachers can feel paralyzed and unsure of how to effectively help the child.
Before I started practicing Conscious Discipline, I could have been that teacher who relies on fear to “make” the child change his behavior. However, Conscious Discipline has taught me that changed behavior requires three ingredients:
- Helping the child feel safe
- Connecting with the child
- Teaching the child the missing skills
Warning the child that next time he will get a referral, that his parents will have to come to school, that he will be sent to the principal’s office, or that he will miss recess certainly doesn’t teach missing skills. It also does nothing to help the child feel safe or connected.
In Conscious Discipline, one very effective tool we use to help children learn a skill is Social Stories. These are simple stories that help remind students about appropriate social behavior.
The process of creating a social story is easy. You think about the desired behavior, write short sentences that describe that behavior and then add pictures. You can then make the story into a book that serves as a portable visual reminder.
For example, if the story is meant to help a child who has anxiety separating from a parent in the mornings, the sentences could look like this:
Every day my mom takes me to school. We walk together into the building.
She kisses me goodbye and I hug her tightly.
I then greet my teacher and if I feel sad, I breathe deeply with her or I go to the Safe Place to regain my composure.
I then go to my table and start working. I enjoy my day at school.
We have story time.
Then Mom is back to pick me up.
I did it! I enjoyed my day at school! I can do this!
The following information can help you create your own social stories, in turn helping your children practice and learn healthy and appropriate social behaviors.
When is a social story helpful?
Make a social story when you wish to teach a skill to a child or a group of children. Sometimes the skill is related to teaching or practicing school procedures, such as arrival or dismissal procedures, how to walk safely in the hallways, how to keep it safe on the school bus, etc.
Other times, it might have more to do with social behavior, such as how to help a child who expresses frustration by hitting, how to help a child who finds it difficult to separate from parents when coming to school, or how to help children struggling to relate to friends or dealing with fear over a natural disaster.
Social stories are all about seeing beyond the child’s behavior to understand what it is they might not be communicating appropriately. In consequence, you can teach that missing skill through the social story.
How do you put it together?
Each page in the social story book consists of a sentence reinforcing the desired behavior, along with a visual of what that behavior looks like. Including real pictures of the child or group of children in action yields more impactful results.
Each page then shows the child what to do in different situations. The last page of the book can be designed for the adult reading it so that any adult knows the purpose of the story, how to further reinforce the skill, and when and how to read it.
Who will read this book?
The book can be read by any educator in the school, but it is also important to make a copy of the book for the parents if it is something that can be reinforced at home.
When there is a behavior that we are concerned about, we usually ask parents for help. However, many parents don’t know how to help their child other than asking them to stop the unwanted behavior.
The social story is a great tool for a parent to help the child with the missing skill. It also builds the parent’s skillset, such as learning specific language to effectively help their child.
How to make it even more powerful
As you read the story, pause after every page and make sure the child has understood the message. Ask him questions, ask him to repeat a sentence that he could use in context, or even roleplay.
A tool for connection
Reading a story can always turn into a precious moment of connection. Dedicate a special time to read this book to the child. Have him sit close to you, look the child in the eye as you finish every sentence, and be present in the moment as you are reading. It is your time with the child.
And finally, enjoy it! If you enjoy this time with the child, he will enjoy it too. This moment of perfect connection will then translate—throughout your day—into cooperation, willingness and impulse control. How you read the social story can be a great investment in changed behavior as well!
Some of the most recent social stories I have put together are:
- “I know what to do!” to help a child who hits at school
- “Oh, I Felt Scared” to help children express and handle their emotions after a natural disaster, specifically for hurricanes and earthquakes
- “When I feel mad” to help a child manage his anger
- “Our day at school” to help children follow everyday procedures in a safe manner