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Social narratives

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What is it?

A social narrative is a specially written story that explains a social situation to a student. The emphasis is on describing the situation so that the student can better understanding events as well as the thoughts, feelings and actions of other people. Most social narratives also provide the student with information about what they can do in the situation, as well as information about the likely reactions of others if the student uses the suggested words or actions.

What is the evidence?

There has been mixed evidence for social narratives, however the most recent systematic reviews list them as established evidence based practice, based largely on single case design studies.

How do I use it?

Social narratives are generally written to a particular formula, with more descriptive sentences (describing the social situation) than directive sentences (telling the student what to do). The person writing the story looks carefully and objectively at the situation from the student's point of view and uses the story to help alert the student to a range of cues. The narrative then lets the student know options for their own behaviour and the anticipated outcome of this positive behaviour. The narratives must be accurate and objective; writers must be careful to look at the situation from the perspective of the learner, rather than build in their own opinion (e.g. it might be accurate to say that "My teacher is proud of me when I follow the rules" and "I like it when my teacher is proud of me"; it might not be accurate to say "Following the rules is fun" or "I like following the rules").

The stories can be read to the student regularly, and particularly in the lead up to an event that may trigger a behaviour of concern (e.g. just before assembly, before going out to play).  The format of the narratives can range from paper and pen or printed colour stories to PowerPoint presentations or animations.

Social narratives must be personalised and accurate. They must be meaningful to the student and written at a level he or she can comprehend. Pictures are often used to support the meaning of the text. Social narratives are often used in conjunction with other strategies including video modelling and the teaching of functional communication using words, visual supports, signing and speech generating devices. 

Social narratives can be used to support behaviours of concern with the following functions:

Escape/Avoid social situation with adult

Social narratives can be used to support students who use behaviour to avoid or escape social interactions with adults in the following ways:

  • to help the student learn a new way to end a conversation
  • to help the student learn an appropriate way to leave a social situation
  • to help the student identify when the can appropriately end a conversation by helping them recognise cues.

Escape/Avoid social situation with child

Social narratives can be used to support students who use behaviour to avoid or escape social interactions with peers in the following ways:

  • to help the student learn a new way to end a conversation
  • to help the student learn an appropriate way to leave a social situation
  • to help the student identify when the can appropriately end a conversation by helping them recognise cues.

Escape/Avoid stimulation or sensation

Social narratives can be used to support students who use behaviour to avoid or escape sensory experiences in the following ways:

  • The social narrative can describe a sensory situation that the student finds difficult (such as assembly, cooking) including details such as steps in the activity and length of time to help the student understand and cope with the situation.
  • The social narrative can be used to teach the student a new response to an unpleasant or aversive sensory situation (e.g. supporting their understanding of how and when to request a break and what will happen next).
  • The social narrative may provide explicit details of when the student can expect an unpleasant sensation (e.g. the bell ringing) and what they can do to remain calm.

Escape/Avoid item or activity

Social narratives can be used to help support students understanding of appropriate ways to escape or avoid activities, including supporting the use of 'break' cards or requesting alternative activities. The social narrative can also be used to clearly outline the steps involved in a non-preferred activity, as well as the reward or positive activities to following, so that the student may be less anxious in attempting the task.

Obtain-Get stimulation or sensation

Social narratives can be used to support:

  • the teaching of new communication skills that allow students to appropriately request preferred sensory experiences
  • students' understanding of when preferred sensory activities will occur (in conjunction with a visual schedule)
  • students' understanding of appropriate and inappropriate ways to access sensory experiences
  • students' understanding of where and when they can access sensory experiences.

Obtain/Get item or activity

Social narratives can be used to support:

  • the teaching of new communication skills that allow students to appropriately request preferred items or activities
  • students' understanding of when preferred activities will occur (in conjunction with a visual schedule)
  • students' understanding of alternatives to the preferred activity or item
  • students' understanding of where and when they can access preferred activities and items.

Obtain/Get social situation with adult

Social narratives can be used to support:

  • the students' understanding of appropriate ways to gain attention from adults
  • the students' understanding of how to establish and maintain an interaction with an adult
  • the teaching of new communication skills to gain attention
  • the students' understanding of when and where they can and cannot seek the attention of an adult
  • the students' understanding of alternatives to the adult's attention, how to wait or what they can do while they wait for attention.

Obtain-Get social situation with child

Social narratives can be used to support:

  • the students' understanding of appropriate ways to gain attention from peers
  • the students' understanding of how to establish and maintain an interaction with a peer
  • the teaching of new communication skills to gain attention
  • the students' understanding of when and where they can and cannot seek the attention of an peers
  • the students' understanding of alternatives to the peers' attention, how to wait or what they can do while they wait for attention.

Age group

All ages, with different styles used as the student moves through school.

PreschoolYes – using simple text, well supported by photos or very clear pictures. Check for comprehension.
P-2Yes – using simple text, well supported by photos or visuals. Check for comprehension.
3-6Yes – using appropriate language and text level supported by visuals as needed. Check for comprehension.
High schoolYes – using text appropriate to the student. Check for comprehension.

Where can I learn more?

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Last updated 12 February 2021