As parents we face a daily conundrum of opportunities and needs to coach our children about everything from conflict resolution and manners to transitions and routines. Two creative tools I love for teaching children social and life skills are social stories and puppets.
Storytelling can be such a powerful way to engage children, capturing their attention while sharing important life lessons in simple yet meaningful ways. Think of all the ways you can use puppets to illustrate the points you want to make. Both puppets and social stories offer the opportunity for active learning and communication skill building so that children are actively involved in the message you are trying to convey.
Puppets are a great tool for children to share how they feel, how their peers feel, and to work out solutions for themselves. For example asking children who are having a disagreement or a child who seems to be sad or angry to use a puppet as a character to tell how they feel about something. Or giving children a topic and asking them to make a puppet show about it. Parents, caregivers, or teachers can also create a puppet show story to bring out issues you want to explore with your children. Including some humor, making up a song, and taking turns with the puppets can help with engaging children. You can start the story and then ask the child, what do you think happens next?
Social stories are very simple scripts using words and pictures along with talking it through out loud to explain or reinforce something, whether a concept, process, or message. The story is told in a very positive way and tailored to your child’s needs and developmental level. It can be done very casually and conversationally or sitting down in more of a story time approach.
While originated by speech therapist Carol Grey to help children with communication challenges like autism, social stories are now widely used to help typical children as well as those with different special needs learn and apply different concepts. Speech therapists and psychologists using social stories for therapeutic purposes often follow specific patterns originally based on therapist Carol Gray’s criteria, but we lay parents just using social stories for our own purposes can and should follow our own path based on our children’s personalities, issues, and perspectives.
Though traditionally used with a visual version of the story for the child to see, you can also just casually tell a story without visual cues if you do not think your child needs that. Sometimes an opportunity arises for a spontaneous story to address a situation — you can always improvise something verbally and then follow up with a printout to retell it later if you think that will be helpful. If using a printout or on screen version along with verbally discussing it, you can find clip art or use some photos of your child related to the story you are creating. The younger the child, the more pictures it should have and simpler it should be.
For example, many young children might benefit from some help preparing to go to a birthday party for what to expect, tips for behavior and being patient if you have to wait. Or for the holidays, prepping children for parties, large family dinners or visits where the house rules or customs may be different from yours. It could be about having a fun play date including sharing toys. I have used this technique for daily routines such as getting ready to go to preschool/school in the morning and preparing for the separation from parents.
We will be sharing some examples of using creative storytelling in the coming months, but here is a quick example in preparation for going to a birthday party:
I know how excited you are to be going to Susie’s birthday party. Birthday parties are such a fun way to celebrate your friend’s special day. We give the birthday girl a lot of attention since it is her day. When it is your birthday, we will have a party to celebrate your special day. Susie is so excited that her friends are coming to her house for her party.
What kind of things do you think Susie’s Mom will have planned? I heard there will be an art project! Everyone gets to make a special drawing and then Susie’s Mom told me you will all get to make a cookie that you will bring home with you when the party is over. She is going to give you dough and ingredients to put in it. Then she will bake it. Yum!
Susie will be opening her presents, it will be fun to see her presents. You can watch her and think about what you like and say nice things about them. I know sometimes it is hard to wait while someone opens their presents but it is important to be super nice. Then her Mom will serve the cake and you will have time to play in their backyard.
[A Mom note: We have never had our kids open presents at a birthday party for many reasons, but since there are still a number of families who do, it’s good to prepare kids for it if we know a particular family will do so. If you know of anything else at the party that might require turn taking that you think might be challenging for your child, you could include that in the story as well.]
Have you used storytelling or puppets to help teach your children? We would love to hear about your experiences! Are there challenges you would like us to use as future examples of social stories or puppet shows?