For many children, new experiences are frightening and anxiety-provoking. Children thrive on routine and predictability; when these get interrupted, it can be hard for them to understand what is happening. As we all know, the last few months have been fraught with unpredictability and change. Now, we are starting to go back to work, eat at restaurants and visit retail stores.
As adults, we might have mixed feelings about this – relief to get out of the house but also fear about the ongoing pandemic. For our children, we are expecting them to reenter their communities with a new set of “rules” after months of being in the safety of their homes. This is going to be a difficult process, especially for children with special needs.
So how do we prepare children for all of the new experiences they are about to face?
One method that has been found to be effective is the use of Social Stories. Social Stories were first developed in 1990 by Carol Gray, a special education teacher. In essence, Social Stories are used to explain situations and experiences to children at a developmentally appropriate level using pictures and simple text. In order to create materials that are considered a true Social Story, there are a set of criteria that must be used. More information can be found here: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/what-is-it/.
While special educators or therapists are expected to use this high standard in their work, it is also relatively easy for parents to create modified versions of these stories to use at home. I was inspired by one of my clients recently who made a story for her son with Down syndrome to prepare him for the neuropsychological evaluation. During her parent intake, she took pictures of me and the office setting. At home, she created a short book that started with a picture of her son, a picture of their car, a picture of my office, a picture of me and so on.
On each page, she wrote a simple sentence:
• First we will get in the car
• We will drive to Dr. Gibbons’ office
• We will play some games with Dr. Gibbons
• We will go pick a prize at Target
• We will drive home
Throughout the evaluation, she referred to the book whenever her son became frustrated by the tests or needed a visual reminder of the day’s schedule. Something that probably only took a few minutes to create played an important role in helping her son feel comfortable and be able to complete the evaluation.
The options for creating similar types of stories are endless, giving parents a way to prepare their children for a scary experience.
Some examples of stories to create during the ongoing pandemic:
• Wearing a mask when out of the house
• Proper hand washing
• Socially distant greetings (bubble hugs, elbow bumps, etc.)
Some examples of more general stories include:
• Doctor’s visits
• Going to the dentist
• Getting a haircut
• Riding in the car
• First day of school
You can use stock photos from the internet or pictures of your child and the actual people/objects they will encounter. If you have a child who reads, you can include more text; if your child does not read, focus on pictures only. Read the story with the child several times in the days leading up to the event. For ongoing expectations (e.g., wearing a mask) – you can review the story as often as needed. Keep it short and simple. And have fun with it!