* A question on social narratives

angry kidI’ve been asked to provide another example of a social narrative for dealing with bullying.  I write stories about bullying from two perspectives, of course: the one who bullies and the one who is bullied.  They are often the same kid: students who’ve been bullied are at risk for becoming someone who bullies others.  The following clip is from a series on how it feels to be called a bully, especially when you don’t realize how your remarks have affected others.  It’s painful to help a kid who has been targeted by others, feeling their shame and despair.  It’s equally hard to redirect a kid who was once that target and has now focused their anger on others.  In the series below, there’s no “perfect” ending.  Learning to deal with bullying, whether from the hands of others or from your own, is too often a part of special needs kids’ life experiences.  My hope is to take something ugly and work it for good.

Mike chapter 1

Any feedback on this?  

* Social narratives

I’ve posted previously on this topic but want to add a few more tips.

Where do you begin when writing a social narrative?  First you need to identify the specific behavior which needs to be addressed.  Saying that a child has “weak social skills” is much too vague.  You might want to write about “interactions with peers at recess.”  That puts you in the ballpark; you’ve identified where the problems are occurring and with whom.  But again, that does not specifically define the problem.  What kinds of interactions are you describing?  Verbal?  Physical?  And in what context?  Games?  On climbing equipment?  Lining up?  Identify the specifics so that your narrative is useful.

Gather reliable information on the problem before writing.  Ask your student to describe what happened.  I typically complete a drawing as we go through the process.  The following was a common problem for many kids at recess during the era of “football frenzy.”

drawing of events

I drew the schematic as my student, Trevor, described the problem.  He had gone out to recess and started playing football.  Everything was OK until another kid deliberately tripped him (note the first angry face).  Trevor complained vigorously to the offender and then resumed play.  When the other kid tripped him once again, Trevor was really angry.  The teacher assistant saw Trevor arguing and told both kids to follow the rules or they wouldn’t be allowed to play.  The situation went downhill as Trevor screamed when the other kid got close to him.  Trevor was “benched” by the teacher assistant, who told him he needed to cool off.  Trevor saw the other kid laughing at him and jumped off the chair, threatening to smack the other kid.  Trevor was sent to the office.

I also talked to the teacher assistant, who felt that Trevor was totally at fault.  Serendipitously, I had a lunch bunch with a different group of kids who told me that the “other kid” was always pushing and tripping others when they played football.  I had already seen a number of skirmishes as kids played football.  It seemed to me that the problem was global (lots of kids were getting upset) and represented a difficult choice for Trevor: to play or not to play?

Discuss alternatives through a social narrative.  I created a social story which described the situation in “steps,” so that Trevor was required to agree or disagree with the narrative:  “I want to play football, even though some kids cheat.”  We ended up with a kind of decision tree, where Trevor needed to decide if it was worth playing football (yes) even though he got upset every time (yes) and even though that other kid seemed to enjoy tripping him (yes).

Tackle obvious solutions (pun intended).  I took the liberty of alerting the other kid’s teacher and assistant teacher about the deliberate tripping.  That led to a slight decline in his rate of tripping others.  I also tried to help the assistant empathize with my student’s dilemma.  He really, really wanted to play football.  He was not the initiator of this problem, although other kids were better able to take the tripping in stride (unintentional pun).  It was difficult to get that empathy because Trevor had a “history” of threatening others.  (I’ll have to post later on that whole issue.)

Write a narrative that supports positive outcomes.  Begin with the obvious: You are going to play football.  The other kid may try to trip you.  From there, I included possible options.  I ruled out “seeking adult help” because Trevor didn’t want to leave the game and he doubted she would believe him, anyway.  I already had a number of options in mind and we agreed on these:

  1. Tell the other kid he was going to get in trouble if he kept tripping others.
  2. Ignore the other kid, remembering that professional players also trip one another.
  3. Calm down by remembering what happens if you threaten others.
  4. Calm down by taking a sideline break.
  5. Calm down by remembering that this kid is tripping others, too.

Have your student read the narrative before the problematic events typically occur.  In this case, Trevor would read his plan just before lining up for recess and then tuck it in his pants pocket.  He said it would remind him while he played.

Trevor did show improved self-control but recess was still a frustrating experience.  No one was happier than I when teachers decided that football season was over.

* Social narratives in decodable books

Although social narratives (or social stories) are typically used with kids who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, I find them quite effective in my work with a variety of struggling learners.  For kids who have a reading disability but cannot easily describe and/or cope with their feelings of despair, social narratives provide a format for beginning that important dialog.  These stories also allow them to see that others deal with the same frustrations.  Developing fictional characters who struggle with similar issues also creates a safe distance between those intense feelings, while still allowing discussion of both feelings and strategies. Cam book picture

It is not necessary to use decodable books with kids whose reading abilities are average, but allows dyslexic kids access to realistic fiction through materials at their particular stage in phonetic analysis.  I begin by developing a character with whom the child can identify, but without any reference to learning problems.  The characters have interests which are similar to that of my student and are usually the same gender and in the same grade.  However, I change enough other factors so that my intent is not transparent (at least not immediately!).  After taking the student through a few “chapters” in the character’s life, I introduce a school situation which causes that character distress.  Depending upon my student’s responses to these stories, I determine how closely the situation will parallel my student’s issues.  For example, if they have been able to talk openly as we discuss what they’ve read, I can make the chapters more direct.  If my student has avoided any relevant personal connections, I will broach key similarities such as behavior or strong feelings but change the subject matter (such as from writing to math).

I do ask kids to make personal connections to what they are reading with every chapter.  They may describe shared interests or similarities to friends or family.  Once the book series begins to address more “difficult” topics, such as anger, frustration, sadness, and misbehavior, I continue to ask the kids to make personal connections.  Many of these students will skirt the tough issues at this stage.  The books then start to focus on strategies; kids make predictions about the outcome of these interventions, explaining their reasoning.  At that point, they are discussing situations much like their own, but with a degree of emotional distance.  My students typically follow the struggles of these characters with much interest.  Again, depending upon their response, the decodable books may describe successful resolution for some of these issues, or will shift to another character who confronts similar problems.  After the “second round” of exploring difficulties with learning problems, I have found that most kids are willing to describe their own experiences.

This approach is usually too transparent for gifted kids, so I typically start a similar dialog verbally, in gradual increments.  For an average learner with reading disabilities, these stories can support important discussions about feeling anxious, upset, or stupid.  One student was on his “second round” with a set of decodable books when he turned to me and said, “Don’t think I’m going to discuss anything personal after I read this, because I’m not!”  I stifled a smile (and said to myself, “Yes, I can tell that you are!”).

If you have a student in crisis, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for weeks of character development before addressing tough feelings that often accompany dyslexia.  This narrative approach works best with students who are extremely resistant to talking about their strong feelings and with whom I will have time to inch forward.  Just as kids do when being bullied, I’ve found that kids with dyslexia usually feel embarrassment and shame.  Those kids who act out in a large group setting (and hope I don’t know about it) are the most resistant to disclosure.  Then I weave a sympathetic teacher or other adult into the plot, hoping that my unhappy student will identify with the relief of talking openly.  All the while, I am teaching specific decoding skills and syllable rules, so the process has the potential to be doubly effective.  My student is addressing valuable reading skills systematically (which will translate into more confidence and hope) while giving them much-needed opportunities to share their feelings or at least, recognize that others have similar problems.  This is not a “fix” for the feelings of stupidity and anger that dyslexic kids often experience, but I have found it an effective tool.