Saturday, March 27, 2010

Try Visual Social Supports to Improve Children’s Challenging Behavior

By Meghan Kunz

For some children with disabilities, new situations and transitions between activities can trigger challenging behaviors and anxiety. A strategy called visual social supports can help deal with those issues. Also called story boards, social scripting, and Social Stories,™* these short, illustrated narratives help a child understand, interpret, or ease into situations that might be new, confusing, or challenging. Proven effective at decreasing inappropriate behaviors such as hitting, screaming, and grabbing, such stories provide a visual means to understand otherwise non-visual information.

Whether you’re a parent or professional, you can create your own visual social supports. This article explains how to do it and looks at a sampling of software programs that can help you implement them for your child or student.

How to Begin

To identify where a visual social support might be helpful, look at the child’s day. When and where do behaviors and anxiety arise? Once you have that answer, you can begin creating the structure for your story.

Carol Gray, an educator who developed the concept of social stories, recommends including the following elements:

Descriptive sentences are objective sentences that identify the most relevant factors in a social situation. They often answer “wh” questions—who, what, where, why, and when.

  • Today we are going to see a movie at the movie theater.

Perspective sentences refer to other people’s thoughts, feelings, motivations, or beliefs. They help the child learn how others perceive various events.

  • Many people think seeing a movie in the theater is fun!

Directive sentences present positive responses to a situation.

  • People at the movie theater wait quietly in line to buy their tickets. If the movie is popular, the line may be long. I will try to wait patiently.

Affirmative sentences clarify statements and may convey values that most people hold. They also can emphasize key points and refer to laws or rules.

  • We will arrive at the theater early so we do not miss any of the movie, even if there is a long line. After buying our tickets, we can also purchase popcorn and juice. Adults may have popcorn with soda instead of juice.

Control sentences identify personal strategies the individual will use to remember and use the information. These sentences are written by the individual after reviewing the social story. If the child cannot write, he or she could draw a picture instead.

  • Sometimes the line may not be long and we can be seated right away. When seated right away, we may have to watch commercials until the movie starts. During the movie we need to sit nicely and be quiet so everyone can hear the movie. The theater lights go off and just the screen lights up the room.

Cooperative sentences explain how others may help the child.

  • Many people will watch the movie in the theater. If I need to use the bathroom or take a break, I can ask an adult in a quiet voice so other people can still hear the movie.

Partial sentences encourage the child to “fill in the blank,” suggesting what will happen next or how someone will respond. Any of the above sentences can be written as a partial sentence.

  • If I want to come back to the theater to watch another movie, I (need to sit quietly through the entire movie). Going to a movie in the theater (is fun)!

Tools You Can Use

Once you have the structure for your visual support story, you can add images and other features using one of several software programs. Here are a few options.**

Kreative Komix

Does your child like dinosaurs? Super heroes? Fairy tales? You can create visual support stories using those and other popular characters with Kreative Komix. Available in a range of genres, this comic book–making software tool offers a variety of layouts and the ability to add thought and text bubbles. The program has text-to-speech capabilities, so the words can be spoken out loud., $39.95/title

Microsoft PowerPoint

Although not intended as a tool to create visual support stories, PowerPoint can be used for just that. It offers several templates and accepts a variety of file formats, including image, sound, recorded speech, and video files. It also includes page-turning buttons that can enhance navigation., $229 as a stand-alone program or $399 as part of Microsoft Office Suite

Tar Heel Reader

With Tar Heel Reader, you can create visual support stories and illustrate them with your own pictures or royalty-free images from Flickr. An invitation code (available through the Simon Technology Center) is required for to create books. Tar Heel Reader also offers hundreds of accessible, easy-reader online books (no invitation code needed to read books) on a variety of topics. It is ideal for older students who could benefit from easy-to-read, repetitive books but have interest levels outside of early-reader topics. Users can read or have books read to them online., free


TheraSimplicity is a collection of tools, illustrations, symbols, worksheets, and reference materials you can use to create visual support stories. Stories are converted to PDF format and are accessible on both Mac and PC., $189/one-year subscription; a free 30-day trial is available.


This tool allows you to create comic strips complete with characters, backgrounds, and text bubbles. For children who want to create their own visual support stories, this tool can provide a new mode of expression. Because ToonDoo is a public domain and users have access to a large library of already-made comics, safety for children using the site independently could be a concern., free


Vizzle includes a variety of tools for creating visual support stories. Using the Build-A-Book feature, for example, you can add voice, images, video, and more. Interactive hot-spots, for example, provide a greater level of support. Vizzle also has tools for creating games, matching boards, token boards, timers, and more. You can save your creation on the Vizzle Web site and access it from any computer with Internet access., parent memberships are $25/month; teacher and professional memberships are $78/month; clinician memberships are $100/month; a free 14-day trial is available.


When used appropriately, visual support stories can help children with disabilities decrease challenging behaviors and better manage social situations. These stories can be created easily using the tools listed in this article. Repetition can help your child use these stories successfully.

For more information on visual social supports, contact the Simon Technology Center at 952-838-9000 or at

*Social Stories™ were first defined in 1991 by Carol Gray, who continues to do work on social supports for students with autism. This article incorporates several of her strategies and findings. Learn more at

**Inclusion on this list does not imply an endorsement. PACER Center does not assume any responsibility for the content on any of these sites.

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