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What’s the Story Here? Using Social Stories in Ministry with Children with Disabilities

by: Dana Kennamer Pemberton

Children with disabilities often struggle to make sense of environments that are perfectly clear to the rest of us. Even when they do know the rules, they often need language – a sort of script – to help them be successful. Carol Gray first developed the structure for social stories in the 70’s to assist children with autism and those who live and work with them as they navigate social contexts together.  You can view a video introduction of Carol Gray’s Social Story approach here.

Another helpful source is the article, Using Social Stories to Increase Positive Behaviors for children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, written by Vicky Spencer, Cynthia Simpson and Sharon Lynch (2008) in the Intervention in School and Clinic Journal. These authors draw on the work of Carol Gray and provide simple and clear information for how you can develop social stories for the children in your context. They remind us that social stories are more than a list of things to do – focusing on describing rather than directing. Spencer, Simpson and Lynch outline the following parts of a social story that guide in the writing of the story: 

  • Descriptive sentence(s) – This part of the story (two to five sentences) describes the appropriate behavior for the situation.

  • Directive sentence – This sentence describes the appropriate response for the social situation.

  • Perspective sentence – In this part, the author describes how the reactions and point of view of others in the social situation.

  • Optional sentence – You may want to include one sentence to state the commonly shared value that informs the behavior.

  • Control sentence – This sentence reminds the child of the appropriate behavior for the situation. 

The length of the story is determined by the level of the child. It often helpful to pictures or photos to support the words. One example that the authors provide in the article is entitled “Waiting for My Turn to Talk.”

  • At school we like to talk to our teacher. (descriptive sentence)

  • Many times other children want to talk to her too. (descriptive sentence)

  • Everyone cannot always talk to her at the same time. (descriptive sentence)

  • Sometimes we have to wait our turn. (descriptive sentence)

  • When it is not my turn, I need to listen to what others are saying. (directive sentence)

  • My teacher likes it when we are good listeners and wait for our turn to talk. (perspective sentence)

  • I will try to remember to be a good listener and wait for my turn to talk. (control sentence)

I have found that this strategy is helpful not only for children with autism spectrum disorder, but also for those with ADD, English learners, children with limited language and more. In fact, even typically developing children, especially young children, can benefit from these stories. Author Brene’ Brown says that clear is kind. Social stories are one way to provide kind clarity for children in a world that often does not make sense to them.

I have included below a social story I wrote for a child with autism who was part of my Sunday morning gathering with kindergarten and first grade. We have about 50 children in this setting. After a time of praise, we begin our class with Sharing Time. In this structure, I remind the children that, “When God’s people gather, they listen to each other.” So when a friend shares, we ask questions to learn more about our friend. This is hard! But the children learn to listen to each other and express interest in what they have to share. 

Because there are so many children in the class, it can be weeks before a child’s stick is pulled. My first grade friend with autism struggled with this waiting process. I wrote the story below to help him be successfully included in our class. We read it together each day as he came into class. I provided it for his mother so she could read it as well. With this story, he was able to be successful. You could sometimes hear him saying the words, “Waiting is hard, but that is okay” to provide himself with the support he needed. 

What are the social situations that are hard for the children in your context? Could a Social Story help? I encourage you to try it. Remember, “Clear is kind!” 

My Story about Sharing Time

On Sunday mornings we have Sharing Time. All the kids have a stick with their name in the cup. 

My teacher pulls 3 or 4 sticks out of the cup each week. These kids get to share with the class that day. 

There are lots of sticks in the cup because there are lots of kids in the class. We have to wait until our stick is pulled to be able to share. This can take a long, long time. It may be weeks and weeks before my stick is pulled. That is hard! It makes me want to cry. 

When my stick is not pulled, I can ask questions. My teacher will call on me to ask my friends who are sharing a question. I am good at asking questions. I know just the right things to ask.


When my stick is not pulled, I can tell myself, “Waiting is hard but that is okay. I will raise my hand so the teacher will call on me to ask a question.” I can take a deep breath and be calm.

My friends in class like it when I ask good questions. They get to tell more about what they are sharing. They know I want to know them better. They know I am interested in them.

I will try to be patient and wait for my stick to be pulled. Even if I get upset, I will try to tell myself it is okay! 

My teacher will be proud of me when I can wait and stay calm when my stick is not pulled.

Contributed by Dana Kennamer Pemberton, PhD. Dana directs the nationally recognized teacher education program at Abilene Christian University. While a passionate researcher on children's spiritual development, she is "Teacher Dana" to the children (and young adults) at her home church.


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