Social Stories for Museum Educators

I’m putting together social stories for the classrooms at PS 73 before I start my next Bronx Museum partnerships. These sessions begin with each of my three classes visiting the museum and touring the current exhibit with me.

This tour can admittedly be a bit stressful. All children like to explore and touch, but compounding that innate curiosity with developmental differences can understandably involve a lot of my saying, “Let’s take one big step back in 3…2…1!”

There are a range of strategies to deal with this temptation to touch from leadership and classroom (so to speak) management ideas, to providing items related to the art which can be felt, rubbed, squeezed, etc. These can all be great, but I like to be proactive as well so a tool I love using is a social story.

A social story is a short text that uses simple language and realistic images to describe an event or social situation. They are often in third person to position the class or individual in the narrative. Social stories are especially useful tools for students who have difficulty with abstraction. So, for example, imagine a child with developmental or multiple disabilities who has never been to a museum before. What are the rules? What happens in a museum? What does this museum look like? What even is a museum?

These fundamental questions can all be answered in a social story to help students better prepare and, as a result, better navigate the space once the mystery and potential anxiety of it has been removed.

In my first partnership I didn’t make a social story and I had a student who believed they were going to the Bronx Zoo right up until they walked through the museum doors. Teachers telling him it was the Bronx Museum, not the zoo, didn’t help. There was no visual reference for this student, he had never been to a museum before so in saying “no, it’s a museum,” there was no connection for the word.

The way children expected to act in a zoo and art museum are very different, so understandably this student wanted to run around and explore the way a kid might in the open air and relatively open space of a zoo. This wasn’t a failure on the student’s part, he participated in all my activities and really enjoyed the art, but rather a failure of planning and after this trip a light bulb went off and I realized (duh) I should be using social stories.

While certainly cure-all I noticed a big difference in the museum trip, especially for my youngest class, the following Spring when I did introduced a story to the classes before their visits. That said, unless you or your organization has the time to go into the school ahead of time this strategy necessitates teacher buy in. The hope is that the school educators you’re working with will read the story to the students ahead of the visit and leave a classroom copy out for students to reference or flip through when they have free time.

As an example for museum educators out there, I’ve removed the identifying content from a previous exhibit’s social story and made it free to download. You can access it by clicking here or on the sample page below. Oh, and as I mentioned in a previous post, feel free to use any font you want, but be sure it’s one where all the letters, capital and lowercase, are easy to distinguish from one another. I usually just opt for the standard Times New Roman.

Image of a social story page with a picture of the Bronx Museum exterior and the words in large, bold type face.

Image of a social story page with a picture of the Bronx Museum exterior and the words in large, bold type face.