Using Children’s Literature to Build Social Thinking

When I read Michelle Garcia Winner’s book “Thinking About YOU, Thinking About ME,” it had what I call, “a domino effect.” It seemed like to the doors of Social Thinking had just opened for me and there was a whole new world to discover. During my discovery process I came across Audra Jensen’s book “I Get It!” The book delivers exactly what it promises. It helps both the clinicians and the students understand important Social Thinking concepts that in theory seem abstract and difficult to define, but when used in context of familiar children’s literature, suddenly make sense. I’ve always been a big proponent of using children’s literature in therapy. I use it to build receptive language, vocabulary, grammar or syntax, speech articulation skills and also as a reinforcement. So the idea of using it to teach Social Thinking concepts seemed inevitable to me. Audra Jensen’s book helped put it all together. She addresses the concepts such as “Body in the Group,” “Expected/ Unexpected Behavior,” “Flexible Brain,” “Keeping Brain in the Group,” as well as books that compliment the introduction and instruction of the Superflex curriculum. Superflex is a social skills super-hero (created by Stephanie Madrigal as a part of Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum). He battles social villains, called the Unthinkables that disrupt good social behavior. Supplementing the Superflex curriculum with children’s literature allows the child to comprehend the concepts as they relate to familiar characters.

For example, one of the books Audra Jenson recommends to teach “Expected/ Unexpected” behaviors is the very popular book, “No David!” by David Shannon. The book has excellent illustrations that make differentiating “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors easy and obvious. Audra also talks about how the book offers opportunities for children to analyze the behaviors and state why they are “unexpected” and what his mother is feeling when David engages in those behaviors.

Childrens Literature in Social Thinking Putting a lesson together to teach the concept of “expected/ unexpected behaviors” using “No David!” would be fairly easy for most experienced clinicians. However, for me, having the resource list of children’s books that teach specific Social Thinking concepts makes Audra Jensen’s book an incredibly handy tool. An additional benefit of using children’s literature as a tool is that lessons can be planned for individual (one-on-one sessions) as well as groups.

Toys, Books and Games that Promote Language Development

There are many toys and games available at your local toys store. For some parents the choices and variety can be overwhelming. Parents often ask me “Which toys should I purchase?” “Which toys will help my child develop speech and language skills?” The important thing to remember with regards to developing speech and language skills with toys is that the adult model and the actual interaction are more critical than the toy you use. Fancy toys can never replace an interactive, engaged and responsive adult partner. Having said that, some toys and books lend themselves to building specific speech and language skills.

  1. Developing basic joint attention skills in young children or children with moderate to severe cognitive delays.
    • Bubbles – Most children love to watch, pop and blow bubbles. Bubbles are perfect to draw a child’s attention. They also help with building oral motor skills, and sensory awareness when popped on their bodies. I often use bubbles to teach body parts. I will pop bubbles on a child’s nose, ears, mouth, cheeks, fingers and toes while labeling the body parts.
    • Wind-up toys – These are wonderful attention grabbers because of the movement and noise. They can be used as reinforcements. I will often use the wind-up toys to teach basic speech imitation skills such as animal sounds. Children will often imitate sound effects before real words.
    • Pop-up toys – Toys that open when buttons are pressed or dials are turned not only teach joint attention, but also develop cause and effect relationships. Certain cognitive theories state the development of cause-effect and object permanence as a precursor to language development.
  2. Developing vocabulary skills in children.
    • Mr. Potato Head – I especially love this toy for building basic vocabulary skills such as body parts and clothing. However, you can also use it to teach verbs such as walking, sleeping, eating, jumping and running. In addition, since there are a wide variety of accessories, you can also use the pieces to teach describing words such as big, small, long and short.
    • Puzzles – Some of the new wooden puzzles are wonderful in terms of quality and durability. They also make a wide variety of puzzles ranging from animals to vehicles. Most of their pieces are chunky and ideal for little hands. Some puzzles also include sound effects and are interactive.
  3. Developing pretend play skills and social interaction.
    • Tea set – A tea set works well to teach turn taking, pretend play, and pronouns (e.g., I, you, my, your).
    • Little People farm/ zoo – I like using these toys for younger children. Pretending to make the animals walk, run, jump, eat, and sleep are early pretend play skills. You can also teach simple sentence formation (e.g Here is the cow; The horse in eating). In addition, they can be used to build prepositions such as “in,” “out,” and “next to.”
    • Doll house/ Kitchen set – A doll house or kitchen set can be used to teach more elaborate play sequences such as “First the doll wakes up, then gets dressed, then eats breakfast and then goes to school.” These interactions not only teach pretend play, but are also rich in language and provide lots of language stimulation.
  4. Children’s books that build language and speech skills.
    While there are a plethora of children’s books at your local book store, I wanted to list some of my favorites. I especially like books that are repetitive in nature and therefore are predictable. Children love the repetitions and will quickly learn to imitate the familiar words and phrases.

    • The Very Hungry Caterpillar
    • Brown Bear, Brown Bear
    • Polar Bear, Polar Bear
    • The Very Busy Spider
    • Go Away Big, Green Monster
    • Glad Monster, Sad Monster
    • Seals on the Bus
    • It looked like Spilled Milk.
    • If you give a Mouse a Cookie
    • If you give a Moose a Muffin
    • We’re Going on A Bear Hunt
    • Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed
    • The Three Little Pigs
    • There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Shell

    Parents and caregivers can also find pictures and activities online that are based on the books. A website I often use is .

Remember to keep your interactions fun and animated. The key to using these books and toys effectively is “Repetition! Repetition! Repetition!”