No matter the age, IQ or language learning abilities—students of social learning benefit from visual strategies that help transform socially abstract ideas into something more concrete.
Over the years it has surprised me when a parent or professional tells me at a conference that their student is “too high functioning” for visual strategies! Personally, I use visual strategies to get me through the day, every single day of my life. Wall or desk calendars, post-it notes or appointment books at home, flip-charts at meetings, whiteboard planning charts; these are the tools that help us connect ideas, see the big picture, and keep our tasks, our engagements, and ourselves organized!
While Social Thinking has produced many visuals in the form of charts, posters, picture books, frameworks and thinksheets, a very powerful visual tool that can be easily paired with so many of our lessons is using the thought bubbles (available in blue
,) and speech bubbles
I was first introduced to the concept of visually mapping out what people are thinking and feeling through Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations (1991). Since that time many people have gone on to develop more advanced forms of these visual conversations. Ellyn Arwood, Mabel Brown, and Carole Kaulitz have written excellent books on the subject. Their most recent book, Pro-Social Language: A Way to Think about Behavior (2015) discusses and demonstrates how visual analysis and discussion of people’s thoughts and feeling can help students manage previously problematic behavior though better understanding how people are actively interpreting and responding to each other.
Like many other professionals, I have found great benefit using comic strip conversation type teaching by drawing on paper stick figures, thought bubbles and speech bubbles.
Another related and very helpful set of tools is the use of free standing, hand-held thought bubbles and speech bubbles, created with a dry-erase surface that makes these tools reusable. Because these tools can be so handy for “in the moment” teaching of the wide world of our intangible thoughts, we sell thought bubbles with blue
trim and green
trim. We purposefully chose to not sell a red-rimmed thought bubble as “red thoughts” often represent angry and mean thinking. We wanted to avoid the idea that any one person had this singular type of thinking.
The speech bubbles come with two in a package. Since a discussion involves at least a two-person interaction, at least two speech bubbles are needed. We find the speech bubbles very helpful in exploring how we interpret what we say to each other. These can be used both proactively, by having our clients think about the future impact of their words, and reactively, having our clients think about what was said, why it was said and how it was interpreted.
Sarah Ward, a speech-language pathologist who, along with Kristen Jacobsen, have created excellent teaching frameworks focused around executive functioning, first introduced me to the thought bubble product. I went on to use it very successfully with my clients who include children, teens, and mature adults.
Using Thought and Speech Bubbles when Teaching Social Concepts
Thought bubbles and speech bubbles have endless uses, especially when discussing how people impact each other in the moment. Many individuals with social learning challenges find it difficult to track a conversation or discussion. It’s not concrete, the words are spoken, and then poof, they’re gone! These same individuals often need help thinking about what others around them are thinking and feeling.
Since these tools are physical manipulatives, they can easily be used in the teaching moment without interrupting the flow by having to stop and draw out the situation (context) or the stick figures to represent the people involved. They’re already together in the situation! This means we can shift focus to how people are relating to each other based on what each is thinking and possibly saying in that situation. This is so helpful when you’re teaching a group of students in a Social Thinking group or when running an individual session and teaching students that they impact your thoughts and feelings and you impact their thoughts and feelings as well. It’s an effective on-the-spot visual tool that makes intangible concepts more concrete.
In working with our clients, we use the thought bubbles to help individuals learn about thoughts; the thoughts we have about ourselves and the thoughts we may have based on what we think about others. This tool can build more self-awareness into the cognitive process. It can then support carrying the lesson one step further: how we adapt our social skills based on our thoughts as well as the thoughts others have about us or the situation.
We use the speech bubbles most often to help problem solve. They can be used to illustrate what someone might say in response to what you have said to them. These can also be used reactively to explore why one person became so upset with another person based on what was said.
To follow are a few of the countless ways I have used these tools with my school age students beyond introducing the very basics (I have a thought, you have a thought, our language should be altered based on how it will make others think and feel). The first lesson is suitable for a person who has less self-awareness and the second and third lessons are for students who are socially a bit higher functioning, but who are not thoughtful about how they may affect how another person feels and thinks.
Lesson 1. Holding a Thought Inside Your Head
Tools needed: Two thought bubbles and two speech bubbles
People involved: The student and an adult (teacher or parent)
Dilemma: The student is learning about secrets and is learning to keep a secret. At this stage of learning the student can’t inhibit his or her response to tell people everything the student knows.
- Introduce the concept: describe to the student what a secret is. A secret means we know something that we are not to tell other people. Basically, we hold that thought in our head and not tell it to someone.
- Give the student a pencil or pen and tell the student that we (the adult) are going to close our eyes tight and the student should hide the object in the room where it can’t be seen.
- When the student hides it, he is to keep the hiding place in his own mind (his own thought) and not tell us where it is!
- Once it is hidden, the teacher (or parent) continues to encourage the student to keep the thought in his own brain and not say it out loud. Then the teacher takes a thought bubble and explains that she has no thoughts about where the pencil is hidden because she did not see it hidden nor did she hear about it, since the student is staying silent!
- She tells him he is doing a really good job keeping the secret.
- In reality, many students will find this very difficult! They will blurt out where they know it is hidden, even if they are telling you they are keeping the secret! A student said to me, “I am keeping a secret! I hid the pencil in the drawer!”
- When the student struggles to keep the secret, direct him to write where the pencil is hidden on his thought bubble. He should write “the pencil is in the drawer.”
- He should also write on the speech bubble “the pencil is in the drawer.”
- Have him hold the thought bubble above his head and the speech bubble near his mouth. He can also say aloud what it says on both the thought and speech bubbles, “the pencil is in the drawer.”
- If you have a digital camera, take a picture and show it to him. Physically demonstrate that if he knows where something is, he is having a thought and then when he tells someone else they also know where it is.
- When the student looks at the picture of the two bubbles they can see that they both thought the thought and said the thought.
- At this point the teacher explains that if the student says what he’s thinking, he doesn’t have a secret. Instead he’s just telling people everything he knows.
- Next the teacher writes what she has learned about the pencil on her thought bubble “the pencil is in the drawer” and she holds her thought bubble above her head. She then tells the student, “Your secret is no longer a secret because I know where the pencil is hidden!” She can then also write on her speech bubble, “the pencil is in the drawer” while she says it aloud. She then goes and looks for the pencil.
- The teacher explains that it is good to practice keeping many of our thoughts in our head. When we are in class, other students get distracted if we say everything we are thinking. It makes other people feel calm when others around them keep their thoughts in their head, so they can focus on what they are doing!
- The teacher (or parent) then works with the student to help him learn that he can take control of his own thoughts by learning to keep them in his brain.
- To teach this, the teacher (or parent) asks the student to close his eyes tight. The adult hides the pencil somewhere else in the room. The teacher then writes on her thought bubble where she knows the pencil is hidden (without letting the student see what is written). The teacher then turns the thought bubble around backwards so all the student can see is the backside of the thought bubble (which is just brown particle board).
- The teacher asks the student to open his eyes and look at the adult. The adult says, “I have hidden the pencil. I know where I hid it and I am keeping the thought to myself. I have written it on my thought bubble, but you can’t see my thoughts!”
- Have the student explain why he can’t see your thoughts by explaining all he can see is the back side of the thought bubble (the brown side).
- Explain that you are not telling him where you know you hid the pencil, so you are doing a good job holding your thought in your head. Show him that your speech bubble is blank.
- Then ask your student if he wants to know where the pencil is hidden. (A student will likely say “yes.”) Have the student write his thought (“I wonder where the pencil is?) on his thought bubble and also on his speech bubble. Once he communicates this, tell him where you hid it. Now he knows where it is (have him write this on this thought bubble), then have him go find it.
- Ask the student if he wants to try being able to hold a thought in his head? (Students will most likely say “yes.”). Direct the student to do just as you did.
- Ask the teacher to close her eyes
- Hide the pencil
- Write the hiding place on the thought bubble
- Turn the thought bubble so the teacher can’t see what is written.
- Tell the teacher to open her eyes.
- If the student has done this reasonably well, exclaim, “wow, you did it! You kept your thought in your brain! I don’t know where you hid the pencil! Great job keeping a secret!”
- I’ve found that this simple physical act of having students turn their thought bubble from front to back helps them get a better idea of how they can have a thought but not share it, and keep it to themselves. The use of the thought bubble helps them concretely get the idea of holding the thought in their head and the physical manipulation of the tool seems to help this concept come alive.
- Take another digital picture (of the student’s thought bubble turned backwards and the student’s blank speech bubble) and show it to your student. Point out that you can’t see his thought and that nothing is on his speech bubble. This means the student is learning to keep his thoughts in his head, which is a very grown up thing to do! Reviewing the digital picture can help a student visually put the pieces together in his head so the teaching makes sense. He can concretely see that keeping a thought private involves 1) having a thought (that he may have written on the thought bubble), 2) learning that others can’t see his thoughts (because the thought bubble is turned backwards) and 3) not saying his thought aloud (the speech bubble is blank).
- You will likely need to adapt the above and practice this lesson over and over again to help our very literal, socially unaware students how to control some of what they express through their language.
Lesson 2. How Our Words Affect Another Person’s Thinking
When working with students individually or in group, they are likely to say something that makes another person feel uncomfortable. Part of being in a social situation with others is being accountable to how we make people think and feel based on what we do or say. Keep in mind that if you are working with a student individually, there are two people in the room who have thoughts and feelings. The professional would then need to assume the role of the second person in the group as well as be the teacher who is teaching the concept.
Tools needed: two thought bubbles and two speech bubbles, minimum. If you want to involve more students you’ll need more of both bubbles.
People involved: Two or more students (5th grade or older) to role play a situation. If there are not two students available for the role play, then the teacher and one student can do this together.
Dilemma: Similar to the lesson above, we are teaching that what you say or do can affect how someone else thinks and feels. In this lesson we are teaching this concept more deeply.
Encourage your students to hold their thought bubbles above their heads. Talk about how we all have thoughts about each other and it’s common for us to have momentary weird thoughts about another person in the room.
- A weird thought is when we have uncomfortable thoughts about a person based on how the person has made us feel and think.
- Begin by having each student in the group think something positive about another member of the group and then say that thought. To introduce them to the thought bubbles and speech bubbles, have one kid at a time write their pro-social thought on the thought bubble and write down on the speech bubble how they would describe this thought to the other person.
- Then have this student tell another student the pro-social thought.
- Once the other student receives the pro-social thought, then have that student write down, on his/her own thought bubble, how this comment makes the student feel. Then also write down on the speech bubble what the student may say back to the original student about how these comments made him or her feel.
- Discuss with students how people tend to feel better and react more positively when they hear positive comments verses negative comments that make people feel not as good.
- Have each student in the room experience saying a pro-social comment to another student and then exploring each student’s reaction to this type of comment. Talk about how we all have thoughts and when we say them they can affect others positively or negatively.
- Next, the teacher talks to students about the fact that people also may have negative thoughts about each other, but when those are directly stated this makes someone feel bad.
- The teacher may give personal examples of this and explain how these comments made her think and feel. Define that “negative comments are those that make the listener feel more negatively about the other person and perhaps about himself or herself.”
- Explain that we all do have negative thoughts about other people, and that is fine as long as we know that most of the time these thoughts need to stay in our brain and not be expressed through our language.
- Have the students each write out something negative they have thought about another person (any person they can think of) on their thought bubbles. Have them keep their speech bubble blank.
- Explain how having the thought does not negatively impact how that other person thinks and feels because it’s not been shared.
- Next take the idea a step further. Explore with your group what happens when people think a negative thought about one person but they share that thought with someone else. Discuss what happens when they don’t tell the negative thought to the person associated with the thought, but they do tell someone else the negative thought they had about the person. (This is called gossiping or “trash talking” and “talking behind someone’s back.”) You can have students explore how this unfolds in real time by directing them to write out what they would tell someone else (on their speech bubble) and then hold it up. Do they think they are keeping their thought a secret? Are they? What if this person tells the other person your negative thought about him or her? Have the group talk about this type of negative sharing and how it can make the person being talked about think and feel if he found out. Explore with your group how they would feel if this happened to them.
- Next explore the scenario where a person thinks a negative thought about a person and tells it to that person. How will that affect the person who hears this negative information? How will this person think about the person who said it? How will the person likely react? Use the thought and speech bubbles to have students write out this information and hold their thought bubbles over their heads and their speech bubbles next to their mouths.
- Explore reactions. What if the student who was on the receiving end of the negative comment now responds by telling the other person that he’s a “jerk” or the person tells other people how bad he was treated and by whom?
- How does this type of situation end up? Do people build friendships from doing this or is this behavior what makes people upset? What if both people continue to say negative things? How can the situation escalate to even worse behavior?
- Work with your students on strategies to help them realize that they have to keep control of the thoughts in their brain and be really careful about what they say out their mouth. One strategy to teach is that in situations like this we need to use what we call a “brain thought-to-talk filter.” Explain that we use our brain filters when we have less than positive thoughts and/or feelings about another person. We use a brain filter to make sure we don't say out loud what we are thinking in our brains.
- A filter traps things that you don’t want to flow through. For instance, a coffee filter traps coffee grounds so people can enjoy coffee without it being ruined with bits of crushed up coffee beans in the cup. In a similar way our brain filter traps the thoughts we don’t want to allow through to our mouth to say out loud.
- As the adult runs the group across different sessions, if any student expresses a negative thought to someone else in the room, stop and re-explore the need to use the thought-to-talk filter. Have the student or adult who received the negative comment write down how the negative messages made him think and feel.
- Give more attention to the student who was hurt by the message than to the person who said it. Explore how the student who was hurt probably wants to say something non-complimentary back. Explore how this can just lead to more and more negative thinking (and talking) on everyone’s part.
- If you are familiar with Social Behavior Mapping, you can also connect the strategy of using a thought-to-talk brain filter to what we teach in the Social Behavior Mapping process.
- Continue to teach the cause and effect of brain filtering with how it makes others think and feel as a constant underlying lesson when teaching Social Thinking.
Lesson 3. Others Have Thoughts About Us Even When We’re Not Talking!
This lesson helps quiet students better understand that even when they are silent, people are still thinking about them!
Tools needed: two thought bubbles and two speech bubbles (for a two-person group). Additional bubbles needed if more students are involved.
People needed: two or more students plus a teacher
Dilemma: Many of our quieter students think that if they’re not talking (or no one is talking), people around them aren’t having any thoughts about them. Sometimes people have reactions because our students aren’t participating or contributing during a social encounter.
- Select two students to role play a situation where they are spending some time together.
- Student 1 stays silent, his speech bubble remains blank.
- Student 2 isn’t talking either. But he notices that Student 1 doesn’t say anything. He starts to have a lot of little weird thoughts about why Student 1 doesn’t talk to him.
- Have Student 2 write out his thoughts on his thought bubble. (Student 2’s speech bubble stays blank as well at this point.) Some examples:
- “Student 1 must not like it here, he never talks.”
- “Student 1 doesn’t like me, he never talks to me!”
- Now have Student 1 go back and fill in his thought bubble. Even if he’s silent, he is still having thoughts about the situation. For instance, Student 1 may be thinking:
- “He seems like a nice enough guy; I just don’t know what to say to him!”
- “What should I say? Why does this seem so easy for everyone else!”
- Put both students’ speech bubbles on the table for each to see so they realize that no one is saying anything.
- Put both thought bubbles on the table and help students notice that each silent person is having a lot of thoughts, even though no one is talking.
- Notice that Student 2 has uncomfortable thoughts about the situation or about Student 1, even if— or especially if—Student 1 stays quiet the entire time.
- Encourage Student 1 to say something as simple as “hi”, to demonstrate to Student 2 that at the very least he means to be thought of as friendly.
NOTE to adults: Keep talking about this idea with your students to help them understand that being silent doesn’t mean others have no thoughts about you. From there you can being to explore their social goals. What type of thoughts do you want others to have? How can you communicate with others in a manner that creates these thoughts?
As your students become more conscious of the thoughts and reactions they create in others, you can take the teaching to a deeper level. How do you push yourself to use strategies you’ve learned in situations like this? How can we create a more positive inner coach that can encourage you to push through the anxiety and work on relating to others even when you’re feeling stress?
Often you will find that at the heart of a pervasively silent student is a lot of anxiety, and often it’s social anxiety. Social Thinking offers a variety of other lessons on helping students work through their social anxiety.
Involve Students in the Lesson Planning!
And, here’s one more idea on using these thought and speech bubbles. Give them to your students and ask them to decide how to use them in the session. Involving students in creating lessons can go a long way toward them learning information relevant to them!
Enjoy using these lessons and the many more lessons you’ll create using these thought and speech bubbles to expand upon what we think and what we say in social situations.
The goal of teaching Social Thinking is to make the implicit explicit. Thought and speech bubbles help us move toward this goal in a way that’s engaging, concrete, and often motivating for everyone involved across different age groups!