Social Thinking Articles


Research to Frameworks to Practice: Social Thinking's Layers of Evidence

Pamela Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP, and Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP

Social Thinking Research

© 2019 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

NOTE: This is the shorter version of the I'm Doing Social Thinking - But Where is the Evidence? article. It includes pages of examples explaining the layers of evidence underlying the Social Thinking Methodology.

I'm Doing Social Thinking® - But Where Is the Evidence? To answer the question about evidence and Social Thinking, we need to first begin with a common language and a shared understanding of terms. Right out of the gate, it’s confusing when people say they are "doing" Social Thinking because it is not a single entity. It is not a set of behaviors that you teach. It is not a step-by-step “cookbook”, nor is it one single program or approach. Social Thinking is a language and cognitive-based methodology that focuses on the dynamic and synergistic nature of social interpretation and social communication skills, both of which require social problem solving. The methodology is developmental, utilizing aspects of behavioral and cognitive behavioral principles, as well as stakeholder input as a way to translate evidence-based concepts into conceptual frameworks, strategy-based frameworks, curricula, activities, and motivational tools. (Note: a more detailed explanation of this very long sentence and a table to illustrate will follow.).

Social Thinking was originally developed as an intervention and assessment framework dedicated to tackling the complex social emotional learning needs of individuals with social learning challenges. At its inception 20 years ago, there were relatively few treatment-based research studies available to guide interventionists in how to teach individuals about their own social learning process. This relative lack of treatment research, while not as bleak today, continues to be limited. The underlying motivation for the creation of the Social Thinking methodology was, and is, that individuals with social learning issues should have access to interventions and strategies based on both individual learning abilities and the demands of the community within which they participate. Clearly, none of us would deny that individuals have varied social learning abilities and part of our mission is to create intervention strategies that span this diversity. This includes assessment of real-time social competencies, understanding different levels of the social mind, creating holistic treatments for understanding perspective taking, social communication, and social anxiety, to name a few.

A Methodology to infuse Evidence Based Practices

The Social Thinking methodology embraces what the literature tells us about working directly with individuals who have social learning challenges (e.g., ASD, Social Communication Disorder, ADHD, Learning Disabilities, Twice Exceptional, etc.) and promotes the use of visual supports, modeling, naturalistic teaching, and self-management. Also, the methodology anchors to the research in fields that study how individuals evolve and develop to function in society: anthropology, cultural linguistics, social psychology, child development, and others. Many of the components of Social Thinking fit well into the multi-tiered research-based implementation framework of Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS). And while PBIS is not an approach, it is a framework that encourages schools to consider the uptake of a variety of practices where the "mutually beneficial relationship between academic and social behavior student success is highlighted (Chard, Harn, Sugai, & Horner, 2008; Sugai, Horner, & Gresham, 2002). In the same vein, CASEL's five Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Core Competencies ( are reflected within and throughout the Social Thinking methodology.

"...A methodology does not set out to provide solutions - it is, therefore, not the same as a method. Instead, a methodology offers the theoretical underpinning for understanding, which method, set of methods, or so-called “best practices” can be applied to specific case... (

If we aren't doing Social Thinking, then how do we talk about it?

In this case, semantics truly matter. As you can see by the diverse components of the methodology, it's not enough to say that you are "doing” Social Thinking. The reality is that most of us are implementing one (or many) components of the larger methodology. As a community, we need to articulate WHICH component we are implementing and how that component connects to the deeper evidence that supports it. (Read on for additional tips via a terminology Table and illustration).

For instance, consider stating the following:

  • Our school is implementing Superflex™ as part of our PBIS adoption.
  • We are using the We Thinkers! curricula (series formerly known as The Incredible Flexible You) within the SEL framework. It addresses joint attention, self-regulation, and perspective taking through stories and play.
  • I'm teaching Social Thinking Vocabulary as a way to connect to the social and academic components of the Common Core/State Standards
  • Our classroom is implementing Social Behavior Mapping™ for teaching social responsibility via visual supports and modeling.
  • I'm teaching about the Unthinkables™ and Thinkables™ to help my students learn perspective taking and self-regulation.


Is there evidence for Social Thinking? If so, where is it?

To drill down on the evidence question, we first need to clear up a common confusion between the name of the methodology (Social Thinking) and the act of teaching individuals to think socially or use the social thinking process (i.e., socially think about the context, people, thoughts, emotions and social behaviors). We typically differentiate by referring to the methodology with capital letters (Social Thinking) versus the process of teaching how to think socially with lowercase letters (social thinking). Now, on to the evidence supporting the components of the methodology.

There are currently 10 peer-reviewed studies, nine theses and dissertations, and numerous articles, papers and presentations related to various components of the Social Thinking methodology. These are not studies of the entire methodology! That would make absolutely no sense, as you will see in the Evidence to Frameworks to Practice table below. The reality is that the Social Thinking methodology has an extremely rich evidence base, but the term "evidence" can mean many things depending upon: a) the question you ask, b) the lens with which you view the information, and c) your definition of evidence. For example, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) defines evidence-based practices (EBP) as:

"The integration of: (a) clinical expertise/expert opinion, (b) external scientific evidence, and (c) client/patient/caregiver perspectives to provide high-quality services reflecting the interests, values, needs, and choices of the individuals we serve." (

ASHA further states,
"Because EBP is client/patient/family centered, a clinician's task is to interpret best current evidence from systematic research in relation to an individual client/patient, including that individual's preferences, environment, culture, and values regarding health and well-being."

This three-pronged definition (i.e., expertise, evidence and stakeholder input) is the most common; ascribed to by numerous organizations within the behavioral, education and social sciences.

So, if we were to ask the following questions based on the three-pronged definition above:

  1. Does the Social Thinking methodology integrate clinical expertise, utilize the relevant research available, and include stakeholder input?

  2. Are components of the Social Thinking methodology based on what is considered to be evidence based for individuals with social learning challenges, including, but not limited to, individuals with ASD? Is there published research to support the underpinnings?

  3. Are stakeholder preferences, environment and culture (professionals, parents, individuals) given consideration and highly valued?

National Professional Development Center (NPDC): Evidence-Based Practices and ASD

The National Professional Development Center recently published findings related to evidence-based practices for individuals with ASD (2009 and 2014). Their research review embraced the three-prong definition of evidence-based practices, but also cautioned professionals and families to include not only published research, but also stakeholder input and professional expertise.

"People often think evidence-based practice is about the research — and it is! But it is not about the research alone. The values and preferences of family members, including the individual with ASD when appropriate, must be respectfully addressed. Otherwise, we are not engaging in evidence-based practice."

"Professional judgment is certainly more than just relying on your ‘gut’ to tell you what to do. It involves (1) integrating information about a student’s unique history, (2) an awareness of research findings that go beyond the Findings and Conclusions report, and (3) the need to make data-based treatment decisions." (NAC, 2009).

Evidence based practices reported by the NPDC included: Cognitive Behavioral Interventions, Modeling, Naturalistic Intervention, Peer-mediated intervention, Self-management, Social Skills Training, Social Narratives, Reinforcement, and Visual Supports. Those familiar with the Social Thinking methodology will notice the EBPs listed above are infused within age/developmentally sensitive curricula, activities, and motivational tools. In fact, many of the components of the ST methodology are also frequently embedded within other frameworks that utilize EBP such as Response to Intervention (RTI), Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), Social Emotional Learning (SEL), and PBIS.

Social Thinking® Methodology: More than teaching social skills

Consider this: Many interventionists implement social skill interventions without a clear definition of social skills and their importance in the holistic social relatedness process. This is also the case for researchers who study the behavioral output of generic social skills without connections to the deeper process of social interpretation and social problem solving. The Social Thinking methodology addresses the fact that first we, as interventionists (both professionals and parents), need to build our own knowledge about the social learning process and what it means to engage “socially” before teaching individuals with social challenges. Remarkably, understanding how people share space together and engage across context, culture and varying ideas and opinions, motives and intentions is absent from most social "skills-based” approaches. Our methodology ascribes to the notion that the key to understanding our clients/students’ individual social learning needs requires that interventionists gain insight into the variables that contribute to their own “social self” as well as the related expectations of others. This unique view toward social treatment, combined with the many layers of our methodology, means that the components of Social Thinking do not fit neatly into any single traditionally defined social skill intervention. Nor is Social Thinking linked to a specific diagnosis (e.g., ASD), but rather addresses specific needs in those with social learning challenges (ADHD, Mental Health Challenges, twice exceptional, gifted, no diagnosis, etc.), regardless of the diagnosis and age.

To illustrate, the Social Thinking methodology (capital S and capital T) ascribes to three overarching principles:

  1. The process of thinking socially or social thinking (small s and small t) is required to interpret (and possibly respond) to socially based information. This includes the ability to consider our own and others’ thoughts, emotions, beliefs, intentions, knowledge, etc. for interpretation (in our own mind) and related responses (through our social behavioral interactions).
  2. Good social skills are the result of considering our own social thinking and then adapting our behavior effectively, based on the situation and what we know about the people in the situation. We adapt our skills so that others will react and respond to us in the manner we had hoped. Note: not all social skill adaptations are meant to have others respond in a "polite" or kind manner. In fact, good social skills also include the ability to advocate for oneself, avoid confrontation, and enhance safety.
  3. The reason we use social skills is to impact how people feel, which also impacts how we feel about ourselves.

For those individuals who we expect to learn and engage in a more sophisticated manner socially, we need to teach using this three pronged social learning process: 1) thinking socially (social thinking; small s and small t), 2) problem solving to adapt social skills effectively, and 3) recognizing that social behaviors impact the emotions of those with whom we are sharing space (including our own emotions).

Furthermore social learning is embedded in academic learning, which means social thinking is embedded in academic learning. One’s interpretation of the social world impacts one’s ability to engage in socially based academics such as reading comprehension of literature, written expression, and collaboration/cooperation/conversations in the classroom. Socially based academic concepts are embedded in the educational standards on a national, provincial and state level. It is fair to say that the social learning treatment process is far more complex than is recognized by most. However, it is through this more complex lens that Social Thinking methodology has, and continues to, evolve.

As part of our methodology we strongly encourage:

  • Professionals to value their own professional expertise—combined with client data—to select and justify the various interventions and strategies they choose based on individual client needs, not diagnosis.
  • Professionals to truly value parent input, as well as feedback from individual clients—not as an afterthought but as a part of the intervention process. After all, this is part of the definition of evidence-based practices.
  • Professionals and parents to use a different lens to examine the value of data-driven interventions that are grounded in research-based theoretical concepts as well. In other words, practices based on the evidence (PBE).

Glossary and Definitions





Peer-reviewed Research Based Theoretical Concepts (Constructs and Therapies)


These are concepts, constructs and therapies supported by bodies of research that are foundational to the philosophical and treatment models upon which Social Thinking methodology evolves.


This information is for parents and professionals to broaden their own understanding. This information is not directly shared with clients-students.



Perspective taking, theory of mind, executive functioning, central coherence, multiple intelligence, social cognition, language, sensory processing, social emotional development, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, mental health, social anxiety, standards based learning, joint attention, play-based learning, adult education, classroom management, and a host of others.


Conceptual Frameworks


These frameworks are built upon research based theoretical concepts, constructs and therapies in a manner that blends or scaffolds the information to help parents and professionals organize their thinking about social learning (social cognition). In turn, this fosters their own ability to conceptualize their student’s or children’s experiences and challenges. The Conceptual Frameworks are not to be used directly with the student/client.



ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking, Cascade of Social Attention, Three-Part Definition of Social Thinking, Building Blocks of Social Development, Social Thinking-Social Learning Tree, Social Thinking- Social Communication Profile (ST-SCP), Shared Collaborative Imaginative Play (SCIP), Social Thinking – Group Collaborative Play and Problem Solving Scale (ST-GPS), etc.

Treatment Frameworks


Treatment frameworks evolve from the conceptual frameworks, and transform evidence-based concepts into a concrete and structured framework that can be introduced to and used with students.


Treatment frameworks help students (and adults) observe that everything they are learning about the social world applies to a larger, more holistic social framework. These frameworks are used to help the parent/professional understand key concepts AND act as a teaching tool with the client/student.



Social Behavior Mapping (SBM), Four Steps of Perspective Taking, Four Steps of Communication, The Friendship Pyramid, Me Think-We Think, The Pyramid of Flirting and Dating, Creating Conversation Thinksheet, The Spirals of Social Anxiety, Five-Step Power Plan, Different Size Thought Bubbles, the Problem Solving Framework, Goals and Action Plans, and Problem Solving Scale, 10 Aspects to Self-Organize, and many lesson plan scaffolds found in our Thinksheets books.


Treatment Frameworks created by other professionals, whose work blends well with teaching Social Thinking: Story Grammar Marker® (Rooney-Moreau); The Zones of Regulation® (Kuypers), Get Ready-Do-Done (Ward & Jacobsen), STOP and Read the Room (Ward & Jacobsen), The Incredible Five Point Scale (Dunn Buron & Curtis), etc.





Specific treatment strategies stem from the treatment frameworks and consist primarily of Social Thinking Vocabulary, but also come from other sources outside of the Social Thinking methodology.


The strategies are thinking and skill-based catalysts for helping the individual see more clearly the social information they are to interpret and respond to. For example, think with your eyes, keep your body in the group, add a thought, etc. Both parents & professionals use strategies to teach the client/student/child.


Social Thinking Vocabulary: think with your eyes, body in the group, brain in the group, expected and unexpected, good thought-weird thought, I can change how you feel, three parts of play, smart guess-wacky guess, people files, ask questions to others about others, add a thought, supporting comments, whopping topic change, science wonder-social wonder, information informer-social relater, size of the problem, size of the emotion, social expression compression, read the plan, and others. (Not all are listed here.)


Strategies created by others: Whole body listening (Truesdale), inner coach-self-defeater (CBT literature), red, orange, green and blue Zones (Kuypers), etc.



Activities (lessons) are concrete, organized ways in which professionals and parents present, teach, and practice the Social Thinking Vocabulary and related strategies. Lessons are always tied back to a strategy, and strategies always connect back to conceptual frameworks.




Any and all lessons used to help teach the above treatment frameworks, strategies.

Motivational Developmental Tools


This unique layer represents the motivational developmental tools that are created from our treatment frameworks and strategies and bundled with a CBT type approach; they encourage students to learn both thinking and skill-based strategies. Each tool is designed for a specific age group, incorporating age appropriate teaching materials that are meaningful and motivational to students in specific age groups. While the motivational developmental tool used with a specific student(s) may change over the years of a child’s life due to developmental shifts, the core Social Thinking Treatment Frameworks and Strategies remain the same. For example, children may use We Thinkers! Volume 1 Social Explorers storybooks and music when six years old, but by 10 years old they are learning about being a Social Detective and having Superflexible strategies to guide them and by 13 years old we may use Social Fortune or Social Fate to teach a more sophisticated view of the social world. The Motivational Developmental tools are for parents and professionals to use directly with the client/student/child.



Superflex®, The Team of Unthinkables and Thinkables, You Are a Social Detective comic and App, Social Fortune or Social Fate, We Thinkers! Volume 1 & 2, Superflex Superdecks, Thinkables & Unthinkables Double Deck, Social Thinking and Me, Socially Curious and Curiously Social.


Motivational Developmental Tools created by others: Should I or Shouldn't I? What Would Others Think?™ (Baudry), Zones of Regulation app and posters (Kuypers), Whole Body Listening Larry books and poster (Sautter & Wilson), We Can Make it Better (Delsandro), etc.


Research to Frameworks to Practice

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