Shaping Social Behaviors : Thinking vs. Talking Bubbles Part 1

When I began my new job, they introduced me to this mantra and I truly believe it:

My students are unique; having pragmatic deficits is part of who they are. It's not to say that I don't strive to, but it is unrealistic to think that I am going to "cure" a student of his social challenges altogether. What I can do is teach him to be aware; to use coping and self-monitoring skills; to advocate for himself and his own needs; to build a repertoire of social understanding that didn't exist for him before. In this way, I've found that teaching social skills is truly about a process more than a product.

Many of my students are visual, rule-oriented learners. I use this to my advantage when creating lessons on social skills and perspective-taking. I try to make each concept simple, visual, and concrete. I break down skills and teach them in small, systematic parts, shaping behaviors one step at a time rather than expecting a student to all at once abandon habits completely. I think this is where, as SLPs and other professionals working with pragmatic behavior (or problem behaviors in general, a discussion for another day), we often get tripped up. Expecting a student to extinguish a behavior completely without providing an alternative, even if just for the interim, can sometimes be a lot to ask. Instead of expecting it to NEVER HAPPEN, we can reinforce intermediate successes.

How does this apply to social skills? It's about shaping behaviors from something completely inappropriate and offensive into something that's kind of awkward/weird and then finally into something more widely accepted.

I have one student who has been struggling with making inappropriate comments. Things like telling a girl at the water park that she looks like a "fat cat on a mat" in a bathing suit. Or worse, using the n-word to describe an African American boy in the waiting room at the doctor, after hearing it on You-Tube. Yeah. Things that could get him in serious trouble, and these are just a couple of examples.

Recently, I introduced him to the concept of "Thinking Bubbles" and "Talking Bubbles." I made visuals (inspiration and materials can be found on Jill Kuzma's amazing SLP Social & Emotional Skill Sharing Site at to explain:

We did some role-playing and watched videos to practice identifying words that are okay in "talking bubbles," and the kind of words that belong in "thinking bubbles." I acted out some of the exact situations and comments that he has made in the past and he determined whether they were "expected" or "unexpected" (for more information on this idea, please refer to the work of Michelle Garcia Winner by visiting


We discussed how comments and words that are expected can go in a Talking Bubble. Comments and words that are unexpected need to stay in a Thought Bubble inside our heads. Then we talked about the problem...
...and, more importantly, what he could DO about it: positive alternative behaviors. Any of these behaviors would be preferred over having him engage in the target behavior (making rude comments). For this reason, his classroom team spent the next week reinforcing them heavily, both with verbal praise and tangible items (he is on a token economy where he earns dollars for engaging in behaviors that we'd like to see increase).
Although the team agreed that it is still weird to tell someone that you're having inappropriate thoughts, we also agreed that we would rather have him admit that than make the actual comment. Think of it like  trying to stop yourself from swearing; sometimes the need to let an exploitive out is overwhelming and it's it's easier to shape it into something else ("Ohh, shhh-ORTS!") than to hold it in entirely.

There's more, but this is a long post so I'm going to call it good for now. Although I'm still not sure about my stance on materials, I'd love to continue to nerd out on communication and share some ideas over here - leave some feedback and let me know what you think!


  1. Hi Lindsay.. thanks so much for referring to my work and my website. Check your email though - I sent you a message asking you to make a slight alteration to how you link the site to your blog post. Thanks, Jill Kuzma

  2. Jill, thank you so much for the feedback and inspiration!

  3. Lindsay, I love your ideas! I've been working on "expected" versus "unexpected" behaviors with a couple of my kiddos and can't wait to try out the thinking/talking/popping bubble concepts. I'm so glad you're back to blogging!

  4. Hi, are these visual supports available anywhere?

  5. I am starting to use the terms 'Expected' and 'Unexpected' with several students and would love to use the visuals above, but can't because they have the name of the blog across them. Can I get them anywhere?

  6. I love the visuals. Is there anywhere I can download them?

  7. Yes, great materials! Are you allowing people to download them?

  8. I'd love to download your visuals. Are they available?

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