Turn It On: Using Media for Social Learning - Autism Awareness

Turn It On: Using Media for Social Learning

By Anna Vagin, PhD.

I’m working with a group of four third graders in a social learning group. As they play a cooperative board game, they are working on being flexible – listening to each other, sharing strategy plans, and letting go of their individual ideas when others present a better one. Oh, yes, and they are managing their uncomfortable feelings of frustration, sadness, and worry! They have done well even though there have been challenging moments. Mad and sad feelings have been expressed. Several times it has been hard for some players to go along with the ideas of others in the group, with some resulting unfriendly words. It’s time for a break! Shall we read a book? Talk about the upcoming holiday? No, we are going to watch a 4-minute YouTube video I’ve chosen for its captivating portrayal of what it means to cooperate. The best thing is, these students won’t realize they are still learning!

The Value of Media as Social Learning Material

For many therapists and teachers, using movies or online videos for social learning is a new concept. Years ago, I was also wary of using media as part of therapy. I wasn’t sure how watching movies and videos would fit into my sessions. (I felt similarly intimidated when the iPad and apps came into the therapy room!) But, as with the iPad, I quickly came to appreciate media for the great resource it is, bringing social relationships into my office in non-threatening ways, providing springboards for discussions and learning.

When chosen and used responsibly, movies and YouTube videos can be a great source of social learning material for students from early elementary school into young adulthood (Niemiec & Wedding, 2008). I always want to use engaging material – understanding social relationships is hard for the students with whom I work, so I want them to be interested in what we are doing! Then, they are ready to maintain attention, think about feelings, and dissect those unspoken, and to them mysterious, rules behind successful social engagement.

We are learning that many students on the Autism Spectrum struggle to process social movement (Klin, A. et al, 2009; Kroeger, A. et al, 2013). Since movies and videos have such movement, they may be much more useful that static pictures in helping our students understand the social world. Also, while everyday life experiences are fleeting, we can pause and re-wind movies and videos. This repeated viewing facilitates structured learning and thoughtful discussion.

Our ultimate goal in working with students who have social learning challenges is to improve their “in the moment” interactions. These students may fall somewhere on the ASD Spectrum, demonstrate traits of ADD/ADHD, struggle with emotional challenges, or just be unclear on how to succeed socially. We want these students to become better perspective takers, more accurate interpreters of important contextual and nonverbal information, more sophisticated in their emotional understanding, and more engaged with those around them. We want them to develop and maintain fulfilling relationships.

If such social performance is our end goal, how can we get there? Of course, there are lots of materials available to move children toward greater social understanding and ability (Madrigal, 2008; Rooney Moreau, 2010; Winner, 2011 & www.socialthinking.com; Kuypers, 2011), but we can add to that toolbox. We want students to explore feelings and relationships without feeling threatened and put on the spot. We want them to practice evaluating contextual information, reviewing how characters affect each other, and ascertaining what may have gone right or wrong in a particular social exchange. We want them participating in social learning without the immediate pressure of expected social performance. We can do all of this using structured media experiences.

Talking About Characters Facilitates Talking About Yourself

None of us likes to have our shortcomings pointed out, even by well meaning family members! Children are no different, especially students who may be frequently unsuccessful in their daily lives, and who may often have their errors and challenges pointed out by peers and well-meaning adults (Kapp, 2012). However, when we support students in learning that many of their uncomfortable feelings and social missteps are common to all (although perhaps a bit more frequent or extreme) we can help them move forward in their social understanding (Barrett, et al., 2001).

It can be difficult to talk about our own feelings and mistakes (Hesley & Hesley, 2001). My belief, grounded in many decades of working with children, is that if they first discuss the social relationships and emotions of others, specifically characters in movies and short videos, they feel much more comfortable and willing to take those tentative first steps of regarding their own, similar feelings and experiences (Schulenberg, 2003; Vagin, 2013).

We can’t underestimate the importance of building emotional understanding. Feelings are at the core of many of our social exchanges. As Daniel Goleman (2005) explains, we have to remember that “If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

Let’s get back to group. After enjoying a YouTube break watching characters cooperating in various ways, the students are re-energized. I hand out marker boards, and ask each one to draw a scene they enjoyed. From previous experience, these boys know I want them to include thought bubbles and feelings. They get to work…

The Importance of Structured Activities

A great movie, movie clip, or YouTube video isn’t enough; it can’t stand alone as social learning material. For responsible and effective use, these media choices require carefully thought out activities that will, step by step, move students forward in their understanding. Let’s look at some specific examples using several fabulous YouTube videos, although movies can be used in much the same way.

Many students with social learning challenges don’t like talking or even thinking about uncomfortable feelings. If we want to help them through some of this resistance about feeling “sad”, “mad”, or “worried” we can use “Sesame Street: Bert and Ernie in a Pyramid“, a great choice for elementary age children.

Step-by-step activities might begin with identifying and tracking feelings. How do Bert and Ernie feel? Provide pictures or lists of feelings for students to choose from as a visual support. Why are their feelings so different? This works on perspective taking as well as feelings. Discussion can move to how Ernie manages his fear. Do the intensity of his feelings change over time? Does he find strategies that help? Pause the video, label thoughts and feelings on sticky notes, and place them directly on the screen. Encourage students to draw sketches of what happened between the characters. Involve them in discussions about how Bert responded to Ernie’s fears – could he have done anything differently? Students will have lots of opinions to share!

After this groundwork, many students will be ready to think about themselves, either through sketching or discussion (or both). Have they ever felt afraid like Ernie? Or Bert? What was the situation? Was someone there to help them, or did they need to manage on their own? How did others around them react? Can they think of a way they might have helped themselves – perhaps a thought bubble that might have made the uncomfortable feelings smaller? Group discussion supports the growing understanding that we all feel afraid at one time or another. After discussing how Ernie felt scared in the pyramid, it’s easier for students to admit that, perhaps, they feel scared when they go to the doctor.

Cooperation is a big theme in many of my sessions. Paired with issues of competitiveness, it’s relevant whether we are discussing in-class projects or sports. I love working on these important concepts with middle school students using YouTube videos– anything to get them to talk about feelings!!

Always happy to watch YouTube (after all, they think they are distracting me from work), middle school students very much enjoy videos such as “The Power of Teamwork” paired with “Space Invader“. After viewing, you can start the discussion by asking them to define cooperation – a very complex social concept. You can also work with students to come up with a definition for competitiveness, as well as the feelings behind it – anger, worry, etc. Write down their thoughts so all can see.

Then, move to contrasting the two videos. You will find lots of material to fuel your discussions. What were the downsides to participating in the group plans? What made the three examples work? What feelings might the characters in the first video have experienced? Could the conflict and destruction in the second video have been avoided? What is the opposite of competitiveness? Is there a continuum of competitiveness, a part that encourages us to try hard? How difficult do students think it would be for the characters to change their behavior and cooperate? What might have led to them being SO competitive?

After some spirited discussion, turn the conversation to the students themselves. Use some of the recorded information you made in the previous activities as you ask students what makes it easy or hard to cooperate. What influences their levels of cooperation or competitiveness from one situation to the next? What examples of cooperation and competitiveness can they illustrate or talk about? How did the situations end, and how do they feel about those examples in retrospect? Again, visuals will make it easier for students to discuss, compare, and move forward in their understanding.

For example, students may, even with some humor, admit that their competitive behavior during four-square may have been a bit extreme. Again, starting with a focus on the actions and emotions of characters can lead to making crucial connections to one’s own actions and emotions, as well as the growing realization that we all face challenges, stumble, and re-group.

Before we end for the day, I lead the boys as we make a list of how the characters in the YouTube video demonstrated cooperation, as well as some behaviors that impeded working together. We discuss the feelings associated with successful cooperation (including initial resentment), as well as those we experience when things don’t go according to our plan. This board will be our visual support in our next session, when we will work on a cooperative building task. They leave talking about the video, laughing and remembering together.  

Last Words About Lots of Choices

With so many movies and YouTube videos from which to choose, how can we make smart choices and provide material that will maximize social learning? There’s lots out there, so the first rule is don’t compromise – only show what is REALLY great! You can see many of my favorites media picks (with accompanying activities) in Movie Time Social Learning and You Cue Feelings, but you can also find your own. Here are some guidelines that have helped me along the way:

  • NEVER ever watch something with students that you have not previewed in its entirety. EVER.
  • Know your community and err on the conservative side.
  • Educate school administrators, teachers, parents, etc. about why you are using media as social learning material.
  • Always know what activities you will be using and how they support a student’s written goals. DO NOT just “wing it”.
  • Be ready with visual supports – they really are important for social learning.
  • Be flexible enough to support interesting discussions but be ready to get everyone back on track.

Choose a short video and think about a student or group of students who would enjoy and learn from it. Plan your activities and visual supports, and then dive in. Very soon, you and your students will have a whole new supply of fun and effective material. Happy viewing!

YouTube videos referred to in this article

“Sesame Street: Bert and Ernie in a Pyramid(Sesame Street, May 1, 2009)

“The Power of Teamwork – Funny Animation” by Khmer OsJa (Jan 30, 2013)

“CGI Animated Short HD: Space Invader” by Ian Cooke-Grimes (The CGBros, April 6, 2014)


Barrett, L. F., Gross, J., Christensen, T. C., & Benvenuto, M. (2001). Knowing what  you’re feeling and knowing what to do about it: Mapping the relation          between emotion differentiation and emotional regulation. Cognition and     Emotion, 15 (6), 713–724.

Goleman, D. (2005). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York, NY: Bantam Books.

Hesley, J.W & Hesley, J.G. (2001). Rent Two Films and Let’s Talk in the Morning: Using Popular Movies in Psychotherapy. New York: Wiley.

Kapp, K. M. (2012). The GAMIFICATION of Learning and Instruction. San Francisco:  Pfeiffer.

Klin, A., Lin, D., Gorrindo, P., Ramsay, G., & Jones, W. Two-year-olds with autism orient to nonsocial contingencies rather than biological motion. Nature, 2009, May             14: 459(7244); 257-261.

Kroeger, A., Bletsch, A., Krick, C., Siniatchkin, M., Jarczok, T., & Freitag, C. Visual event-related potentials to biological motion stimuli in autism spectrum     disorders. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advances Access, Aug. 19, 2013.

Kuypers, L. (2011). The Zones of Regulation. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Madrigal, S. (2008). Superflex. San Jose: Think Social Publishing.

Niemiec, R. & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive Psychology at the Movies: using films to build virtues and character strengths. Cambridge, MA: Hogrefe & Huber.

Rooney Moreau, M. (2010). Making Connections! Springfield, MA: MindWing Concepts, Inc.

Schulenberg, S.E. (2003). Psychotherapy and Movies: On Using Films in Clinical  Practice. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Vol. 33, No 1.

Vagin, Anna. (2015). YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning. CreateSpace Publishing.

Vagin, Anna. (2013). Movie Time Social Learning. San Jose: Think Social Publishing.

Winner, M. (2011). Social Thinking® Worksheets for Tweens and Teens. San Jose:   Think Social Publishing.

Anna Vagin, PhD, a licensed speech/language pathologist in private practice in Marin County, California, provides individual sessions and social learning groups to families and children 6 months through young adulthood. She is the author of Movie Time Social Learning (2013) and YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning, (2015), and frequently speaks on using various forms of media as social learning material. She is currently developing Movie Guide Manuals with accompanying Journals for young adults to use with selected movies. Her website is www.socialtime.org .

Anna will be presenting at out conference in Ottawa, ON on April 1, 2016.


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