Complete Guide to Picture Rehearsal & Imitation for Teaching Social-Emotional Skills

Teaching Social Skills and Life Skills With Picture Rehearsal and Imitation

Picture rehearsal and imitation are two visual teaching strategies used by professionals to teach children social skills and life skills.  Various types of both picture rehearsal and imitation can be prepared and used to target specific skills that children are struggling with.

This post is part of a 13 part series. Each post in the series will explain an evidence-based strategy used by professionals for managing behavior with children on the autism spectrum. Each part of this series will contain a table of contents so you can easily navigate to the different strategies.

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction 
  2. Strategy 1: Build a Relationship
  3. Strategy 2: Individualize Motivation
  4. Strategy 3: Observe, Listen, then Join
  5. Strategy 4: Optimize Language
  6. Strategy 5: The Premack Principal
  7. Strategy 6: Basic Redirect 
  8. Strategy 7: Breaks 
  9. Strategy 8: Picture Rehearsal
  10. Strategy 9: Add Structure at Home
  11. Strategy 10: Teach Independence with Prompting
  12. Strategy 11: Transactional Supports
  13. Strategy 12: Add Structure to the Learning Environment 

Using Picture Rehearsal Strategies to Teach Social-Emotional Skills - #SocialStories #Social-Emotional #SocialThinking #SocialSkills #Autism #ADHD #ADHDKids #SPEDResources

What Is Picture Rehearsal?

Picture rehearsal is an instructional strategy that uses the repeated practice of a sequence of behaviors to teach appropriate or socially desirable behaviors. The sequence is introduced to the child in the form of pictures and an accompanying script.

There are different forms of picture rehearsal:

  • Personal stories (Social Stories)
  • Cartooning
  • Video modeling
  • Power cards
  • Cognitive Picture Rehearsal

What Is Picture Rehearsal Used For?

Picture rehearsal can be used to pre-teach new skills in a quiet, calm environment. It can also be used to teach socially accepted behaviors and calm down techniques.

The strategy is based on the concept of positive reinforcement of learning and visual supports. The individual is provided with opportunities to practice the appropriate behavior or skills repeatedly, while immediate reinforcement is provided each time the strategy is implemented.

How To Use Picture Rehearsal:

  1. Identify something that is currently challenging for your child. It could be anything from bedtime, to thunderstorms, to saying hello to their teacher in the morning.
  2. Decide what you want to teach your child to do in these situations.
  3. Create your visual script/rehearsal for your child

There are lots of ways you can do this and you don’t need to be artistic in order to create valuable scripts for your child. You can draw stick people, you can take your own photos with your phone, you can find pictures online, etc.

Key Features

Regardless of the type  you’re creating, any picture rehearsal you create for your child should be:

Brief – Use pictures and short text to describe the situation or steps concisely.

Individualized – They should be written from your child’s perspective and individualized for them and their specific situation.

Practiced Repeatedly –  You should go over the script many times with your child and use positive reinforcement. Until your child is ready to use the skills in a real-life situation.

Personal Stories (Social Stories)

Social stories are trademarked and based on work by Carol Grey but you can create your own version of these, as “personal stories” for your child. The main purpose of a social story is to describe, explain, and suggest – rather than direct – expected behavior.

These stories describe social situations and highlight relevant cues for your child.

Social Story™  follows a specific formula of types of sentences. These stories may be more effective for kids who have some self-awareness and language skills.

Social Story™ Example –

Cognitive Picture Rehearsal

This instructional strategy is closely aligned with the use of relaxation and visual imagery. This form of picture rehearsal is based on the covert conditioning research of Dr. Joseph Cautela, Dr. June Groden, and others.

The purpose is to teach individuals with significant developmental disabilities as a means of replacing behaviors.

A specific process is followed when cognitive picture rehearsal scripts are being developed by professionals. First, text (rehearsal script or scene) is written and illustrated following a functional assessment of the problem behavior.

Next, pictures or line drawings illustrate the antecedent, the target behavior and the consequences (reinforcement). Relaxation and/or visual imagery is often incorporated into the script.

It’s important to note that relaxation steps are taught first as a separate skill.

Power Cards

Power cards are visuals that use your child’s special interests as motivation to teach the new skill or expected behavior.

The cards still have a social script along with them. Plus, by using their special interest, your child is motivated to use the strategy presented in the scenario and on the Power Card.

It’s a positive strategy that is often entertaining as well as inexpensive and simple to create.

Power Card Examples –


Cartooning involves drawing a picture to explain a situation to your child, including the thoughts of others in the situation. It can be used to teach social, emotional, academic, organizational, and behavioral skills.

It helps children understand the perspective of others and what is happening around them. Cartooning can be as simple as drawing stick figures that have thought bubbles and/or speech bubbles.

The Superflex Social Thinking curriculum uses cartoon strategies throughout their books to help children understand how their behavior can affect the thoughts and feelings of those around them. We have been doing Superflex at home and school with success. 

Sample Cartooning from Superflex

Cartooning Sample from SUPERFLEX for teaching children social-emotional skills - self awareness, problem solving skills, perspective taking skills, social skills.

Video Modeling

Video modeling uses video to provide a visual model of the target skill or behavior. It involves recording a video of someone else engaging in the behavior and its viewed by your child at a later time. 

You can also take a video of your child engaging in the target behavior to show them later – this is called self-modeling. Another type of video modeling involves recording yourself performing the skill from your own perspective (first-person video game style) so your child can see exactly what it will look like to them when they perform this skill independently. This type of video modeling is called point-of-view modeling 

Evidence-based research shows that video modeling can be effective from early childhood through to teenage years. It can be used to teach communication, social skills, and academic skills.

Teaching Imitation

All children learn new things by observing and imitating others. This starts during a baby’s first year and it’s a way all people learn many skills from waving bye-bye, to using a spoon, to swinging a baseball bat.

Children with autism may struggle with spontaneously imitating other people. This can be related to challenges with bilateral coordination, hand-eye coordination, praxis (trouble performing motor movements for the first time), and motor planning and skills. 

So because of those possible challenges, and because children with autism best learn kinesthetically, it’s important to facilitate learning through imitation. For some children this will be a lifelong method used for learning to skills, especially self-help skills. 

A Step-by-Step Process for Teaching Imitation

  • Choose a familiar, distraction-free environment.
  • Use visual/auditory/tactile strategies to get your child’s attention.
  • Let them look at, touch, and manipulate materials – this will help them feel less anxious about the newness.
  • Then, move the materials out of reach and use consistent verbal/visual cues such as saying your child’s name and then saying “Do this.”
  • Do a one-step action quickly. For example, stacking one block on another or drawing a line to connect two dots.
  • Then pass your child the materials to try on their own.
  • If they aren’t able to imitate what you just did, try again by saying their name and “Do this” and following through with hand-over-hand support (Strategy 10) if required.
  • Praise and reward any success.
  • Make sure it’s clear to your child when you are finished. 
  • If you had to use prompting techniques from strategy 10, gradually fade those prompts. When your child is completing the task without prompts, start making the imitation tasks more complex.

Continue to: Strategy 9 – Add Structure at Home


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