Social Thinking Articles


Play. Pause. Learn. Media as Social-Emotional Learning Material

Media as Social-Emotional Learning Material

© 2021 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Watching movies and videos is a way for many families to unwind and spend time together. From the big screen to our pocket-size phones, movies and media are woven into our popular culture. But as entertaining as movies can be, understanding them is actually a very complicated social cognitive process that involves figuring out perspectives and feelings, using inference skills to identify character intentions, and processing rapidly changing social contexts.

The good news is media is very engaging, and students are typically eager viewers. Whether you work with students individually or in groups, media can be an excellent source of social learning material for students starting in elementary grades and through young adulthood.

Active listening, processing information from dual (visual and auditory) channels, deciphering abstract and inferential meaning, considering multiple perspectives, and processing the gestalt—the big picture—are all core components in the Social Thinking Methodology (Winner, 2014). We can support our students in building all these skills using movies and videos.

While real life doesn’t have pause and rewind buttons, media does—that’s what makes it so great to use with our students, who often benefit from being able to take two or three looks at a social situation as they try to decipher the complex information it contains. We know from many studies over the past decade that students on the autism spectrum struggle to process the intention behind individuals' physical movements (Klin, et al., 2009; Kroeger, et al., 2013). We also know that many individuals with ADHD, social pragmatic challenges, twice exceptionality, or anxiety disorder are often overwhelmed when faced with rapidly shifting contexts that demand constant scanning for important social information. Processing what happens in real-life social exchanges is complicated, so it makes sense to use materials that highlight the flow of social interpretation and interaction in ways that we can control.

Winner et al. (2011) developed the Social Thinking–Social Communication Profile (ST–SCP™) classification system to differentiate students with social-communication learning challenges. In the book Movie Time Social Learning (MTSL), students are classified along a three-level system that harmonizes with the ST–SCP™ system.

In MTSL, the Junior Mindreaders classification corresponds well with the Challenged Social Communicator—both of whom are very literal social interpreters. These students, who often do best in individual therapy, benefit from structured teaching of perspective taking and differentiating the thoughts and feelings of characters. The joint attention afforded by engaging media, as well as the rewinding and systematic breakdown of social situations utilizing visual supports, benefit these students greatly. Video and movie clips also provide terrific material with which to work on narrative language.

Moving Up Mindreaders in MTSL align with Emerging Social Communicators, who typically need extra time for social perspective taking, as their theory of mind is emerging (it is not strong). Systematic practice with materials that can be paused and discussed helps them understand the fundamental concepts of Social Thinking. Practice via the structured activities of MTSL helps hone their social radar.

Nuance Challenged Social Communicators in the ST–SCP are called Varsity Mindreaders in MTSL. The activities in MTSL allow them to work on the subtleties and nuances of social-emotional engagement. With these students, working on social concepts such as manipulation is critical for developing their ability to distinguish peers who genuinely want to be friends from those who have hidden agendas (such as wanting to get them in trouble). A quick word about those Resistant Social Communicators (RSCs) in the ST–SCP: RSCs usually enjoy watching You Tube clips and are more willing to discuss socially-based concepts related to the video clips (as long as the teacher does not use the clip to then point out what the RSC is doing incorrectly).

I’m often asked about the appropriateness of movie and video use with specific ages and skill levels. MTSL presents a three-level classification system based on language, perspective taking, and ability to understand emotions. Even early elementary students with poor perspective taking and narrative skills and a limited emotional vocabulary can build on their ability to think socially when shown a fantastic video like A Cloudy Lesson by Yezi Xue. For older students and/or those with higher perspective taking skills—i.e., those who use complex sentences and are developing their emotional vocabulary but who still might struggle processing contextual and emotional information in real time—a movie like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Warner Home Video) allows them to work with material that’s popular and relatable. I have found that the right movie or video, when paired with the right activities, engages and benefits a broad range of student ability levels from early elementary into young adulthood.

As great as media can be, it can be challenging to know exactly what material to use and where to start. The activities in MTSL were written with this in mind. They were designed to eliminate this confusion, providing scene-by-scene lesson plans that focus on exploring the social experience through three types of core activities: Spy Eye, Detective Head, and Me Too! tasks. The use of media helps students solidify their ability to identify character feelings and thoughts (Spy Eye tasks). We can also support students who need to build their perspective-taking skills by considering different views of multiple characters (Detective Head tasks). Finally, we can provide opportunities for empathy as we foster student self-reflection and empathic understanding (Me Too! tasks). The book contains lots of activities to choose from, so there’s something for everyone.

When I wrote MTSL, YouTube wasn’t even around! But soon after MTSL was published, YouTube began to take the world by storm with many wonderfully crafted and animated stories. Even as I started writing my second book, YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning (YCF), it was clear that carefully chosen YouTube videos were also the basis for terrific social learning material. Consequently, YCF was written to provide media recommendations along with 50 specific activities to build emotional understanding. I also found that many of the principles and activities that characterized the Movie Time approach could just as easily be used alongside YouTube videos. Finally, while MTSL and YCF provide specific activities for supporting the use of the Social Thinking Methodology, there are countless ways to pair media work with Social Thinking’s related treatment materials. Let’s explore!

Combining Great “Ingredients” in New “Recipes”:

Using Social Thinking’s treatment frameworks and developmentally–based treatment ideas with media

The Social Thinking Methodology and accompanying materials address complicated moving parts of social-emotional learning. Social Thinking’s Social Competency Model emphasizes a teaching and learning pathway of attend, interpret, problem-solve, and respond. The pathway to social competency is a complex process, one that involves processing feelings, considering multiple perspectives, recognizing and solving problems, monitoring how those around us view us, and fluidly adjusting our behavior as needed. For students who may find all of this challenging, Social Thinking’s specialized vocabulary, treatment frameworks and visual supports facilitate students’ ability to gain social competency and think socially. The Superflex® series, Social Behavior Mapping, the Spirals of Success and Failure, and the Whole Body Listening series are just some of these materials.

In my work as a speech-language pathologist, I combine useful materials in novel ways. New combinations keep my work fresh—something students appreciate when they come for their sessions. Always on the lookout for great movies and videos, I have found lots of terrific material that portrays concepts described by Social Thinking, allowing students to ease into complicated learning via interesting characters and engaging storylines. To follow are some of my favorite recipes for encouraging students to think socially while utilizing fabulous materials in interesting ways.

Since feelings are at the core of many of our social exchanges, building the emotional vocabulary of our students is a critical part of our work. Student self-regulation also depends on students’ ability to sense their feelings and emotions. In The Zones of Regulation® (Kuypers, 2011), emotions are what differentiate the various zones. Using that curriculum helps students increase their emotional vocabulary.

Our students need to know a range of emotional terms beyond "happy," "mad," and "sad," and be able to identify how thoughts and emotions go hand in hand. Using concrete visual tools to teach abstract connections is important through the treatment process. That’s where thought bubbles and sticky notes come in:

Like Mike (20th Century Fox) is a good movie for sports-loving middle and older elementary school students. Watch scene 5, “Calvin’s Big Score” in which Calvin meets his idol Tracy Reynolds during the halftime entertainment. You will find lots of opportunities to freeze the action. Encourage students to identify each character's feelings and thoughts. Offer students lists of feelings to choose from (find both picture and word lists in MTSL and YCF) and let them draw or write their thought ideas on small dry erase boards or sticky notes.

It’s good to use lots of different media examples with students, so they view a range of storylines and situations. If you want shorter clips, there are many YouTube videos in which characters portray a variety of feelings. You can use the activity described above with some of my favorites, like Scavenger Hunt by Edbertha. After watching this terrific clip, ask students to draw a picture of a time when they had to try really hard to do something. This moves them to self-reflection, and their realization that they are in some ways like that hard-working raccoon builds their resilience.

A great YouTube clip pairs well when working on concepts from The Zones of Regulation. Cue up a short but terrific story like Shell Game by Yishen Li. Watch one time straight through, then repeat, pausing so students can identify the feeling and which of the four Zones it reflects. Remember to support students in evaluating the context—after all, what’s happening around and to the characters is what results in feeling changes. Watch characters closely to see how they help themselves manage feelings (using regulating tools). Later, if you see a student getting a little anxious when they are behind in a game, remind them of a similar moment in a video. This can help them recall their regulating tools, like taking a deep breath. Easy, fun, engaging!

There is lots of additional work we can do with feelings. Feelings are always changing, sometimes remarkably quickly, and our students often find keeping up with those changes challenging. Help students practice noticing these shifts in feelings:

Whether you are watching a scene from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix or Ormie the Pig (Arc Productions) on YouTube, there are sure to be lots of feelings! Give students important practice in tracking how feelings change and understanding how those feelings reflect the four Zones by using the “Zones Across the Day” tracker (reproducible N in The Zones of Regulation book). Give each student a tracker in a sheet protector and ask them to mark their “Zone Guess” every time you pause the action. Then, compare and discuss: did they agree or not? This activity lets you do some deep work on the connection between feelings and Zones in a light-hearted way. If students comment "hey, that happened to me!" allow the discussion to move toward their self-reflection. We want them making connections to themselves!

Dry erase posters are terrific materials to use alongside media clips. Two of my favorites from Social Thinking are Size of My Problem and Social Behavior Mapping. Both outline more in-depth teaching frameworks presented in other Social Thinking materials. The Size of My Problem poster targets the idea that problems come in different sizes, and our related emotional reactions should also be the same size as the problem itself to avoid more problems being created. Social Behavior Mapping (posters and book by the same name) is a treatment framework developed by Social Thinking to teach the Social-Emotional Chain Reaction to help students learn that both actions and reactions impact each of us. Combine these teaching concepts and visual supports with some fun media choices:

There are lots of examples of unexpected (and expected) in Frog Goes to Dinner (Scholastic Video Collection). From the saxophonist who has a frog jump out of his instrument, to the woman with the frog in her salad, to the parents who can’t find their son—this short movie will give students solid practice in Social Behavior Mapping in a fun atmosphere.

These treatment ideas also pair well with Sesame Street: Ernie Counts Fruit (Sesame Street). Ernie is so busy counting fruit that he doesn’t pay attention to what his good friend Bert is saying and how he is feeling. Watch with your students, then, in a second viewing, discuss concepts around Size of My Problem to focus on both characters as students fill out the Social Behavior Map. Then have your students figure out how the two characters can have such vastly different feelings and thoughts in the same situation.

For older students watching Like Mike, the scene “The Geometry Lesson” provides a wonderful opportunity to use the Size of My Problem framework. Track how Tracy reacts when Calvin paints the outside of his house, and then compare his reaction to how students think their parents might react for an added check on perspective taking. Often it is good to work a scene deeply. One way to do that with “The Geometry Lesson” is to use it over multiple sessions. There are good examples of both expected and unexpected behavior during this scene, so use the Social Behavior Mapping poster in a subsequent session. With such a great scene, it’s easy to get students working hard.

Let’s not forget Superflex® and the teams of Unthinkables® and Thinkables® that are introduced in Superflex: A Social Thinking Superhero Curriculum. Can we find media examples of these characters and what they represent? Of course!

For older students, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a movie with lots of examples of these characters. Whatever scene you are watching, pass out your Thinkables and Unthinkables decks (available through Social Thinking). See how many characters can be spotted. Are they using their strategies? It's a great way to help students grow their ability to identify social behavior and regulation strategies. With younger students, use this same activity with Jorge Garcia’s Cat’s Meow.

Of course, there are many other YouTube videos you can use in the same way.

I love Bridge by Ting Tian Chey because there are examples of both Unthinkables (e.g., Rock Brain, Grump Grumpaniny and Glassman) and Thinkables (e.g., Meditation Matt and Rex Flexinator). This video is a terrific example of how one problem can be handled in two very different ways.

Need an example of “jerky” behavior? It’s hard to beat Darth Vader Being a Jerk.

Last Words to Encourage Best Teaching and Positive Use of Screen Time

Ready to incorporate media into your work teaching Social Thinking concepts and frameworks? There are lots out there, so the first guideline is don’t compromise—only show media that is REALLY great! You can see many of my favorite media picks (with accompanying activities) in Movie Time Social Learning and YouCue Feelings, but you can also find your own. Here are some guidelines that have helped me along the way:

  • NEVER watch something with students that you have not previewed in its entirety. EVER.
  • Know your community and err on the conservative side of language and situations; if in doubt if a clip is appropriate, avoid using it.
  • 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."
  • Utilize concrete visual supports, even if you think your students are “really smart”—they are essential for social learning.
  • Be flexible enough to support interesting discussions but also be ready to get everyone back on track.
  • Tie all lessons with social media and movie time learning back to the here and now of how each student interprets others and participates in his school, home, and community.

While it is true that adults (parents and therapists alike) are struggling with students who are TOO dependent on their media and screens, let's make sure we don't throw the "baby out with the bathwater." It's about what kind of media is being watched and how it’s being used. Choose a movie scene or short video, plan your activities and visual supports, and then dive in. Very soon, you and your students will have a whole new supply of fun, practical and effective material. Happy viewing!

About the Author

Anna Vagin, PhD, is a speech-language pathologist in private practice ( She works with children and young adults with social cognitive challenges and is a frequent speaker on using media and gaming to support social learning. She is the author of Movie Time Social Learning (2012) and YouCue Feelings: Using Online Videos for Social Learning (2015).


Klin, A., Lin, D., Gorrindo, P., Ramsay, G., & Jones, W. (2009, May 14). Two-year-olds with autism orient to nonsocial contingencies rather than biological motion. Nature, 459 (7244); 257-261. doi: 10.1038/nature07868

Kroger, A., Bletsch, A., Krick, C., Siniatchkin, M., Jarczok, T., & Freitag, C., & Bender, S. (2014, August 9). Visual event-related potentials to biological motion stimuli in autism spectrum disorders. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Advances, 8; 1214-22. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst103. Epub 2013 Jul 24.

Kuypers, L. (2011). The zones of regulation. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Vagin, A. (2012). Movie time social learning. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Vagin, A. (2015). Youcue feelings: Using online videos for social learning. Larkspur, CA: CreateSpace Publishing.

Winner, M.G. (2007a). Thinking about you thinking about me (2nd ed.). Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Winner, M.G. (2007b). Social behavior mapping: Connecting behavior, emotions and consequences across the day. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Winner, M.G. (2013a). Social behavior mapping: Dry erase template (2nd ed.) [poster]. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Winner, M.G. (2013b). Why teach Social Thinking? Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Winner, M.G. (2015). Size of my problem [poster]. Santa Clara, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.

Winner, M.G. & Crooke, P. (2017). Social Thinking’s social competency model: Attend-interpret-problem solve-respond. Retrieved November 1, 2018 from

Winner, M.G., Crooke, P., & Madrigal, S. (2011). The Social Thinking-social communication profile™- levels of the social mind. Retrieved November 1, 2018 from

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