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Little Life Stories: Supporting children's social and emotional learning and mitigating the impact of trauma through personalized stories.

An app for families and professionals that allows them to write or customize personal stories to help young children process life events.

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

What I've Learned: Through this process (preparing this application, receiving mentorship, using the toolkits and resources, and prototyping), I have learned additional strategies for presenting my idea to a variety of stakeholders in a compelling way. I have identified areas where I assumed others would make the same connections I do. Similarly, my thinking and writing have become clearer and more explicit about why this idea is so important. Changes & Refinements: During the conversation with my mentor, we talked about ways to fully utilize all aspects of technology, since these personalized stories will be created on an app. For example, my mentor suggested adding a voice component, so that the story could be read by the parent or family member writing the story and listened to by the child multiple times, potentially even when alone. Through this process, I also developed additional components of the app and the final product (the printed stories). For example, in conversation with my mentor, we agreed on the potential development of a parent coaching and conversation guide component within the app. When creating a prototype of a printed story, I added a parent coaching and conversation guide in the back of the book as well. After going through the early submission process, I returned to my application to edit and refine it for clarity. I also added additional visuals and examples to promote my idea.

Name or Organization

My name is Erin Ford. I am working independently, though I plan to have a team of app developers, early childhood professionals, and artists working for Little Life Stories.


I am in Fort Collins, CO. Initially, the app would be available to the North American market.

What is your stage of development?

  • New Innovator, with less than one year of experience in ECD


  • Individual

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

Little Life Stories gives families a tool to help their children prepare for/process life events and changes. These personalized stories are developmentally appropriate and customized to reflect children's specific situations. Addressing childhood experiences in a thoughtful way is crucial; as research tells us that childhood experiences, both positive and negative, can have a tremendous impact on lifelong health and well-being. By helping children understand what is happening in their lives, we can empower children and families and mitigate the potential impact of traumatic experiences.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Product: A new or enhanced physical product that creates value for end beneficiaries.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

This app uses personalized stories, based on social stories, to help children process life events. According to Carol Gray, the social stories creator: "Social stories are a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages" ( Social stories use words and visuals to teach skills or to help people with autism process events. Yet, this tool can help all children process events, including: positive ones (the birth of a sibling), negative ones (the death of a parent), or long-term ones (foster care placement). All of these events can impact a child's development, well-being, and health, depending on how they are addressed. In fact, the CDC's Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study, tells us that adverse childhood experiences, such as abuse, family challenges (substance abuse, divorce, etc.), and neglect, have a huge impact on adult health and well-being. This groundbreaking study found the more ACEs people were exposed to as children, the more likely they were to have serious health outcomes as adults, such as: social, emotional, & cognitive impairment; adoption of health-risk behaviors; disease, disability, & social problems; and early death ( Little Life Stories will impact children's lives and development, and possibly give them longer, healthier, happier lives as adults.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

This idea provides young children with developmentally appropriate ways to process life events, particularly traumatic ones. We know these events can have a huge impact on children's health and well-being into adulthood. By offering customizable stories about life events, we are giving the people who come into contact with children during these events (i.e. family members, teachers, social workers, etc.) a simple, accessible, and effective framework for explaining these events to young children.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

By offering families and professionals who work with young children a quick way to create well-made, developmentally appropriate, and personalized stories about life events, Little Life Stories provides immediate support to children and families. There are already a variety of apps and websites that allow you to write social stories or personalized stories for young children on the market. Some offer customizable, pre-written stories and some let you write your own but they are often geared towards people with autism or people who are capable of finding their own resources online and who have the money to purchase them. Little Life Stories is a unique social emotional learning tool and addresses several needs of families and professionals who want to support children through changes and life events. -Little Life Stories is meant for any child and can be used for a very wide range of situations: Currently, the only similar option for most families and professionals are published “issue books” but these are often limited in terms of the topics they cover and are not personalized to individual children's situations. -Little Life Stories can help write stories for children as young as one: Similarly, many “issue books” are not often developmentally appropriate for young children (ages 1-3). With Little Life Stories, stories can be simplified and written for children as young as one, but they can also be expanded for older children. -The Little Life Stories process is quick and easy but the result is customized, polished, and professional: Even if families and professionals do know about social stories and use them as a tool, they are usually time consuming to write and illustrate. Little Life Stories removes much of the work because there is an option to use pre-written stories about many issues that just need to be edited and tailored to an individual child’s situation. If professionals want to write their own stories for children, they will have access to the technology that allows them to create the stories easily, as well as consultation with early childhood professionals (via instant chat or phone conversations) who can help ensure that the stories are developmentally appropriate for the children. -Little Life Stories includes training and support components for families and professionals: Each pre-written story has an online and in-print conversation guide for families around the topic of the story. Also, one of the main components of this app is to educate professionals who work with young children in a variety of fields about the power of social stories as a social emotional tool. Professionals can take an online training to begin creating their own stories for the children and families they support. How it works: There will be two types of logins. -One will be accessible to families and professionals. It will include pre-written social stories, created by early childhood professionals, about common issues affecting young children. For example, there will be stories about potty training, the birth of a sibling, the death of a pet, etc. This login will allow families or professionals to develop avatars, select background settings, and make text customizations (such as names, details, etc.). -The other login will include a training component for professionals who interact with young children in a variety of fields, so that they can write their own social stories to meet individual children’s needs. For example, a professional could use this feature to write customized sequences of stories about a child's chronic illness or a child's experience in foster care. The flexibility of this login will be particularly beneficial for professionals who are supporting low-income children, who may face a range of systemic challenges and need more continuous support through social stories for unique situations. For all users, there will be a consulting team of early childhood professionals to ensure that the stories are developmentally appropriate. The final products will be available on devices and in print. There will be a voice recording function on phones, tablets, and computers, so that users can record themselves reading the story. There will also be conversation guides for adults about the given topic. If a user decides to print the story, which is recommended, the conversation guide will be included in the back of the book.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1. The beneficiaries of Little Life Stories are the young children the stories are written for, their families, and the professionals who work with them. This app provides adults with a tool and framework for developmentally appropriate conversations with children about life events. For professionals, making a story gives them something tangible and responsive to do to support children and families during life events. 2. Interactions with beneficiaries: I have been teaching for almost 11 years and have been making social stories for children in my classes for most of my career. I have seen how children turn to stories about their lives again and again to help them process life events, even years after the event occurred. I have also worked with families who have used these stories with their children. Many people have told me how powerful the stories were for their families. Finally, as a teacher, it has been empowering to make these stories, particularly when I know about the life event ahead of time. In this way, I can help prevent some problems for the children and families by explaining what is going to happen. I have used social stories to prepare children for situations such as: changing classrooms, changing schools, upcoming school breaks, fire drills, parents' surgeries, hospital visits, the birth of siblings, wearing an EKG monitor to school, and the death of parents and family members.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Spreading the word that social stories are helpful for all children, instead of just people with autism; making them easy to create; and making them accessible to more people will impact many children, families, and professionals. This app will empower children and families by giving them a social and emotional tool to help them work through their feelings about what is happening in their lives. Helping the many types of professionals who interact with young children support children and families going through major life events, either proactively or immediately after an event has occurred, may mitigate the negative impact of traumatic life events and create healthier adults. This tool will also help adults realize that it is better to provide even very young children with developmentally appropriate explanations for things going on in their lives, rather than hiding things from children or misleading them. Children often pick up on the emotions of the adults around them. When they are not told what is happening, children fill in the blanks with the limited information they have, which can lead to damaging views of themselves and incorrect interpretations about what is going on around them. By offering developmentally appropriate, customizable, personal stories to a wide variety of adults who work with young children, this app will also educate grown-ups about how to talk to young children (particularly toddlers) appropriately about these types of issues.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Little Life Stories is helpful for all children but would be especially beneficial for low-income children who are facing a range of systemic challenges. By making this app available to families, as well as a wide number of professionals who work with young children, there is a greater chance that this supportive tool will reach low-income children. For example, if children end up in the hospital, child life professionals can make social stories to support them. If children end up in foster care, social workers can make social stories to support them. The professional login on the Little Life Stories app will allow professionals who work directly with children in need to create unique stories or an entire series of stories to support an individual child. As mentioned above, there are already some apps and websites that allow people to make social stories on computers. These apps and websites are limited in their reach. Currently, users have to know what social stories are to find them and fees are often required to use this technology. This app is unique because it will be marketed to professionals who interact with young children in a variety of settings. It will spread awareness about social stories as a learning tool, particularly for young children and those who have had traumatic experiences. The reach of Little Life Stories could also be expanded if each social story purchased provides access to additional stories for low-income families.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Little Life Stories is innovative because unlike other social story apps and websites, it focuses both on families and professional who work with young children. For example, families get conversation guides around the topics of the stories created for them, so that they can have conversations with their children about what their family is experiencing. Professionals who work with young children complete a training component about writing developmentally appropriate social stories before they begin creating their own stories. This training component will help professionals who work with young children in a variety of fields discover social stories as a tool to support children, something that other apps do not do. Since the app is accessible to both families and professionals, it has a unique two-part login system. Little Life Stories is also original because it allows families and professionals to create stories for children as young as one. There are very limited resources for helping our youngest children process life events and their feelings around those events/changes in their lives.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Since I am in the early stages of creating Little Life Stories, I have the opportunity to think through how to make the app useful for many types of professionals who work with young children, such as early childhood educators, social workers, mental health consultants, and child life specialists. I hope to connect with professionals to think through how to integrate the app into their practice. I am also considering reaching out to a partner, like my employer, Colorado State University, because I believe they could help this app reach more end users quicker. They also have a variety of departments and programs that could serve as consultants and test sites for Little Life Stories, such as a Child Trauma and Resilience Assessment Center, the social work department, the child life department, and the education department. I could also partner with the College of Business to model the best way to scale up the project. At this point, I believe the financial stability for this project will come from the professional contracts, rather than the stories for families, which would be free or very affordable. As Little Life Stories gets off the ground, I plan to connect with relevant professional organizations, schools, child life programs, state and county offices of children, youth and families, and social service agencies. I will also present at conferences, create social media campaigns, and make testimonial videos to spread the word about the effectiveness of the app.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

Currently, I have access to early childhood educators (through Bank Street College of Education, the Wellesley College Child Study Center, the Downtown Little School, Boulder Day Nursery, and the CSU Early Childhood Center) who can help with writing the stories and providing feedback on stories that are written by other professionals. I also have a network of people in mental health, education, law, and art and design fields, as well as people who have created start-ups and non-profits, who can serve as consultants for Little Life Stories. Finally, I am affiliated with Colorado State University and could consider partnering with them. I have mapped out a network of people to support high quality, developmentally appropriate stories. In addition, I have resources to support the initial phases of organizational development. I need to expand my network of support to be able to tackle the app development component of the project. I hope to acquire funding, so that I can focus on the technical and design aspects of the app, as well as the financial and operational foundation of the project.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

Little Life Stories will primarily be funded by the professional contracts we create. Some professional contracts we will explore will include: state or county social service departments, school districts, county education offices, state departments of education, 0-5 education programs and departments, and child life programs in hospitals. This will allow the family version of the app to be free or very affordably priced. If there is a fee for families, it will be applied to a purchase of an additional story for a low-income family. We will measure the success and use of Little Life Stories in our professional contracts, so that we can further market our product.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

I have many years of experience writing social stories and sharing them directly with the end users, children and families. Throughout the entire process of writing and sharing these stories, I collaborate with families to think through how to communicate with their children about the important life events we are writing about. Once the social story books are complete, I observe the children's responses and their use of the books at school, as well as listen to families about how the books were used at home. Over the years I have refined my approach to developing different stories based on: 1) my observations as an early childhood educator, and 2) the input I have received during conversations with children and families. This information has also directed my thinking about how to best support and educate families, so that they can create their own social stories and have developmentally appropriate conversations around life events with their children. Similarly, in the last couple of years, I have begun educating other early childhood educators about when and how to use social stories in the classroom, including how to collaborate with families throughout the process. The feedback from children, parents, and other educators has helped me recognize and address the potential barriers to the widespread use of this tool in classroom settings. Barriers are primarily related to lack of time, drawing challenges, and limited knowledge of social stories. I am developing a more supportive, efficient, professional, and accessible resource for creating social stories for young children based upon: 1) input from children, families, and educators, 2) my own background and experience as an early childhood educator, and 3) my work in the mental health field. From my many prototypes over the years, I have worked with a variety of users to develop a new prototype and I am ready to begin testing it. For this Early Childhood Innovation Prize, I focused on my experience with storytelling and consideration of how to put the end users at the center of my concept when explaining it to others. I also created a more professional prototype for a story, with an example of how the family conversation guide could look in each book. I also created a user experience map to better incorporate user feedback.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1. Where did this idea come from?: I have been using social stories in my toddler classrooms for over 8 years. I have consistently been impressed that by helping children understand what is happening in their world (especially big life experiences), they are better able to regulate their behavior and process their emotions. Since children (particularly young children) communicate through behavior, helping them understand situations that impact them also reduces behavior issues at home and in the classroom. Personalized stories help children learn to use words to describe their feelings and needs. Similarly, we draw pictures depicting the big feelings my toddlers have in the classroom on a daily basis. We call this "drawing about it." I am consistently grateful for social stories and "drawing about it." These tools help the children I care for express and understand their feelings, and makes my job as an early childhood educator easier. I have given two presentations about using social stories with young children, one for educators and one for parents. I want everyone who interacts with young children to know about this tool because it is a respectful, impactful way of engaging with young children. 2. What excites you about working in the early childhood space?: I am very passionate about social and emotional learning in early childhood. This area of development is particularly important for very young children (0-3) who are just learning to process and express big emotions. Current research increasingly points to these emotional skills, which were once viewed as "soft skills", as the foundation for children's future success in school and life. 3. About my experience: I have my master's in early childhood education and special education from Bank Street College of Education, and I worked at the Wellesley Child Study Center as an undergraduate student. I have been an early childhood educator for over 11 years and have studied and worked in public, private, and non-profit schools in New York City; Wellesley, MA; Albuquerque, NM; Boulder, CO; and Fort Collins, CO. Throughout my career, I have primarily taught toddlers. I currently teach toddlers and mentor college students who want to be teachers or work with children in other settings. In addition to my work as a teacher, I worked as a policy intern in the mental health field for several years.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

As mentioned above, I have a network of people in early childhood education, mental health, law, and art and design fields, as well as people who have created start-ups and non-profits. I also have an affiliation with a university. I am looking for partners to help with design and app development, as well as investment opportunities and legal support.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

Expertise related to coding, app development, and technology support would be most helpful. I would also like to talk with children's book illustrators and/or designers to discuss the possibility of creating a set of customizable avatars for the social stories. Finally, expertise related to different strategies to fund Little Life Stories will help me develop a model that is sustainable.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

My idea is in the very early stages. I seek mentoring advice regarding who to collaborate with (i.e., in the use of resources available at CSU or locating other resources?). I would also benefit from consulting with mentors about how to best finance the app (i.e., How would it be funded? Would I charge users a subscription fee or a one time use fee? Would there be different pay structures and/or different application options families than for professionals?).

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Erin Ford is a mentor teacher in the toddler class at the CSU Early Childhood Center. She received a B.A. in Art History and English from Wellesley College and an M.S.Ed in Early Childhood Special and General Education at Bank Street College of Education. Erin has been an early childhood educator for almost 11 years. She is interested in social emotional education and has been using social stories as a classroom tool for eight years.

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

Working with my mentor has helped me think about my storytelling around Little Life Stories and how to communicate my idea to people who may not be familiar with social stories. My mentor had some great ideas about how to make the most of this product's technology, including offering an option for family members to record themselves reading the stories. He also helped me begin to explore how the illustrations could be created within the app.

Attachments (1)

social story powerpoint.pptx

A presentation for families and early childhood educators about how and when to use social stories. It discusses the history of social stories, different uses for them, tips for creating them, and includes examples of social stories.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Carlton Chen

Hi, Erin,

I just sent the following message to Seth as a follow-on to yours:

"Hi, Seth,

Like your and Erin's Open Submission project, ours regarding an Early Childhood Sleep Literacy Project involves ACEs, too. We are Sammi Pillows and our application is at: We are using AI and sensors to monitor and measure good sleep in young children, then to improve upon an early childhood pillow made available to children age 1 year, or even 6 months depending on our findings, and older. The other major component of our project is education and here is something that might provide us with an opportunity for collaboration."

Kind regards, Carlton"

At Sammi Pillows, we concentrate on disruptive sleep patterns as an ACE suffered by children 0-3 during the most critical time for brain development. I am wondering whether the good sleep message can be part of your social story to spread the word about the need for good sleep at the earliest age.

Kind regards, Carlton

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