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Blog: Blog2
  • Lindsay Weiner

Reading for Social Emotional Learning

Updated: Jan 15, 2021

We all want our children to grow up to be happy, resilient, confident and empathetic young adults and to have the necessary social skills to build and sustain strong friendships and relationships. This is not an easy task and parents face many challenges along the way to supporting our children’s mental and emotional health.

Thankfully, there are important tools to help support parents and teachers in this task—and they are often already in our hands: books. To better understand why reading can be a powerful gateway for developing SEL skills, we need to remember what we know about learning as well as what we know about reading. Research on neuroscience shows that children learn better when their emotions are positively engaged with what they are learning. Good stories engage a child with characters that are relatable and inspire empathy and draw both reader and listener into the world of the story. In addition, storytelling provides a “problem-solving playground” where children can relate to a character or the situations they might be facing. In the safe context of a story, children can think about how a problem plays out and how a character’s decisions affects others. Finally, a story provides a platform for conversation to take place between reader and listener. This can be especially powerful as it can provide a bridge to talk about something that might be happening in a child's life.

Whether you are reading to a young preschooler or an older child, implementing a few strategies when reading can help develop a child's social emotional skills. These strategies should help make the most of reading time together:

1. Choose a book with intention

Is your child struggling with confidence? Having difficulty with self-regulation? Or maybe it is difficult for him or her to see the perspective of a sibling or a friend? Thinking about what a child is struggling with allows for an opportunity to think about a book that might address that challenge. There are many resources out there to help find a great book, including your child's teacher, a school counselor, the librarian at the school or in your community and countless book lists. One of my favorite online resources is Books That Heal Kids, a great blog for books that address many different topics. Sure, not every book we read with a child has to or even should be selected in this way and books should be read for many different purposes. But it is important to remember that books can be a powerful tool for learning and discussion.

2. Empathize with all characters in the story.

Helping children to see a different perspective encourages them to expand their circle of concern. There are so many books that encourage a child to see different points of view. Some of my favorites include Hey Little Ant, Jam and Honey, and Duck, Rabbit. The True Story of The Three Little Pigs, by Jon Scieszka and other fairy tales that cast the villain as the hero are also a good source of literature that help children see a new perspective. Next time you read with your child, try thinking about a different character’s perspective and have fun telling the story from a different viewpoint.

3. Think about a character's decisions and reflect on consequences.

In The Empty Pot, by Demi, a Chinese emperor challenges children to grow the most beautiful flower. Most of the children, feeling pressure from the emperor's mandate, lie about how their flower was grown. However, one boy, Ping, makes the decision to tell the truth. Talking through decisions a character makes in a story can be a powerful way for children to understand choices and consequences. And we can go further by asking children "What if Ping made a different decision? Would the outcome change?"

4. Broaden a child’s “feeling” vocabulary.

It is easy for most of us to use a very narrow range of vocabulary in daily life that rarely extends beyond “happy,” “sad,” “mad” and “excited.” When reading a story, help your child learn more nuanced words for feelings such as “disappointed,” “embarrassed” and “frustrated.” Words are powerful: they can help children label emotions and provide a sense of control when there is a word that governs how they are feeling. It also helps children see that feelings are universal to the human experience. Piggy and Elephant books by Mo Willems are exceptional examples, as the illustrations and storylines help young children see a wide range of feelings. Other great books for young children include Mr. Men and Little Miss books.

Children’s literature offers so many possibilities to help us teach and highlight social emotional skills. Taking the time to think about challenges that children are facing, intentionally selecting stories that relate to those challenges and investing in both what we read and how we read can ultimately help our children thrive in their relationships and at school.

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