Using Children’s Literature To Support SEL in the Elementary Classroom

Our brains are neurologically hardwired for stories, and a story-rich life is one key to building strong social-emotional learning skills.

LITERATURE AND THE arts have always been fuel for the heart, mind, and imagination. When we read, view, or listen to stories, we show greater kindness and willingness to cooperate, are more empathetic, and understand how others may react in a situation. After all, we are storytelling creatures. Our brains are neurologically hardwired for stories, and a story-rich life is one key to building strong social-emotional learning (SEL) skills.

How do you select a book for SEL skill development? Start with one that you think will strengthen students’ connections to people in their lives, and even strangers. Choose titles that evoke a strong feeling and invite conversation about what it means to live a happy life. Select books that let your classroom be where all hearts are shared and all voices are welcome—titles that celebrate the diversity of human experience.

Here are a few suggestions, plus strategies to extend SEL with your students.


Responding to others with empathy

Carmela Full of Wishes by Matt de la Peña; illus. by Christian Robinson (Putnam, 2018)
It’s Carmela’s birthday, and what she wants most of all is to accompany her big brother on his errands around the neighborhood. When the dandelion Carmela picks gets crushed, her brother empathizes with her heartbreak and brings her someplace special—a place full of wishes. As in the creators’ Newbery-winning collaboration, Last Stop on Market Street, Carmela Full of Wishes gives readers a glimpse into the lives of children impacted by social and economic hardship but whose story reminds us we can all find moments of beauty, hope, and joy.


Understanding and expressing strong emotions

The Rabbit Listened by Cori Doerrfeld (Dial, 2018)
When Taylor’s imaginative block tower is suddenly destroyed by an unexpected flock of crows, his animal friends all think they know how to help. First comes the chicken who wants to talk, talk, talk about it. Next comes the bear who gets angry and shouts about it. A procession of well-meaning animals all try their best but ultimately fail to help Taylor. That is, until a rabbit sits close by, simply listens, and offers a hug. The Rabbit Listened is a poignant reminder for readers of any age about how to intentionally listen with care.


Encouraging contemplation and mindfulness

Tiny, Perfect Things by M.H. Clark; illus. by Madeline Kloepper (Compendium, 2018)
One way to instill mindfulness is to help students pay attention to the beauty and mystery of nature. In Tiny, Perfect Things, a girl goes on a neighborhood walk with her grandfather, who points out nature’s delights along the way. A final fold-out page encourages readers to find seemingly countless tiny, perfect things for themselves. This title emphasizes waiting, slowing down, and contemplation as sources of social and emotional wellness.


Processing grief and loss

My Father’s Words by Patricia MacLachlan (Katherine Tegen, 2018)
Before an accident took his life, Declan O’Brien was a beloved father, husband, and psychologist who always had a gentle word to share. Children Fiona and Finn O’Brien cope with their grief by volunteering at an animal rescue shelter. As the siblings provide comfort to the dogs, the animals provide comfort to them. This title helps middle grade readers understand mourning and consider living a meaningful life through a loved one’s legacy.

Ocean Meets Sky by Terry and Eric Fan (S. & S., 2018)
A highly inventive tale that explores the adventurous spirit of a young boy after his grandfather’s death. Inspired by his grandfather’s stories, Finn builds a boat and takes a nap below the deck. He wakes to realize the boat is taking him on an imaginative journey to the magical place where the ocean meets the sky. When he gets there, readers are greeted by three wordless spreads that inspire the inner adventure-seeker in all of us.


Professional text recommendation

Kids First from Day One: A Teacher’s Guide to Today’s Classroom by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz (Heinemann, 2018)
Are all of your students’ voices heard and celebrated? Do you struggle to model the SEL life you want your students to embrace? The authors have crafted an accessible, resource-rich professional text for teachers to put big ideas about teaching, learning, and wellness into practice to build a community where children come first. Their varied, adaptable techniques help teachers design instruction and the classroom environment to engage and celebrate students. A game-changer in the field of elementary education.

Katie Egan Cunningham is the author of Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Instruction for Student Happiness (fall 2019) and blogs at SLJ’s ”The Classroom Bookshelf.”

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