A Child’s First SEL Bookshelf Reading for Social Emotional Literacy

We all watch with parental pride when our children first show signs of learning to read–identifying letters, sounds, and forming and recognizing words. To be sure, these are wonderful moments—ones that both in my role as a teacher and a parent, I too, take pride in. But sometimes, in our earnestness to help children learn the skill of reading, we miss the many opportunities storytelling offers to develop the social-emotional literacy skills that are central to a child’s development.

Many psychologists and educators today speak about the importance of Emotional Intelligence (EQ) over IQ as a factor for success in our jobs, careers and personal life.  This set of skills, which includes, resilience, self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy, amongst others, have traditionally been referred to as ‘soft skills’ and have not been taught in the general curriculum. But over recent years, social emotional learning (SEL) has gained traction in schools as research has demonstrated that these skills can be taught, nurtured and practiced. Additionally, more attention has been given to the role parents can play in modeling and reinforcing these skills. John Gottman, an expert in child development and author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, emphasizes the role parents can play as “emotional coaches” for children—helping them to label and understand their feelings and learn how to express them in appropriate ways. 

One of the best resources to help teach and promote these skills to young children is reading and storytelling—an exercise so many parents do already. But reading for social-emotional literacy requires a different focus and set of questions and conversations. To this end, there are some wonderful early learning books that help bring out these themes, such as Why The Face? by Jean Jullien or Breathe With Me by Mariam Gates. These books help guide children through understanding and reading emotions and effective ways we can help regulate these emotions. But there are also great books on your shelf already, classics such as Frog and Toad , Corduroy, and even Chicka Chicka Boom Boom that when read with a slightly different focus can help bring out themes of friendship, empathy, persistence and conflict resolution.

It is never too early to begin reading with a social-emotional lens to your child. Helping them learn the vocabulary of feelings, drawing attention to how a character looks and making those connections to real life events can help your child’s EQ grow and develop. Here are some notable books to begin that first SEL bookshelf for young children, ideas for how to read them, and extension activities to help them ‘live’ off the page.

Why the Face?

by Jean Jullien

Written in an interactive question-response format, WHY THE FACE allows the reader to ask why a person’s face might look the way it does before you open the page to reveal the answer. In a sturdy board book format it’s great for little hands and is engaging to read over and over again! To make the book live off your bookshelf make your own emotions book with your child by taking pictures of his/her face when they show different emotions or have them act out these emotions. Invite the whole family to be part of it too—ask mom, dad, siblings, grandparents to be in on the action by asking them to act out a feeling.

Gentle Hands

by Amadee Ricketts

I’m a huge fan of singing to children. Children remember so much through music and melody. Gentle Hands, is a great resource for young children and parents. It provides social-emotional lyrics to traditional melodies such as “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and “I’m A Little Teapot”. You’ll find yourself singing the familiar tunes and using them to support your child when the inevitable challenges arise.

Lots of Feelings

By Shelley Rotner

Children often enjoy looking at books that show photographs of real faces and expressions. With engaging close up photographs of young children and their facial expressions, Lots of Feelings is a great one to have on your bookshelf! Help children notice the details of the facial expressions and think aloud with your child about why the child might be feeling that way, imagining possible scenarios.

Thelma the Unicorn

By Aaron Blabey

In this story Aaron Blabey writes about a horse who wishes to be a unicorn only to discover that she really just wants to be herself. Similar in theme to Giraffes Can’t Dance, about a giraffe who finds his own unique way of dancing, or Giraffe Problems, by Jory John, these books are great ones to help teach and inspire conversations about self-acceptance, recognizing our unique qualities and being yourself.

I Like Myself

By Karen Beaumont

I Like Myself will inspire conversation about all the things your child likes about themselves. Make it live off the page by having your child think about the things they like about themselves, take photos of what they say to make a book yourself, or just simply write them down as a list where you and your child can refer to all those great qualities and add to them!

Books by Author/Illustrator Todd Parr

The Thankful Book, It’s OK to Make Mistakes, It’s OK To Be Different, The Feeling Book by Todd Parr

A bookshelf that promotes social emotional learning wouldn’t be complete without books by author/illustrator Todd Parr. These books as well as others by Todd Parr are vibrantly illustrated and engaging for kids.

My Magic Breath

By Nick Ortner

Breathe with Me

By Mariam Gates

Books offer great introductions to helping children use their breath during moments of big emotions. Understanding how to use our breathing as a means of calming down will help in moments of playground scrapes and supermarket tantrums. Remember, these skills take a lot of practice and reinforcement but reading them in quiet, calm moments will allow your child opportunities to practice! These books also remind us as parents that we need to take those calming breaths too and model them for our children!

Fox Makes Friends

Adam Relf

The skills of friendship can be learned! In this adorable book, Fox explores the early questions of “what makes a friend?” Reading this book with your child helps open doors to conversations about what friendship is as they learn about other children and begin to form those friendships.

The Thing Lou Couldn’t Do

Ashley Spires

Having books on hand that remind children that sometimes learning a new skill takes practice can help ease frustration especially when the words “I can’t do it!” start to enter their vocabulary. It’s a good time to remind them that while they may not be able to do these skills now, with practice, patience and persistence, they can master those skills in time.

About the Author:
Lindsay Weiner is an independent consultant who consults with schools and families on social emotional learning. She is an experienced teacher who taught 3rd and 5th grades in NYC public schools before becoming a pre-K teacher in Westport, CT. She also works for Yale’s social emotional program, RULER, as a Parent Liaison in Westport Schools. Recently, Lindsay transitioned from the classroom to work exclusively in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) and has a particular passion for children’s literature.