The world is complicated these days—at times, even downright stressful! And while our primitive bodies were designed for occasional acute crises, modern times require our minds and bodies to juggle psychological and social stressors, both chronic and acute, each and every day. It’s exhausting. It’s hard on us, and it’s hard on our kids too. And yet books are a wonderful way for us—as librarians, booksellers, and parents—to teach our kids social-emotional skills that help them understand and manage the complexities of their worlds.
But what is social-emotional learning, really? I have a colleague who says, “Social-emotional learning is just learning.” And she’s right. But the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines it partially as the ability to acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, and feel and show empathy for others. The development of these abilities allows for deeper self-awareness and social awareness and enables individuals to have less emotional stress, more positive social behavior, and better academic outcomes.
As a parent and also the writer of The Nocturnals, a series of middle grade and early reader books, I have witnessed firsthand how stories can be a wonderful place for children to identify and engage in social-emotional learning and dynamics—not only positive dynamics but a wide range of behavior. The modeling of good behavior is of course valuable, but the demonstration of imperfect behavior is perhaps equally valuable. How many of us have witnessed a child’s delight when he or she reads the stories of our favorite tantrum-throwing pigeon by Mo Willems, or the naughty escapades of Junie B. Jones, or the quirky and unorthodox characters of Roald Dahl? Kids like characters and situations that are imperfect because they can relate to the imperfections and impulses these characters demonstrate.
In my books none of the characters—neither the villains nor the principal characters—are perfect either. I have an early reader book, The Chestnut Challenge, in which a chinchilla named Chandler cheats at checkers. Why does Chandler cheat? Because he just wants to win! Who among us, especially at age five, six, or seven, can’t in some way relate to that desire? I think this is key to really understanding and incorporating social-emotional learning into behavior: we can’t just talk about or demonstrate good behavior; we should also identify and discuss the less desirable ways people are sometimes tempted to act.
I consult with Nisba Husain, a child psychiatrist, who agrees. She recommends that we help our children tolerate their full spectrum of feelings and that we help them understand that it is in our nature to experience feelings such as anger, jealousy, and greed. As a society we tend to judge these emotions as negative, yet without the acknowledgement of such feelings, we can’t know joy, appreciation, and fulfillment. These emotions occupy two sides of the same coin.
Kids are smart. They see and are aware of the times we live in. And they witness all types of behavior, including the actions and discourse of adults, which I think we can all agree is not always optimal. Having characters in books that encourage conversation and provide insight into what motivates behavior—good behavior, bad behavior, and even confusing behavior—is necessary for any child’s education and the adoption of social-emotional learning principals. It helps kids learn to understand themselves and others, and to navigate these complex times. It also goes a long way to promoting deeper compassion, connection, and understanding in our children’s lives and our lives as well.
Tracey Hecht is the author of The Nocturnals, a middle grade and early reader series. In partnership with the New York Public Library, she created a Read Aloud Writing Program that is now used nationwide.