Social-emotional learning (SEL) has become a hot topic in the last few years, particularly because research has shown that children who participate in programs designed to encourage ideas such as resilience, a growth mind-set, and conflict resolution are better equipped to navigate the world around them. As a result, educators and parents are actively looking for material to support learning in this area, and there are a host of resources on the topic, including podcasts, videos, individual teaching guides, and entire websites, such as that of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national foundation that defined SEL more than two decades ago.
So how can children’s books fit into this framework?
There are some publishers that choose a prescriptive approach, creating books as developmental, and even clinical, bibliotherapy. These are often published alongside lesson plans, activities, videos, and posters designed as basic mental health resources for the classroom. But as many teachers and parents tell us, and as many booksellers know, almost any form of storytelling can be used to invite reflection and open discussion, which means that children’s literature is rife with complementary tools for deepening SEL learning both in the classroom and at home. It could even be argued that a good children’s book is “stickier”—that is to say, more attention-grabbing and memorable in its storytelling and illustrations—than many classroom materials.
Kids respond to stories. They especially respond to stories that reflect their realities, their struggles, their questions—and that do so in a compelling way. When Deborah Kerbel came to us with the manuscript for When Molly Drew Dogs, which we are publishing this fall, we knew immediately that we wanted to make it into a book. Here was a story that artfully addressed a subject that has become increasingly important to parents, teachers, and caregivers: anxiety.
We could also see the book’s potential within a SEL framework. In the story, Molly is so distracted by her anxieties (brought to life by illustrator Lis Xu as a pack of rabble-rousing dogs) that she is unavailable to learn. She struggles, as CASEL calls it, to manage herself. Equally important to the story are the adults in her life: her grandmother, her classroom teacher, and her tutor. Proponents of SEL recognize that developing social-emotional competencies takes a lifetime. To positively contribute to an SEL framework, the social-emotional skills of parents and educators are as important as those of children. At the end of When Molly Drew Dogs, everyone involved has a chance to grow and learn.
Likewise, in Dear Mr. President by Sophie Siers and Anne Villeneuve, a picture book we are publishing this fall, protagonist Sam shares a room with his big brother, and he is not happy about it. One night, when Sam hears about the president’s plans to build a border wall, he decides to build a wall, too.
Told with subtle humor, this story is at once a simple tale about a common gripe of siblinghood and a modern fable to spark conversations about empathy and the importance of recognizing other points of view.
One thing we loved about this story was that it demonstrated how SEL competencies can be nurtured. Through conversations with his parents, his teacher, and (begrudgingly) his older brother, Sam enacts a “growth mind-set,” honing his social awareness, relationship skills, and decision making.
Children’s literature can be a great gateway to social-emotional learning.