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5 Books to Cultivate Social-Emotional Learning in Children

Help the little ones in your life navigate their big feelings

Joe Aaron Reid

Published on: April 26, 2023

Young girl leaning against a shelf of books holding an open book and smiling at the camera

Let’s face it, adulthood is tough, but being a kid might be even tougher. Children have huge emotions, no filter, and have yet to develop the self-reflection and vocabulary needed to understand and communicate those big feelings. So, if you’re asking yourself if it’s natural that each day resembles an emotional pingpong match in which it’s unclear whether you’re the opponent or the ball, the answer is yes. That’s because our littles have yet to master the art of social-emotional learning.

Social-emotional learning (SEL) refers to the development and cultivation of five core competencies:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Social awareness
  • Relationship skills
  • Responsible decision-making

Children who develop strong social-emotional skills are more likely to grow into well-adjusted adults. From kids playing board games to execs slaying in boardrooms, SEL skills such as emotional regulation, empathy, compassion and problem-solving are vital to supporting lifelong academic, professional and interpersonal goals and success.

Minding the ‘million-word gap’

Regular story time is incredibly important for the brain development of children of all ages. It provides a sense of comforting routine and increases comprehension and vocabulary development in all kids, including those still too young to speak.

A 2019 Ohio State University study found that young children whose parents read them five books a day enter kindergarten having heard about 1.4 million more words than kids who were never read to. This so-called “million-word gap” could be one key to explaining differences in vocabulary and reading development.

Jessica Logan, the study’s lead author, notes, “The fact that we had so many parents who said they never or seldom read to their kids was pretty shocking to us. We wanted to figure out what that might mean for their kids.”

When reading to your kids, don’t forget to ask them questions about the story, use silly voices and periodically insert them as characters into the narrative. These tactics make reading much more fun for everyone!

It’s story time!

While reading is fundamental, what you read is just as important, if not more so. Books that instill concepts such as kindness, forgiveness and gratitude at a young age will make for a smoother transition as children pass through adolescence and into adulthood. After all, intelligence (IQ) might get you on the boat, but emotional intelligence (EQ) will keep you on board.

Here are five top children’s books to help spur your child’s social-emotional learning.

"Cover of the book "Julián Is a Mermaid""

Julián Is a Mermaid’ by Jessica Love

A young boy sees three fabulously dressed women on the subway and decides to express himself similarly by becoming a mermaid. What will his friends and family — especially his abuela — think? This book highlights themes of individuality, loving yourself and being unconventional in a seemingly conventional world.

"The cover of 'The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes: A Growth Mindset Book for Kids to Promote Self Esteem'"

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes’ by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein

Everyone in town knows Beatrice as the girl who never makes mistakes. That is until she makes a big one right in front of everyone. Eventually, she’ll learn that perfection is impossible and that a life without mistakes is not well lived. This book handles themes of coping with anxiety, overcoming fear and gaining self-acceptance.

"the cover of the book 'The Bad Seed'"

The Bad Seed’ by Jory John, illustrated by Pete Oswald

The title character is a sunflower seed with a reputation for behaving badly. But by confronting his past, he discovers that he can make friends and manifest a future that doesn’t look all that terrible. This New York Times bestseller (the first in a seven-book series) tackles themes of emotional regulation, self-image and how to develop a growth mindset.

"Cover of the book 'What Should Danny Do?'"

What Should Danny Do?’ (‘The Power to Choose’ series) by Adir Levy and Ganit Levy, illustrated by Mat Sadler

Danny, a superhero in training, has a lot of big feelings, and while he’s encouraged to acknowledge them, he struggles with how to express them appropriately. These interactive “choose your own story”–style books explore themes such as sharing and teamwork, and illustrate how you can change your day by changing your choices.

"Cover of 'I am Enough'"

I Am Enough’ by Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo

This is a story of a young Black girl and the world as she perceives it. Through simile and rhyme, this poetic tale beautifully addresses the importance of showing kindness, love and respect for yourself and for others, and reassures readers that regardless of our differences, we are enough.

Learn more and access resources to help make SEL part of your child’s daily life on the Committee for Children website. Discover more great books that teach kids about important social skills here.

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