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How to teach Social-Emotional Skills through Reading and Writing


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How to teach Social-Emotional Skills through Reading and Writing
by: Bernice Chua ~ 3/18/2022


Social-emotional learning (SEL) has come under the spotlight in recent years and for good reason. Since the world has gone digital, we’ve been presented with new challenges in building relationships with others as well as maintaining our own mental health. The online world is full of thoughts, feelings and differences in opinion. When kids develop their social-emotional skills, they can navigate all of this with a strong sense of self and a balanced mind.

When kids are young, we help them manage and express their emotions in safe and healthy ways whenever they experience tantrums, mood swings or squabbles with other kids. As teachers, one of the ways we do this is by trying out different calm-down strategies with them. Another way is to role play how they might react in specific social situations. Then there’s the daily practice of reading stories to the class and using an inquiry-based approach to teach them important social-emotional behaviors.

There’s more to telling stories than just reading through the pages and pointing at pictures to the children. Asking your kids questions and giving them the time to reflect is key to developing their awareness of their own thoughts, emotions and reactions in different situations. Here’s how you can teach SEL in your reading and writing instruction.

Ask questions focused on character emotions

With every story there is always a problem or conflict that the main character must face. Explore different possible emotions that characters are feeling by introducing new emotion words to your students’ vocabulary. You may want to print out an emotion wheel to show a wide variety of emotions for them to choose from. Talk about how the characters are feeling and behaving rather than what they’re doing.

You can even analyze this about the characters in a movie or a show. Together with your students, examine a character’s facial expression and gestures. Listen to the dialogues and the way the words are spoken. A character’s tone of voice can tell young readers a lot about the character’s personality.



Here are some good questions or writing prompts you can ask your students’ about what the character is feeling throughout the story…

  • Can you name the emotions that the main character is feeling?
  • What event/s led them to feel this way?
  • How can you tell this is what the character is feeling? Was it something they said? Was it how they said it? Was it seen on their face?
  • Would you feel the same way if it happened to you? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the main character reacted well to the situation?
  • How do you think the main character could have handled their emotions better?
  • Do you think other readers feel differently about how the story ended? How so?

By asking SEL-focused questions, kids become more aware of how emotions and outside events are linked. They begin to recognize that emotions are something we all share and that it’s okay to feel differently - or strongly. Often kids find a friend in the characters they meet while others learn how to be a good friend.

Ask questions at different stages of the reading process

Ask questions before, during and after reading to show a character’s emotional development. Start with the book cover then periodically pause throughout the story to reflect on the emotions of the characters. Examine how the main character’s emotion changes throughout the story. At each stage of the reading process, have your students connect with the characters and relate what they’re feeling. It’s always worth reminding them that it’s okay if they don’t feel the same way.

Listen and acknowledge different responses in the classroom

When you ask questions, expect to receive different responses from your students. Students who are shy or who feel vulnerable may be more comfortable writing out their reflections than saying them out loud. What’s important is that every student is given an opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings as honestly as possible about the questions being asked. For kids who have chosen to do a written response, invite them to select parts of their answer that they feel comfortable enough to share with the class. Show that you are listening and acknowledge the vulnerability it takes for your students to share their feelings with the class. Affirm your students’ feelings by saying things like…

  • Thank you for sharing your answers with the class.
  • I understand why you must feel that way.
  • I want to make sure we all understand what you’re telling us. What I’m hearing is…
  • Could you please clarify what you said about _____?
  • Has anyone in the class learned something from what (name of student) shared? (If no one volunteers, share something you learned).

By responding in this supportive language, we also model for the rest of the class how we can practice kindness and empathy with each other when we share our personal experiences.

As you can see, storytelling is a wonderful way to teach children social-emotional skills. This is not just a great practice for the classroom but a great way to practice kindness at home as well. For parents, you can practice these methods while reading or watching shows together at home. There are also countless ways to go from reading a story and asking questions. You may even go as far as creating a play from a chosen story and having your students reenact the emotional states of each character. Your students could write a story from the point of view of another character as you teach them to describe emotions with more strength and accuracy. You can make SEL a part of your reading and writing instruction by giving your students the space to experience and express their feelings fully.

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