Using Stories to Teach SEL During Distance Learning

By Kimberly Feltes Taylor and Eric Braun, coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

Using Stories to Teach SEL During Distance Learning

As the pandemic stretches on, and as many of us work from home and many of our students learn from home, the isolation can take its toll. It may be especially hard on kids. They want to hang out with friends. They want to be in school. They might even want to spend less time on screens! Potentially lost in all this is the fact that kids may be losing crucial chances to develop important social skills such as recognizing social cues, empathizing, and problem-solving.

One way teachers and parents can inject social and emotional learning into the day is through incorporating discussions and lessons about what happens when we make mistakes—how it feels, how we might react, and what we can do to get past them.

Start by explaining to students that it’s important to own, fix, and learn from their mistakes. Owning a mistake means admitting you did it. Fixing a mistake involves apologizing if your mistake hurt someone and doing something to make up for it, such as replacing something you broke or telling the truth if you lied. Learning from a mistake requires reflecting on it and then recognizing ways to avoid making the mistake in the future. (How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes has plenty of tips and tools to help kids learn to better own, fix, and learn from mistakes.)

After a short discussion, use the following story-based activities to dig deeper into what it means to deal with a mistake in a mature way.

Story Starters

Give students a story starter in which the main character makes a mistake. Then challenge students to come up with an ending for the story. In their story endings, students can show how the main character fixes the mistake and what the main character learns from it.

You can present the story starter as a whole-class or small-group discussion prompt or a writing prompt. For the writing prompt option, ask students to finish the story.

Here are three story starter ideas. Adjust the content as needed for younger kids or the specific needs of your classroom. You know your students best!

  • Diego makes plans to meet Jake at the basketball court. Then Victor texts and wants to go for a bike ride. Diego really wants to ride bikes with Victor, so he tells Jake that he’s sick. But while Diego and Victor are on their bike ride, they pass by Jake. Now Jake knows Diego lied to him, and he feels bad about being blown off. What does Diego do now?
  • Shelly is hanging out with the cool kids. They usually ignore her, but for whatever reason, not today. To stay in good with them, Shelly starts telling crazy stories. She gets carried away and claims that her friend Amara stole a sweater from the mall. Amara, who is innocent, finds out and is mad. What can Shelly do to fix and learn from the mistake?
  • Frankie is doing a group project for class. Her group is putting together a slideshow about cyberbullying, and Frankie is responsible for four slides in the middle. She does a great job, but when the group gets their grade from the teacher, they are penalized because two of Frankie’s slides contained plagiarized text. Frankie didn’t do it on purpose—she meant to rewrite those sections but forgot. “It’s not my fault!” she says at first. But then she realizes it is her fault, even if it was an accident. What does she do now?

You can use these ideas or make up your own story starters. You can keep them brief, as above, or expand them into full story beginnings with narration, dialogue, and sensory details. Encourage students to do the same if they are writing story endings, and this becomes a writing exercise as well as an SEL activity.

If students respond to the story starters in writing, ask for one or two volunteers to share their stories with the class. Display the stories on screen and read them aloud. Or have the student who wrote the story read it aloud. Then prompt students to discuss the positive points about how the main character fixed and learned from the mistake.

Character Analysis

You can also use literature, history texts, and other material you’re already reading with your class. When discussing books or articles students are reading, take a moment to talk about any mistakes characters or subjects made. Here are some discussion questions:

  • What mistake did the character/person make?
  • Why is it a mistake?
  • How do you think the mistake will affect the other characters/people? Why?
  • How do you think the character/person who made the mistake feels about it? Why?
  • How can the character/person fix the mistake?
  • What do you think can be learned from making this kind of mistake?
  • Do you think the character/person will learn that lesson? Why or why not?
  • Have you ever made a mistake like that? How did you handle it?

Encourage students to support their responses with textual evidence and to build on each other’s ideas. You can also use these discussion questions as writing prompts for quick writes or exit tickets. Or have students respond to the questions in an essay.

Social and emotional learning is as important as ever, even if we are all doing less socializing than we would like. Children still need to develop social, emotional, and character skills, and discussing how to handle mistakes is a good foundation from which to teach these skills. Admitting to or owning mistakes takes integrity, courage, and honesty. Fixing mistakes involves reading social cues, empathizing, and problem-solving. Learning from mistakes requires self-reflection and self-confidence.

A benefit of using stories to explore these ideas is that it helps keep the spotlight off of kids and their own mistakes, opening the door for more honest discussion and learning. It would be a mistake to skip this opportunity.

Kimberly Feltes TaylorKimberly Feltes Taylor has written over 15 books for young people, including the popular Yolanda series of advice books, which provide tips for dealing with peer pressure, family issues, friendship problems, money management, and workplace dilemmas. Kim has also written dozens of classroom magazine articles. She lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.


Author Eric BraunEric Braun writes and edits books for readers of all ages, specializing in academic and social and emotional topics. Books he has worked on have won awards and honors including the Eugene M. Emme Astronautical Literature Award, a Foreword Book of the Year Gold Award, a Benjamin Franklin Award, and many others. A McKnight Artist Fellow for his fiction, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Mankato. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two sons.

How to Take the ACHE Out of MistakesKimberly and Eric are coauthors of How to Take the ACHE Out of Mistakes

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