Using Picture Books for Social-Emotional Learning

By Mélina Mangal, author of Jayden’s Impossible Garden

Using Picture Books for Social-Emotional LearningSocial and emotional learning, or SEL, is an essential aspect of elementary instruction. But with so many demands on teachers’ time, including standardized testing, addressing these needs in the classroom can seem daunting. Sharing carefully selected picture books can support SEL in the classroom in an accessible way.

According to CASEL (the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), “SEL is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”

SEL is most effective when integrated into academic instruction. Using picture books, teachers can teach elements of literature, such as characterization, story structure, point of view, and perspective while explicitly teaching SEL topics and skills.

The following are some examples of picture books that serve as language arts mentor texts and provide a springboard for rich SEL discussions.

Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings) by Valerie Coulman, illustrated by Alexandra Colombo

Dragons on the Inside book cover

This book follows the exterior actions and interior thoughts of a young boy who experiences some big emotions. With this book, you can help children understand that though we may see one thing when we look at a person, the person might have conflicting and intense thoughts and emotions inside.

Dragons on the Inside (And Other Big Feelings) models the use of analogies through engaging text. For example, the main character uses a roller coaster to describe how his anxiety feels. Lively illustrations help convey the intensity of emotions in a relatable way.

Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away by Meg Medina, illustrated by Sonia Sanchez

Evelyn del Rey Is Moving AwayEvelyn and Daniela demonstrate a very close and loving friendship, filled with joy, kindness, and sharing. But when Evelyn moves away, young readers see the sadness and sense of loss that Daniela experiences. The way Daniela copes with her loss serves as a model and opens the door to discussions about other strategies for staying in contact with loved ones who aren’t near and coping with loss.

When teaching literary elements, Evelyn Del Rey Is Moving Away is particularly useful in highlighting setting. The descriptive language and vibrant illustrations provide wonderfully clear and evocative images of the story’s varied locales.

Jayden’s Impossible Garden by Mélina Mangal, illustrated by Ken Daley

Jayden's Impossible Garden

Kindness, compassion, inclusion, and sharing are on display as Jayden befriends his elderly neighbor, Mr. Curtis. Through their relationship, young readers learn about reaching out to others who are different from them but who share the same interests. Jayden and Mr. Curtis model an intergenerational friendship that is mutually beneficial, providing positive experiences and emotions to both of them, as well as to their families and neighbors.

Jayden’s Impossible Garden also works well for highlighting literary devices like alliteration. Reading the story aloud several times, with emphasis on passages like “fat, furry, snowflakes” will help students hear the repetition of consonants. Hearing alliteration helps young readers appreciate the joy of such sounds, but also improves fluency, pronunciation, and articulation.

A Map into the World by Kao Kalia Yang, illustrated by Seo Kim

A Map into the World

This book tells the story of a young girl, Paj Ntaub, her growing family, and her relationship with her neighbors. Young readers experience curiosity, caring, responsibility, kindness, grief, sadness, and hope as Paj Ntaub helps take care of her baby brothers and shows kindness towards an elderly neighbor couple. She experiences confusion and loss when one of the neighbors dies, but helps the other work through grief with her compassionate actions.

A Map into the World is also a great book to use to teach about metaphor and personification. Highlighting Yang’s word choices teaches students how beautifully descriptive writing can be and how very specific details can be used to bring images to life.

My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Shane W. Evans

My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy MoodYoung readers can empathize with Jamie as he goes through his day at home and at school, experiencing a wide range of moods along the way. Using colors to help him name his feelings, Jamie expresses excitement, anxiety, joy, anger, frustration, and contentment. However, Jamie uses his own words, like being, sweet, lively, and okay, to validate the many emotions that readers may experience on a daily basis.

My Cold Plum Lemon Pie Bluesy Mood is written in verse and is a great text for highlighting rhythm, onomatopoeia, and rhyme. It highlights the joy of sounds and can be an excellent prompt for young writers to express their feelings in precise and emotive words and colors.

The Rabbit Listened written and illustrated by Cori Doerrfeld

The Rabbit ListenedThis book provides a great entry point to discussing kindness, empathy, and listening. A young child named Taylor goes through a range of emotions after a project is destroyed. Taylor experiences anger, frustration, and disappointment. Though many different animals present a variety of outlets, none help Taylor as well as the gentle, caring rabbit does. Discussing the process that Taylor went through, and the way the rabbit provided support, is an excellent way for students to understand the SEL concepts in the book.

The Rabbit Listened also works well for teaching about characterization. Young readers see themselves in the ambiguous, curly-haired child who wants to create a masterpiece. Using the text and the emotive illustrations, students can gain insight into Taylor’s personality, as well as those of the other animals.

Mélina MangalWorking at the intersection of nature, literature, and culture, Mélina Mangal’s writing highlights young people whose voices are rarely heard and the people and places that inspire them to explore their world. She is the author of short stories and biographies for young people, including The Vast Wonder of the World: Biologist Ernest Everett Just, winner of the Carter G. Woodson Book Award and named an NCSS/CBC Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. Mélina also works as a school library teacher in Minnesota and enjoys spending time outdoors with her family, whether it’s in her backyard or hiking in the woods.


Jayden's Impossible GardenMélina is the author of Jayden’s Impossible Garden, part of the Building Connections Collection curated by Free Spirit/TCM.

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