Social and emotional learning through children’s literature
Stories allow us to explore human social and emotional life as we identify with characters’ desires, challenges, motives and feelings.
August 05, 2019 by Christabel Pinto, Room to Read|
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The Hen Farida written by Huda Al Shaer, illustrated by Sasha Haddad, and nominated for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature. Credit: 2017 Dar Al Yasmeen (Room to Read publishing partner)

I love the feeling of being consumed by a good book, of being so deeply invested in the lives of characters and how their experiences unfold that the physical world around me fades to a blurry silence.  Without a doubt, books are powerful.  Compelling stories can make my pulse quicken, invoke laughter and tears, and leave me a different person for having read them.

Teachers with good books support our education goals for children

The Global Partnership for Education vision for educating children aligns with the sustainable development goal, SDG 4, to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.  Improved literacy outcomes are important for this vision.  SDG target 4.7 elaborates: all learners should acquire “knowledge and skills…to promote sustainable development” including an education for “human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity”.   

Children’s literature can support all of this. A good book in the hands of a skilled teacher has limitless potential for developing children as voracious readers and enthusiastic, lifelong learners.  Teachers can also use stories to support the development of a wide range of emotional and social capacities, including greater empathy, an appreciation of diversity, and skills that promote peace.  In other words, books support the development of both literacy and the social and emotional skills that promote global citizenship.

Children’s literature enriches social and emotional development

Social and emotional skills allow people to “understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions” (CASEL).  These human capacities in children lead to improved academic outcomes and wellbeing (CASEL).

There is evidence that our brains treat interactions between fictional characters similarly to real-life social experiences.  This makes stories a wonderful medium with which to explore human social and emotional life as we identify with characters’ desires, challenges, motives and feelings.  Fictional stories allow children to learn from experiences they have never had--including those that arouse difficult emotions--within the safety of a contained world that is not real.  Literature also serves as a point of reference for children as characters model coping strategies, creative problem-solving, and the acceptance of differences (Roberts and Crawford, 2008).  Not surprisingly, frequent readers are better able to empathize with others and see the world from different perspectives (Paul, 2012).

 

Selecting quality children’s literature

Good stories have characters that are relatable: they face real-life situations that include universal experiences like loss, failure, and accomplishment; they show recognizable emotions like joy, fear, and anger; and they have familiar personality traits.  An intriguing storyline is centered around a conflict that the main character plays a key role in resolving.  When a relatable character navigates universal experiences and successfully solves complex problems, children are empowered to see themselves as agents of change in their own worlds.

In The Hen Farida, chicks are divided into two groups: hens who lay eggs and look after their young, and roosters who guard the coop to ensure the safety of all.  Farida is grouped with the hens, but she has a beautiful voice and wants to learn to crow like the roosters.  Farida models creative problem-solving and perseverance as she tries multiple ways to join the roosters, each time being told, “Hens don’t protect; they lay eggs”.  When her loud crowing saves the chicken coop from an approaching stealthy fox, she finally earns a place crowing with the roosters, demonstrating that it is possible to straddle both the worlds of the hens and the roosters.

Teachers as facilitators of social and emotional development

Interactive read alouds of books like The Hen Farida are an important component of literacy instruction as teachers encourage children to engage in the meaning of the text through making predictions, inferences, and connections.  Teachers can plan the prompts for this interaction to specifically support the five core social and emotional learning competencies:

  • Self-awareness: Farida fails a few times in pursuit of her goal. Think about a time when you failed while pursuing a goal.  How did you feel?
  • Self-management: When you encounter a frustrating situation, what do you do to feel more calm?
  • Social awareness: How do you think Farida feels when she is grouped with the hens
  • Relationship skills: If you were Farida’s friend, how would you have helped her?
  • Responsible decision-making: Farida tried to sneak out of the chicken house. What could be the consequences of sneaking out in this way?

Social and emotional skills support global citizenship

Stories can also be a springboard to lead children in discussions on world issues that link to their own experiences.  In addition to raising questions about gender roles and identity, The Hen Farida, a simple picture book, speaks to the common human need to belong.  Given the rise of human displacement and migration, the world is increasingly a melting pot of different people, but the inclusion criteria for “us” versus “them” can prevent us from getting to know how much we all have in common. 

Farida’s experience can apply to our own: To which groups do we belong?    Did we choose our groups or were we assigned to them?  What criteria for inclusion do our groups require?  What assumptions do we make about others when deciding where they belong?  Can one belong to multiple seemingly disparate groups?  Children grow in self-awareness and empathy by reflecting on these questions, setting them on a path to becoming more tolerant of those who are different.

My hope is that every child will acquire the literacy skills that enable them to become lifelong learners.  I also hope that all children can experience the joy of a gripping book and the power of a compelling story to prepare them to create kinder, more tolerant societies. 

References:

Al Shaer, H. (2017) The Hen Farida. Amman, Jordan: Dar Al Yasmeen

Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning CASEL. (n.d.) Retrieved from https://casel.org/

Paul, A. (March 17, 2012) Your brain on fiction. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/18/opinion/sunday/the-neuroscience-of-your-brain-on-fiction.html

Roberts, S. and Crawford, P. (2008). Literature to Help Children Cope with Family Stressors. Young Children, 63 (5): 12-17.

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