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Integrating Social and Emotional Learning in the Classroom

By Marilyn Moore
 | Nov 09, 2018

A diverse classroom library is needed to increase students’ reading volume, reading breadth, and motivation, according to this 2004 study published by the American Psychological Association. Self-selection of reading material is a salient factor for students’ reading development, as is access to a diverse classroom library.

Students’ social and emotional learning (SEL) has become a growing area of interest in classrooms. A study published by Child Development in 2011 found that SEL programs yielded “significant positive effects on targeted social-emotional competencies and attitudes about self, others, and school.” The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning identifies five core social-emotional competencies as keys to success in school and beyond: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making.

When students examine the emotions of the characters they are reading about, they gain not only a better understanding of the text but also a better understanding of their own feelings.

The following books offer a gateway to the development of these five social-emotional competencies.


Using the following texts, ask students to identify a time they may have experienced the same feelings as a character and then ask them to discuss in small groups how they addressed them.

  • Gaston by Kelly DiPucchio (Atheneum): Gaston works hard at his lessons on how to be a proper dog. He sips—never slobbers. He yips—never yaps. Gaston fits right in with his poodle sisters. But when a chance encounter with a bulldog family in the park reveals there’s been a terrible mistake, Gaston doesn’t know where he fits in anymore.
  • All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor (Katherine Tegen): In a small town in Nebraska, Perry T. Cook has grown up with his mother in a private detention facility for women, but he attends a regular school. When a lawyer discovers Perry living in this facility, he makes a move to put him in foster care. Now it is up to Perry to clear his mother’s name and to prove to everyone the idea of what constitutes a family.


After reading one of the following texts, discuss how the characters persevered through hard times to reach a goal.

  • After the Fall by Dan Santat (Roaring Brook Press): In this version of the nursery rhyme, Humpty tells his own story. This time, the emphasis is not on the infamous fall, but on what happens next. In search of the best view, he is motivated to climb back up the wall—demonstrating that the will to reach a personal goal goes far in overcoming a momentary setback.
  • Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul (Poppy): This was originally a Broadway musical reinvented as a novel. When a letter that was never meant to be seen draws high school senior Evan Hansen into a family’s grief over the loss of their son, Evan is given the chance of a lifetime to belong. He just must pretend that the notoriously troubled Connor Murphy was his secret best friend.

Social awareness

The following texts provide easy and creative introductions to lessons centered around empathy, compassion, and tolerance.

  • Whoever You Are by Mem Fox (Reading Rainbow): All over the world, children are laughing and crying, playing and learning, eating and sleeping. They may not look the same. They may not speak the same language. And their lives may be quite different. But inside, they are just like you.
  • Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (Nancy Paulsen): Maya is the new kid in school, and her classmates team up to torment her. When Maya is absent one day, the teacher brings in a pot of water and drops a stone into it, noting that “each kindness is like that,” as the ripples spread outward. The queen of the mean girls vows to change her behavior when Maya returns to school; however, Maya does not return.

Relationship skills

Use literature as an opportunity to teach students a lesson on conflict resolution.

  • Lions & Liars by Kate Beasley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux): Fifth grade is off to a terrible start when Frederick is sent to a disciplinary camp for troublesome boys. His fellow troop mates—Nosebleed, Specs, The Professor, and little-yet-lethal Ant Bite—are terrifying. But in between trust-building exercises and midnight escape attempts, a tenuous friendship grows between them. This is lucky, because a Category 5 hurricane is coming, and everyone will have to work together to survive!
  • Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys (Penguin): Four young teens are trying escape the conflict happening in Europe during World War II. They board a German boat called the Wilhelm Gustloff, only to learn that the Russians will be sinking the ship. Told from the perspectives of the four characters before and after the boat sinks, it is very moving piece of historical fiction.

Responsible decision making

The following stories feature characters who must make complex decisions about conflicting principles and loyalties. Use these examples to discuss ethical dilemmas.

  • Louisiana’s Way Home by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick): Louisiana lives with her grandmother, who wakes her up in the middle of the night to tell her that they must leave home immediately. They travel by car to Georgia, where Louisiana’s life becomes entwined with a motel owner and a mysterious boy with a crow on his shoulder. Her grandmother abruptly leaves, and Louisiana must make decisions about forgiveness and whether to stay or return to Florida.
  • A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead): A generational story spanning 33 years, the book concerns two different women as they deal with the problems of war and domestic violence in Afghanistan. Themes include family, love, survival, war, and refugee issue.

Marilyn E. Moore is a professor and faculty director for the Reading Program at National University, La Jolla, California.

This article is part of a series from the International Literacy Association’s Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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