Committee for Children Blog

Using Children’s Literature to Build Social-Emotional Skills

By Trudy Ludwig, children’s advocate and best-selling author

As a children's author, I don't just write stories. I build bridges with my words to connect young readers to the characters in my stories, to themselves, and to other readers. I carefully construct dialogue for children to gain insight into others' thoughts, feelings, and actions, as well as their own. My objective, after all, is quite simple: to help children and the adults who work with them address tough issues that kids face in their everyday social world.

What I am doing is nothing new. The notion that books have therapeutic value for readers can be traced back to ancient Greece. Inscribed over the door of a sacred library in the tomb complex of Ramses II was the phrase psyches iatreion, “healing place of the soul.” In 1916, Reverend Samuel McChord Crothers coined the term bibliotherapy to describe the guided use of literature to help people understand and solve problems relevant to their therapeutic needs.

For years, adults have used children's literature as an adjunct tool to help guide a child's thinking, instill moral values, strengthen personal character, and shape behavior. More recently, however, children's books have taken on an additional role: empowering young minds with critical thinking skills to foster social-emotional learning (SEL) in a safe social setting.

Literature Offers Teachable Moments to Promote Children's SEL Skills

Numerous studies show that literature—with proper adult guidance, supervision, and assistance—is an effective supplemental tool at home, in the classroom, and in the counseling practitioner's office to foster empathy and perspective in children. Cites Dr. Zipora Shechtman in her book, Treating Child and Adolescent Aggression Through Bibilotherapy, “Through the imaginative process that reading involves, children have the opportunity to do what they often cannot do in real life—become thoroughly involved in the inner lives of others, better understand them, and eventually become more aware of themselves.” And the more competent children are in their SEL skills, the more successful they will be in school and in life.  

Well-written, developmentally age-appropriate literature offers wonderful teachable moments that allow children to:

  • Identify with the story's protagonist
  • Acquire insight into the characters' thoughts, feelings, and actions in relation to the particular issue
  • Experience catharsis (the release of pent-up emotional feelings) upon the realization that they aren't the only ones who have this problem
  • Explore other possible ways of working out their own problems by seeing how the characters handled the problems themselves and how their actions or words played out
  • Share personal experiences as a natural progression of discussion

Choosing the Right Books

When selecting literature, make sure the story is well-written and age-appropriate both in terms of content and reading level for the children. Also look for stories that honestly portray the human condition, with familiar language use and a storyline relevant to young readers. Avoid stereotyped characters. Look for literature featuring multidimensional characters that are ethnically and culturally diverse. Seek out stories that offer realistic, practical, and safe solutions to life's problems.

Turning Stories into Teachable Moments

Teaching SEL skills to young readers is most effective with adult-guided activities that get kids to think, understand, and engage not only with the story, but with each other in constructive, prosocial ways. Role-playing scenarios, introspective essays, creative drawing and writing projects, and discussion questions are a few ways to accomplish this goal. Some authors—myself included—already have discussion questions listed in their books.

Need more ideas? Visit the authors' or publishers' websites for ready-made lesson plans. If you come up empty going that route, try doing a Google search on the Internet by entering the title of the book, followed by the words “lesson plans” or “activities.” I've actually done this with my own books and have found some great activities.

Two other resources worth checking out are the Anti-Defamation League and Teaching Tolerance. Both offer helpful tips, tools, and activities to foster empathy and perspective.

For more information on additional ways to build SEL skills in beginning learners and elementary students, contact Committee for Children.


Anti-Defamation League (2005). Words that heal: Using children's literature to increase empathy and help students cope with bullying. ADL curriculum connections: Anti-bias lesson plans and resources for K–12 educators. Retrieved from

Committee for Children (2011). Self-regulation skills and the new elementary Second Step program. Second Step: Skills for Social and Academic Success. Retrieved PDF: K-5 Self-Regulation Skills.pdf

Myracle, L. (1995). Molding the minds of the young: The history of bibliotherapy as applied to children and adolescents. The ALAN Review, 22(2). Retrieved from

Rozalski, M., Stewart, A. L., & Miller, J. (2010). Bibliotherapy: Helping children cope with life's challenges. Kappa Delta Pi Record, 47(1), 33–37.

Shechtman, Z. (2009). Treating child and adolescent aggression through bibliotherapy. New York: Springer, 26–37.

Sullivan, A. K., & Strang, H. R. (2003). Bibliotherapy in the classroom: Using literature to promote the development of emotional intelligence. Childhood Education, 79(2), 74–80.