Using Picture Books to Teach Your Child Social and Emotional Skills

Last week we talked about ways to embed learning while reading. This week we’ll get a little more specific and focus on some ways to embed social and emotional learning while reading picture books. Social and emotional learning includes a wide range of skills and abilities like: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision making. Today we will focus on just 3 specific foundational skills that are easy to discuss and practice while reading picture books, using the framework from last week’s post on embedded learning.

  1. Recognizing feelings in self and others
  2. Identifying and solving problems, perspective taking
  3. Handling emotions in pro-social ways

Naming: Label feelings and how to identify them. This first step is so obvious it’s easy to skip it or not even think about it! Particularly for young children, or children who need some extra support around social and emotional learning and interactions, helping them to recognize and label feelings in themselves, and others, is the foundation on which further development is built. While reading a book, begin by labeling feelings of the characters, describing and discussing what they might look and feel like. And then practice making your own feeling faces.

  • “The monkey felt sad that he didn’t have any friends to play with. I see his mouth is turning down in a frown, his lip is sticking out like he might cry, and his eyebrows sort of turn down on the sides. Let’s both make a sad face.”
  • “How do you think she is feeling? Her eyebrows are squeezing together, and it looks like she is pressing her lips tight, and she’s crossing her arms; it looks like she is angry. Show me your angry face, grrrrr… What does it feel like when you feel angry? I feel hotness in my belly and chest, and sometimes my face feels hot too, and I feel tightness in my body, or like I’m going to explode.”

Commenting or asking questions: The next step can be to talk about identifying problems that the main character gets into, and recognizing how other characters in the book might be feeling about the situation too. Being able to take the perspective of others, or have empathy for other people’s feelings, is a sophisticated social skill, but it is a big part of getting along, playing well with other children and maintaining friendships, and even young children can start learning perspective taking.

  • “Did George take the last piece of cake? He did, how do you think George is feeling? He has a big smile on his face and looks happy, you’re right. But how do you think his friends are feeling? Why do you think they are mad or sad? I bet you’re right. How would you feel if your friend took two pieces of cake and you didn’t get any? I would probably feel mad too!”

Adding to or expanding on the story: Discussing how to handle strong emotions, or solving problems through reading picture books is such a great way to teach new skills and to help children plan and practice positive ways to handle their feelings in difficult situations. When you and your child or student discuss and practice these skills ahead of time when they are calm, they will be more likely to use these same skills when they feel upset.

  • “Uh-oh, Mary just pushed George because she was so angry when he took the block she wanted for her tower. Is that a helpful way to handle her feelings? Probably not. It’s ok to feel angry if someone isn’t being fair, but we can handle our feelings in helpful ways. What could Mary do instead? Maybe she could take 2 deep breaths, or use her words to ask for the block back, or ask a teacher for help? What would you do if this happened to you?”


  • Don’t force it. If your child stops being interested in answering questions, or you notice they’re starting to get bored or annoyed with all of your stopping and questioning, let it go. We don’t want to turn reading into an aversive activity. Sometimes we adults tend to pepper kids with questions more than we realize which can feel overwhelming to them. A simple, short comment about a color, letter sound, feeling, or number, is embedded learning as well; and sometimes kids just want to hear a story.
  • Normalize having not good feelings. Part of social emotional learning is feeling and recognizing the wide range of emotions. Even though we might want our children to only feel good all the time, parents and teachers can support their children through normalizing the spectrum of feelings, and helping them find helpful ways to act when they feel sad or angry or frustrated, or ways to cope with not good feelings. Instead of saying, “don’t feel sad”, try, “I know you feel sad, let’s find a way to solve that problem, or to help you feel better”.
  • Focus on what TO DO. When teaching about a specific skill, particularly if you are trying to teach your child not to do something again (like hit or grab toys or yell), focus on what TO DO instead. It can be easy to want to warn them away from all the things you don’t want them to do, but re-hashing a negative experience may make them upset all over again, or feel ashamed about themselves. And when they get into the same circumstance again, we want them to have practiced and rehearsed what they should do so that this response comes to mind more easily and is more likely to happen. So instead of, “next time don’t throw the puzzle”, try, “next time when you are frustrated, take 2 deep breaths and ask a teacher for help”.
  • Practice. If you are using embedded learning to teach a new skill like using their words, recognizing feelings, or using coping skills, try practicing the skill with your child or student. If you are working on taking deep breaths when feeling angry or frustrated, practice when and how to take deep breaths while your child is calm and relaxed. “When I feel frustrated like Jimmy did in the story, I feel hot in my belly and my fists clench like this and maybe I want to yell. But instead I make sure to handle my feelings in a helpful way and I take big, deep dragon breaths and slowly blow all the hotness out of my belly until I feel better. Let’s practice together…”

How do you embed social and emotional learning with your children or students? Have you used books to help kids learn a new skill or solve a problem? We love to hear your good ideas! And stay tuned for a helpful infographic to visualize some of these ideas and wrap up our month on picture books!

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Text: © Kids In Transition to School

mage: © Nadezhda1906 |



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