Bring SEL to Life for Young Students Through Picture Books

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Early elementary students are just beginning to learn the social and emotional skills that will carry them through life—and nearly every interaction can be an opportunity to practice. In addition to providing explicit instruction in social and emotional learning (SEL), teachers can reinforce these lessons through fun, interactive activities that address the five core SEL competencies of cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control (CARES).

Closely related to SEL are language skills, which children at this stage are also rapidly developing. The communication skills they learn through language arts are the ways in which they will express their social and emotional learning to the world. Quality children’s books can be a great way to reinforce SEL through an existing language arts curriculum. The effectiveness of using picture books to teach SEL to younger students has been well documented (see, for example, Harper, 2016; Moore, 2018; Plucker, 2019).

Most picture books feature as main characters either children, to whom young readers can relate, or animals, which many children find appealing due to their childlike qualities and personalities—all facing the sorts of challenges that children are learning to work through in their daily lives. Picture books can be taught through read alouds—with either the teacher or the students reading, depending on students’ ages and developmental levels—followed by whole class discussion or by partner or small group sharing. These discussions provide students with an opportunity to pose questions that will reinforce SEL concepts to the class.

There are many high-quality picture books that can bring SEL to life in the early elementary classroom. The following recommendations are developmentally appropriate for kindergarten through second grade students. Each of these books has been selected for inclusion in Fly Five, a K–8 standards-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum for explicit instruction in the five social and emotional competencies, which is being developed by CRS for release in 2021.


The New Bird in Town
written by Jamie L. B. Deenihan and illustrated by Carrie Hartman
When Owl moves to a new neighborhood, he can’t wait to make friends. But when he invites the other forest animals to his tree-warming party, they misinterpret his intentions. This book about recognizing when others need help and welcoming them into a group highlights the wonderful benefits of cooperation.

How the Crayons Saved the Rainbow
written by Monica Sweeney and illustrated by Feronia Parker Thomas
Can a box of crayons—with seven distinct personalities—work together to bring color back to the world? Through bright, engaging crayon drawings, this book teaches the importance of teamwork and perseverance.

Waiting Is Not Easy!
by Mo Willems
Piggie has a big surprise for Gerald! But Gerald has to wait and wait to find out what the surprise is. This charming entry in the popular series addresses timeless themes of friendship.


Ready for Read Aloud
by Jenny Rose and illustrated by Lisa M. Griffin
Second-grader Rosa feels too shy to read in front of her teacher and classmates, so she practices reading aloud to the animals in her backyard. When a new neighbor moves in next door, Rosa learns that it’s easier to find courage with a little imagination and encouragement from friends.

The Color Monster: A Story About Emotions
by Anna Llenas
Color Monster wakes up feeling a very confusing mix of emotions! To help him feel better, a little girl uses color to identify each feeling. This gentle story encourages children to open up and express a range of emotions.

The Honest-to-Goodness Truth
by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Giselle Potter
Libby knows telling the truth is the right thing to do, but she discovers that being honest without hurting others’ feelings is harder than she expected. This book can spark a conversation about the importance of being truthful while having consideration for others’ feelings.


Charlie and the Octopus
by Rebecca Roan and illustrated by Larissa Marantz
An octopus follows Charlie home from the aquarium—and that’s where everything goes wrong. When Charlie fails to convince his parents that a mischievous octopus is the culprit of the chaos, he takes matters into his own hands, devising a plan to get rid of the octopus once and for all.

by Mark Teague
A humorous approach to helping kids understand why keeping their room clean might be a good idea! “What a great read for all little piggies! . . . fun for kids and the adults who pick up after them” (Booklist).

Respect and Take Care of Things
by Cheri J. Meiners and illustrated by Meredith Johnson
Even young children understand that things last longer when we take care of them. Using realistic situations and a variety of examples, this thought-provoking book—part of the Learning to Get Along series—prompts children to come up with their own ideas of how they can care of the things they value.


You Be You
by Linda Kranz
Adri doesn’t know how amazingly colorful and diverse the world is until he starts exploring the ocean around him. This companion book to Only One You addresses themes of uniqueness, worth, and acceptance in a comforting and entertaining way.

The Invisible Boy
by Trudy Ludwig and illustrated by Patrice Barton
Brian feels invisible—not noticed by other kids and not welcomed to join in their activities—but that starts to change when a new student arrives in the class. This touching story shows how small acts of kindness can help children feel included and allow them to flourish.

Howard B. Wigglebottom Learns to Listen
by Howard Binkow and illustrated by Susan F. Cornelison
Teaching good classroom behavior by example, Howard demonstrates what it means to be a good listener. Children will laugh at this rabbit’s antics while learning about the consequences that can come from listening or not listening.


Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids
by Carol McCloud and illustrated by David Messing
Using the metaphor of filling others’ buckets and our own buckets to illustrate the benefits of positive thinking and behavior, this award-winning book will help create a kinder and more compassionate environment in the classroom and beyond.

Lilly’s Purple Plastic Purse
by Kevin Henkes
Lily brings her purple purse and its precious contents to school for sharing time, but her impatience spoils her plans and, in her frustration and anger, she does things she regrets. This story about making mistakes and making amends is one all children can identify with.

Small Voice Says
by Mike and Mackenzie Morrison and illustrated by Nina Summer
With the “small voice” of their conscience depicted as an adorable cloud, this story will help children learn to distinguish and listen to their inner voice and reflect on what it tells them—a crucial life skill at any age.


  • Harper, L. J. (2016). Preschool through primary grades: Using picture books to promote social-emotional literacy.” YC Young Children (71)3, 80–86.
  • Moore, M. Integrating social and emotional learning in the classroom. (November 9, 2018). International Literacy Association.
  • Plucker, J. M. (April 29, 2019). Fostering social-emotional learning through literacy. Mackin Community.