Developing Social and Emotional Skills Through Family Read-Alouds

By Linda Berger

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In a perfect world, the foundation of social and emotional learning would start at home so that every student would enter school with an equally strong identity. Families who wish to foster this learning can do so through carefully chosen books read at home and following up with open-ended questions. By reading at home with a family member, the student is provided with valuable (and precious) time to discuss important issues around identity, resulting in a child who knows who they are and the value they add to the world. When combined with classwork, reading at home contributes to a mutual effort toward building an emotionally balanced student. Educator and literacy coach Nawal Qarooni framed it this way: “A holistic approach to teaching and sharing literacy practices is essential for embracing the diverse multitude of families and children in our care” (2022).

Open-Ended Questions

Asking children open-ended questions as part of the read-aloud will encourage them to think about what they are reading and help them develop their language skills. When posed by a family member, open-ended questions can also deepen the bonds between parent and child, and invite children to explore questions about their family and heritage.

To be open ended, a question should have more than one answer and include a few key qualities. It should:

  • Invite an answer beyond a yes or no
  • Involve some thought to answer
  • Require evidence from the text to support the answer
  • Generate an answer that leads to further ideas, thought, or discussion

For example, you could ask an open-ended question about a character from Your Name Is a Song (Thompkins-Bigelow, 2020): “It seems that Olumide feels differently about her name. Why do you think that happened?” After asking the question, pause for a few seconds to provide the student with a reflective moment to deepen their thinking. Discussions centered on open-ended questions will allow an opportunity for families to deepen the experience as they connect the text to past and current experiences.

Self-awareness is often the first step to developing skills in relating to other people: To be able to understand others, we first need to understand ourselves. During a read-aloud at home, it’s important to stop and model this concept, essentially scaffolding ways to help children see how social and emotional concepts connect to the story. For example, in Your Name Is a Song, Olumide feels frustrated because her name is too long and everyone in school mispronounces it. After Olumide explains to her mother why she is upset, her mother uses sounds in the environment to teach her daughter about the beauty and rhythm of her name, which creates an opportunity for Olumide to grow the self-awareness and assertiveness needed to demonstrate to her teacher and classmates how to correctly pronounce her name and understand its history and beauty.

When I read this book in the classroom, I share how I had a student once whose name was often mispronounced and how she learned to develop the assertiveness needed to correct others. Supporting this kind of life skill is a gift to our children and one that is easily practiced at home. It allows access to the deeper social and emotional learning lessons that occur when the time is taken to stop and discuss the stories, ask open-ended questions, and allow students to process what is happening to the characters. When you model your thinking and link real-life examples to the book’s characters, you are connecting the dots for students to show how they can do it on their own later.

Building Competence and Empathy

When we see families acknowledge the need for their children to develop social and emotional skills, the next step is to help them develop competence and understanding. As educators, we can begin to establish partnerships with families by using the Empathy Interview, which is a deeper form of the family questionnaire many educators already have in place. The empathy aspect is added by designing questions that put aside our own biases so we can step inside another person’s shoes and gain valuable perspective: “The power of empathy interviews lies in the depth and color of the stories shared” (Jones, 2022). The interview is an opportunity to listen as we use and model empathy to learn more about the families of students. This provides us with the necessary background to better target books that will engage our students and instruct them about social-emotional skills. During these interviews I take notes on everything that is discussed to validate the family’s input and to provide me with data for creating future lesson plans. Here are some questions I ask families:

  • When is a time you felt proud in school?
  • How do you feel about __?
  • What is your child’s feeling around books and learning?
  • How can we support you in discussing a book with your child?

The family members’ school experience is often one that comes out in an empathy interview. “This is so different than I experienced” is a common reaction I hear from families. In the child-centered school where I teach, families often must “switch channels” from the autocratic mindset of their education experience—where rote academics was a priority and compliance was encouraged—to one where students set the direction of their learning.

In Alma and How She Got Her Name (2018), Juana Martinez-Neal writes about the assertiveness the character Alma gains when she is told the story behind her name and understands the strength of the people after whom she is named: “That is my name, and it fits me just right. I am Alma and I have a story to tell.” Because the time was taken in the story to better understand Alma and her family, we can use this example to both reflect and empower the students in our class to write their own story. What better lesson can we provide?

Family education allows educators to teach parents how to read a book with their children and is often a piece that provides valuable context to the material. In a diverse student community, for example, there may be parents who went to school in a compliance- and punishment-based setting and as a consequence are afraid of doing the wrong thing. As a result, these parents may be looking to give their child the “right answer” rather than allowing the child to fail and learn from a mistake. It is thus essential for teachers to work with family members to frontload the reasons why we take this approach in literacy education: We use this approach because it helps us introduce social and emotional skills that can be used in school and at home.

Nelson Mandela was reported to have said, “I never fail. I either succeed or I learn.” In other words, it’s important for students to experience productive struggle and the persistence required to learn. As educators, we are playing the long game and developing a partnership with our students rather than demanding compliance from them.

“We are here to foster effective learners. More important, we want to support your children in becoming better people.” This is how I have started most of my back-to-school nights during my 27 years of teaching. I have taught a variety of elementary school grades, and during that time I have seen clear evidence of something I call “academic overload.” Well-meaning families often target foundational skills. The concern with this approach, especially when teaching literacy, is that it often ignores the value of flexible, deeper-level thinking that digs behind what the words say and into what the words mean. What the words mean is often more significant when we connect it to a social, academic, or professional goal children have for themselves. “What does this have to do with me?” is a concept that guides K–8 students. So use it: Connect the ideas in your reading and support social and emotional skills at home by grounding them in a goal children have for themselves. From Pokémon to paleontology, social and emotional skills can be dropped into any number of interests children may explore at home.

The Secret Sauce

While chapter books can be valuable tools, picture books are what I call the “secret sauce” of many social-­emotional learning lessons. From kindergarten to middle school, picture books often provide deep concepts, rich vocabulary, and detailed illustrations. I introduce social-emotional learning through the idea of “Who am I?” and often choose books to read that revolve around the theme of names. For many years, my go-to text was Chrysanthemum (Henkes, 1991), the story of a character with a unique name. While I still value this book, I also now select books that better reflect the interests and cultures of my current students.

When we use books to help our children understand themselves, they will also better understand others. Parents and educators can share with children how the close relationships and teaching moments developed with read-aloud discussions will help them to grow understanding and responsibility for themselves and others. In Where Are You From? (Méndez, 2019) a young girl struggles to explain her own unique story to others. She is told she came from many elements in her community and, ultimately, from her family’s heart. Using social-emotional skills such as cooperation and empathy, families can use a read-aloud to turn the lens away from the “right answer” and move it toward the real-life solutions that reflect the struggles faced in their past and that their children face now.

Picture books can also extend social-emotional learning through their rich illustrations, which can take this literary experience to another level. The family and child can pause to examine the characters’ expressions and the details of the setting and add them to their analysis when discussing the social-emotional skills they observe in the story. Families can then connect these literary examples to situations in their lives or the greater world around them.

I have used picture books well into high school and find that they can often provide a jumping-off point to a discussion of family, community, or world events. In Islandborn (Díaz, 2018) the community practices cooperation and responsibility to make a change on their island for the safety and continuity of generations to come. Processing feelings and events through the lens of a book character rather than a student’s own wonderings is often a safer way for them to explore the unknown and to launch further discussions.

When we ask open-ended questions, we need to be receptive to students’ answers. It’s very easy for an adult to hear a child’s answer only through the lens of their own life experience. “Suspend your judgment” is an essential guideline to create the type of trusting relationship that grows social and emotional skills in children. For older students in particular, open-ended questions can be used to probe for deeper answers. The character of Alma in Alma and How She Got Her Name (Martinez-Neal, 2018) struggles as she realizes how different her full name is compared with those of her classmates until she learns how special each of her names is to her identity. For example, if a child answers the question “What do you think Alma felt when she saw her name was so long?” with “Sad. She felt so sad,” we need to be prepared to accept that answer. It provides a valuable social-emotional learning lens into their thinking and can set the next direction we need to go with them. Instead of correcting them (“No, I think she was hurt and sad”), we can instead ask, “What makes you think that?” or just keep reading the book. Like any other developmental skill, deeper-level thinking comes in its own time.

Another element to consider when discussing how to connect social-emotional learning skills to read-alouds is the specific texts we utilize. A few years ago I decided to make sure the books in my classroom library reflected the diversity of the students I had in my class. I made sure that I had covered a variety of authors, languages, and cultures, and left it at that. I had done my job, right? Wrong. I had overlooked the need to provide support to students’ families for discussing the stories and scenarios meaningful to them at home.

From pronouncing names correctly to understanding political scenarios, families can use social-emotional learning competencies to provide a richness that a teacher can rarely approach when reading aloud with their child. In Islandborn (2018), author Junot Díaz describes Lola, a girl who is given an assignment by her teacher to tell where she was from through a picture. Because she was a baby when she moved and doesn’t remember the island where she was from, she asks the older people in her neighborhood about it. In doing so, she discovers a symbolic story about tastes, smells, colors, and political conflicts. These conversations help Lola understand her past, present, and future in ways that go beyond the classroom. As Lola works to complete the assignment, she develops academic skills and social and emotional strengths she wouldn’t have gained if her family and community had not been part of the experience. Families add an incalculable level of education when the texts are read aloud at home to reflect the background and language of their culture. And when aided with open-ended questions, the learning will flow both ways.

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Linda Berger

Linda Berger is an elementary teacher leader and site coach in Santa Clara, California, as well as a Responsive Classroom consulting teacher. She sees how immense growth occurs in a student-centered learning environment when explicit attention is given to building community. A constant learner, Linda is insatiably curious and looks to spread that passion to students of all ages.