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Housman Institute Featured in Psychology Today | Practical Ways to Build Children's Social Emotional Learning

June 15, 2023

This is an excerpt of an article posted on Psychology Today, featuring Housman Institute. 

Bibliotherapy is the “use of reading matter for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of nervous disorders”1 and was recorded in the 1929 U.S. Veterans’ Bureau Med. Bulletin as the “[u]se of books as a form of treatment in neuropsychiatrist hospital."2 Researchers Heath and Young explain that the “basis for bibliotherapy is grounded in principles of cognitive behavioral therapy: what we think and how we feel impacts our behavior (Butler, Chapman, Forman, and Beck, 2006; Friedberg et al., 2014)."3


There are two different types of bibliotherapy:

  1. developmental bibliotherapy–using stories to support children’s common social needs such as conflict with friends, bullying, and other difficulties
  2. clinical bibliotherapy–using stories to address significant emotional needs surrounding trauma, mental illness, and others.4

This post alongside a previous one, "How Fiction Affects Children's Social-Emotional Learning," focuses on the former: developmental bibliotherapy to support growing children’s SEL.

For both children and for adults, reading has been suggested to improve theory of mind, empathy, self-management, and the need for cognitive closure. Though numerous studies have proffered the success of integrating SEL into the classroom curriculum, studies also reveal that shared book reading at home has significant and positive effects on children’s social and emotional learning. Moreover, studies also show that shared book reading at home exposes children to a greater variety of emotional and mental states than shared play at home. And while reading fiction can have profound cognitive and emotional impacts on children through shared reading in itself, the more explicit a parent-caregiver was in discussing the social and emotional issues, the greater the impact on children’s social and emotional behavior.

Where to begin with bibliotherapy at home

The Housman Institute, a research foundation focusing on emotional, cognitive, and social early learning (ECSEL), emphasizes the centrality of causal talk: “Causal talk, or CT, refers to the important conversations about emotions between children and adults. CT happens during regulated moments to help children learn more about their own emotions and the emotions of others."5 Lauren Sturtz explains what this looks like, asking open-ended questions that pertain to the four quadrants of emotional learning when reading stories:

Quadrant 1: Emotional identification

  • What do you think this character is feeling?
  • What about the character’s face, voice, or body lets you know they are feeling this way?

Quadrant 2: Emotional understanding

  • What do you think happened to make this character feel this way?
  • Has anything like this ever happened to you?

Quadrant 3: Emotional expression

  • What can they do to let their parents know they are feeling this way?
  • How did the character let their friends know they were feeling this way?
  • Is _[hitting a friend, and so on]__ an okay thing to do? What else could the character do instead?

Quadrant 4: Emotional regulation

  • What do you think the character should do to feel better?
  • What helps you feel better when you feel this way?
  • Is there anyone around who could help this character feel better?

Building these types of questions organically into storytime helps to foster a child’s ability to identify, understand, express, and regulate emotions. Drawing on questions from the different quadrants helps to build emotion vocabulary (Quadrant 1), critical thinking about the relationship between what happens and their behavior (Quadrant 2), and problem-solving, agency, and empathy (Quadrants 3 and 4).

Putting Together a Book List:

As part of their “Building Social Skills With Books” initiative through Brigham Young University’s McKay School of Education, Heath and Young have generated an extensive list of books for each SEL area.6 The below list is a sampling:

  • Social Awareness: Perspective Taking

Portis, Antoinette. Wait. Roaring Brook Press, 2015. Grade Level Interest: K - 2

Garay, Luis. Pedrito’s Day. Scholastic Canada, 1997. Grade Level Interest: K - 3

  • Relationship Skills: Making a Compromise

DePaola, Tomie. The Art Lesson. Putnam & Grosset Group, 1997. Grade Level Interest: K - 1

Cornwall, Gaia. Jabari Jumps. Library Ideas, 2018. Grade Level Interest: K ‐ 3

  • Self-Management: Following Instructions

Stover, Jo Ann. If Everybody Did. Bob Jones University Press, 1989. Grade Level Interest: K - 3

  • Self-Awareness: Identifying Emotions

Castillo, Lauren, and Christopher Gebauer. Nana in the City. Findaway World, 2020. Grade Level Interest: Pre-K to 3

As we visit the library or bookstore and curate book collections that address specific social and emotional areas, we provide children with a rich resource for building emotional vocabulary, critical thinking skills, problem-solving abilities, agency, and empathy. By embracing the potential of developmental bibliotherapy at home, we empower children to navigate the complexities of their emotions and cultivate essential social and emotional skills for a fulfilling and well-rounded future.

Read the full article on Psychology Today.

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