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Storybooks Teach Children About What They (and Others) Are Feeling

Storybooks Teach Children About What They (and Others) Are Feeling

Storybooks Teach Children About What They (and Others) Are Feeling

This was Ben and Keisha’s favorite time of day. After warm bubble baths, they put on their soft, cuddly pajamas and snuggled under a blanket on the sofa with Dad as he opened a new storybook. Ben and Keisha sat on each side of Dad so they could both see the pictures in the book. This one was really good. It was about a boy and girl who were best friends and were going on an adventure. It was really funny at first, but then, they got separated!

“Oh no!” both children cried out, leaning forward to see the picture better.

“How does that make you feel?” asked Dad.

“Scared!” cried Ben.

“Sad!” cried Keisha.

“Do you think the kids feel like that, too?” asked Dad.

“Yes!” the children cried in unison!

“Should we see what happens?” asked Dad.

“Yes!” the children cried in unison, again.

“Whew! The kids in the book found each other,” said Dad. “That made me feel better. How about you?”

“I’m not scared anymore, said Ben.

“And I’m not sad,” said Keisha. “I’m happy!”

Reading stories to children entertains them, broadens their vocabulary,
and strengthens emotional bonds between parent and child. What’s equally as important is that it teaches children about their emotional responses, and it helps them understand that other people feel what they feel. This is called social-emotional learning, and it is a powerful predictor of life success and satisfaction.

The Powerful Impact of Social-Emotional Skills in Childhood and Beyond

Children engage in social-emotional learning (SEL) when they participate in activities that emphasize the following goals:

Understanding and managing emotions

Setting and achieving positive goals

Feeling and showing empathy for others

Establishing and maintaining positive relationships

  • Making responsible decisions


The so-called “soft skills” turn out to be enormously important in achieving life-long happiness and success. Here are some of the objective benefits reported by solid studies on SEL:

  • A 2011 analysis of 213 school-based SEL programs involving 270,034 students in kindergarten through high school found that SEL raises academic achievement scores by an average of 11 percentile points. The reason is straightforward: These skills improve students’ interactive skills with others, which makes them more likely to want to go to school and stay in school.
  • A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that social-emotional skills learned in kindergarten predicted later young adult outcomes in education level achieved, employment, criminal activity, and mental health.
  • Other studies have shown that, on average, children and teens who participate in quality after-school SEL programs show a gain of 8 percentiles in standardized test scores and 11 percentiles in positive social behaviors (e.g., cooperation, helping others), and a reduction of 12 percentiles in problem behaviors (e.g., aggression, noncompliance).
  • Even more striking, a 2015 analysis found that every dollar invested in SEL yields $11 in long-term benefits, including reduced juvenile crime, higher lifetime earnings, and better mental and physical health.

Story Books Teach Social-Emotional Learning Skills

While SEL school and after-school programs confer objective benefits, parents can foster these skills at home through something as simple as reading to their children. Exciting recent research indicates that reading storybooks to children that focus on characters’ feelings improves their understanding of their own feelings and those of others. Here are just some of the most surprising findings:

  • One recent study involving fifty-five children between the ages of four and six found that exposure to storybooks predicted children’s ability to understand the emotional states of others, even after controlling for age, gender, vocabulary ability, and parental income.
  • A long-term study of 17,000 people from birth to adulthood found that reading for pleasure improved social skills and the capacity for empathy, communication skills, self-esteem, and motivation to learn.
  • A University of Toronto study involving 4- to 6-year-olds found that reading stories that describe characters generously sharing strongly impacted their own willingness to be generous. This was particularly true when the characters were human children as opposed to “humanized” animals (like talking bears)
  • Reading storybooks to children vastly enhances their vocabulary. Reading even just one book a day aloud to children offers children the chance to hear about 290,000 more words by the time they reach kindergarten than if they never had story time.

Social-Emotional Learning Books Recommended by Teachers and Parents

There are hundreds of books available for parents to read to their children to foster SEL. Here are some that get thumbs up from teachers and parents alike.

When Sophie Gets Really, Really Angry, by Molly Bang. This book contains vivid illustrations showing how it feels to be angry and teaches children ways to calm themselves.

The Knuffle Bunny series, by Mo Willems. Most children have a favorite toy or blanket. Knuffle Bunny is Trixie’s favorite toy. Across the series, Knuffle Bunny gets lost, found, and shared with another child. Through all of it, Trixie learns about feeling worried, jealous, and growing up.

Jabari Jumps, by Gaia Cornwall. With his dad’s support, Jabari overcomes his fear of diving. This book emphasizes the connections between emotions and physical responses and is perfect for teaching children about feelings.

I Am Human: A Book of Empathy, by Susan Verde. I am Human explains empathy with simple, imaginative illustrations.

The Way I Feel, by Janan Cain. Seeing and naming feelings is a crucial part of social-emotional learning. This book pairs facial expressions with rhyming text that names and describes their emotions from silly, to disappointed, to proud.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. This has been a staple for nearly four decades. Alexander learns that some days are awful, but he also learns that tomorrow will be better. This book is all about resilience and managing emotions.

Dig in, have fun, and help your child thrive!


  • Dr. Denise D. Cummins

    Dr. Denise D. Cummins is cognitive scientist, author, and elected Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. She has held faculty and research positions at Yale University, the University of California, the University of Illinois, and the Center for Adaptive Behavior at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. In her Psychology Today blog, Scientific American, NPR, and PBS NewHour articles, she writes about what she and other cognitive scientists are discovering about the way children and adults think, solve problems, and make decisions. Dr. Cummins also blogs about equestrian sports as The Thinking Equestrian.

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Dr. Denise D. Cummins
Author and Cognitive Scientist


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