Top Books to Nurture Social and Emotional Learning
We all want our kids to be happy and successful in school and life. By we, I mean educators, parents, and any other caregivers. We love the children in our worlds, and we want the very best for them.
One of my absolute favorite ways to nurture well-being, joy, and growth in our precious little (and sometimes big) people is to cozy up and read books that provide opportunities for social and emotional learning.
What is Social and Emotional Learning?
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is foundational for children’s (and adults’) well-being and has been consistently linked to tons of short- and long-term social, emotional, behavioral, academic, and life outcomes (CASEL).
To most fully see benefits, you can nurture these 5 core SEL competencies:
- Self-awareness (I’m aware of my own feelings, thoughts, values, strengths, and limitations, and I understand their impact on my behavior, and in turn my behavior's impact on myself and others; I have a sense of confidence and believe in my capacity for growth)
- Self-management (I have tools that help me manage my feelings, thoughts, and behaviors so I can stay connected, motivated, and working toward goals)
- Social awareness (I’m aware of what others are feeling, can take the perspective of others, and have empathy and respect for others, including those who come from diverse backgrounds)
- Relationship skills (I can get and stay connected with a variety of people because I’m able to use positive listening and communication habits, navigate conflict with care and kindness, resist negative pressures, and find and give support when needed)
- Responsible decision-making (I can make helpful choices and decisions about my behavior and interactions with others, because I’m able to reflect on and evaluate situations and outcomes in ways that consider safety, morality, and well-being for myself and others)
There are several children's books out there that support SEL, and I’ve scoured many of them to find my favorites, so you can just enjoy the benefits of connecting over a book that will bring you and the children you love more well-being.
While and after reading these books, engage in discussions related to the various topics found in each book to best cultivate these foundational SEL habits.
And be open to the possibility that there is actually a whole lot of learning to be done by us, as the caregivers, from the messages many of these books have to offer too!
Here are over 40 of My Favorite Books to Nurture Social and Emotional Learning
(and a few of my all-time faves)...
B is for Breathe: The ABCs of Coping with Fussy and Frustrating Feelings
by Dr. Melissa Munro Boyd (2019)
This is one of my new favorite self-regulation books, providing children with myriad strategies for managing big feelings with care and kindness. The simple book also presents a rich array of diversity to more fully represent all children and their experiences. With so many options for managing emotions, every child will find something that works for them.
The Cool Bean
by Jory John (2019)
This book is about a bean whose old friends have become the cool beans, while he feels alone and definitely not cool – the last to be picked, running into things, forgetful in class. Then, though, at just the right moments in need, the cool beans extend kindness to their old friend, giving him a hint at where he should be reading in class, picking him up on the playground after he falls, and more. The story tunes kids into how coolness has a lot more to do with acts of kindness than appearance.
The Good Egg
by Jory John (2019)
This “good” egg is always making good choices and taking care of others, often to a perfectionistic degree. When the pressure of being good and putting others’ needs first become too much to handle, the good egg embarks on a self-care journey and finds his way back to more balance between responsibility for others and himself. This is a great read for those kids (and us grown-ups) who need to remember to give kindness to self too!
I Am Love: A Book of Compassion
by Susan Verde (2019)
This book is literally filled with love, as the main character sees those in need, listens to her intuition to find answers, and demonstrates a wide variety of ways to show love and create connection with others and self. This ranges from using presence and listening while not saying a word, to showing effort and doing her best to make things better when something is wrong, and so much more. The author also shares heart-opening yoga poses and a heart meditation to extend the love- and compassion-focused learning your children will enjoy.
I’m Happy-Sad Today
by Lory Britain (2019)
Officially now one of my favorite books on feelings, kids will be able to learn how messy and complex feelings are. Sometimes we may feel one feeling at a time, and often we feel a mix of emotions. No matter what, all our feelings are allowed. The book explores some ways to manage our messy emotions, including making up funny combined ways to name our feelings, such as smad (sad + mad) and shappy (shy + happy). After the story, the author also provides a wide set of tools for caregivers to use when fostering emotional intelligence in children.
Lubna and Pebble
by Wendy Meddour (2019)
This tells the story of a girl navigating being a refugee and her close connection to a pebble that she feels always listens to her stories and keeps her safe. She meets a little boy in their refugee camp and becomes close friends with him as well. When her father brings happy news of finding a new home for them, she has mixed emotions, and is sad about leaving the boy behind. She decides to selflessly share her treasured pebble with her friend, so that he can find strength and comfort in it as well. This story is ripe with opportunities to build empathy and resilience in children.
by Diane Alber (2019)
This story is about Popsicle who melts and becomes just a plain stick. He has big feelings adjusting to his new reality, and some other sticks (such as Twig) help him realize that melting was part of his journey and he can bravely persevere and find his way again. You can use this story to help children think of times they felt disappointed with how things turned out, and how with the help of loved ones, we can bravely bounce back and persist as part of our resilient journeys in life.
The Boy with Big, Big Feelings
by Britney Winn Lee (2019)
This tells the story of a highly sensitive boy, who feels very deeply, both in terms of his own experiences and when he sees others having big feelings. He explores hiding his feelings because of feeling ashamed and alone from his feelings that seem bigger than others’, but then he notices a girl who seems to feel as deeply as he does, leading to a friendship and confidence in having and expressing big feelings.
Alphabreaths: The ABCs of Mindful Breathing
by Christopher Willard & Daniel Rechtschaffen (2019)
This book provides so many different versions of mindful breathing, giving every child an opportunity to find what might work to help them self-regulate and find presence in any given moment.
When Sadness is at Your Door
by Eva Eland (2019)
This book helps children explore the sadness that can come for no apparent reason or as an unwelcome guest. The story can help children realize that they can open the door, give sadness a name, accept it in, and figure out what might help to give some relief, such as sitting quietly, finding an activity that brings joy, or taking a walk.
The Happy Book
by Andy Rash (2019)
This tells the story of friendship through the lens of teaching about various emotions. Whereas many feeling books out there place judgment on certain feelings and make them unidimensional, this book validates the full range of emotions, presents feelings as much more messy and complex, and encourages allowing and being there for each other through all the feelings.
Goodbye, Friend! Hello, Friend!
by Cori Doerrfeld (2019)
This super simple book explores how with every ending, something new begins. The story starts with a young girl moving from big feelings about leaving mom to begin school to developing a new friendship, and travels through loss when that friend moves away – which of course leads to new friendship. This helps tune children into opportunities for resilience and hope as life brings us ups and downs.
The Tree of Kind Warriors
by Jordan Karr, PhD (2019)
Intended for counseling support for elementary-aged children, this new graphic novel style book is about a girl facing various challenges who finds a tree of kind warriors that supports her with learning various mindful tools, such as breathing, tensing and releasing, and focusing on self-compassion. The tools help her better cope with an array of hard-to-have feelings as she herself becomes a kind warrior with more joy and peacefulness.
I Walk with Vanessa: A Story About a Simple Act of Kindness
by Kerascoёt (2018)
This amazing diversity-filled wordless book tells the story of a girl standing up to a peer being treated badly and the feelings of helplessness and anger that come along the way. The story speaks to the ripple effect of single acts of kindness, as they can inspire the rest of the community to join in as allies with other small acts of kindness. Wordless books provide such a rich opportunity for oral language development, and in this case, an opportunity for a narrative around several SEL competencies. The book also includes a list of tools to help children help others being bullied.
We Don’t Eat Our Classmates
by Ryan T. Higgins (2018)
This is the story of a T. Rex nervous to start school who is particularly surprised to find out her classmates are humans, meaning she will have to learn to manage her feelings of wanting to eat them. After she gives into temptation several times, everyone begins to fear her, except the class goldfish, who she tries to befriend. After the goldfish takes a chomp of her finger, she develops some understanding of what it’s like on the other side, no longer tries to eat her classmates, and becomes connected to the class community. This book provides a funny spin on empathy development, and I also love the diversity presented in the illustrations.
by Pat Zietlow Miller (2018)
After a child’s mom encourages her to always be kind, she starts to explore what this means after witnessing a peer spill on herself and others laughing. She reflects on various ways to be kind, the occasional challenges that come with being kind and standing up for what’s right, and the powerful ripple effect of even the smallest acts of kindness, such as knowing and saying someone’s name when we greet them. I also love the diversity in this book.
The Rabbit Listened
by Cori Doerrfeld (2018)
In this story, a child with big, heavy feelings encounters many people who try to give advice and nothing works to provide relief, until a rabbit comes along and just listens and holds space for the child. It is this deep listening that makes the child finally feel better. The book provides a great lesson on the value of taking the time to listen and just be there for people when they are having sadness rather than jumping in with solutions.
by Susanne Elaine (2018)
Most everyone questions the grumpy monkey about his upset feelings during a wonderful day and offer advice that only adds to the grumpy feelings. When someone finally comes along and validates his right to just sit in his hard-to-have feelings, the grumpy monkey finally feels a bit better.
A Flicker of Hope
by Julia Cook (2018)
Little candle feels overwhelmed by the dark clouds above. From bad grades to being hurt on social media to worrying about friends and more, she wants to give up, until she runs into another candle, who helps give her a boost of hope by reminding her of her own unique gifts and inner light and that it’s okay to ask for help from others. It’s revealed that this candle understands this because of their own experiences with darkness and finding their way through hope. This book provides an opportunity for thoughtful discussion around maintaining hope, remembering our inner light, and reaching out to others, even when life feels entirely cloudy.
The Day You Begin
by Jacqueline Woodson (2018)
This is the story of several school-aged children who have feelings of otherness, and sometimes even experience direct teasing, when starting new schools, because of how they look, how they talk, what they eat, having spent summer at home rather than traveling the globe, or various other reasons. The story speaks to the power of bravely holding on to hope and being true to one’s self in spite of the challenges, and celebrates finding connection through it all.
by Anna Kang (2018)
Eraser is always helping with everyone else’s mistakes, though no one appreciates what she does and others are valued far more, such as Pencil for being so sharp and Tape for helping them all stick together. Eraser attempts to create like the others, and it leaves her tossed in the trash. During this time away, Eraser not only finds her own self-confidence and pride in her purpose with the help of some tossed papers, but the other office supplies realize the value of Eraser helping with mistakes as well. The story will help you teach children about the power of recognizing your potential, cooperation and connection, and how mistakes make us great.
What Do You Do With a Chance?
by Kobi Yamada (2018)
After a child falls when trying to grab a butterfly and feels humiliated especially as others laugh at the misstep, he decides to ignore future chances, leaving him safe, though very alone and bored. After some time, another chance finally arises, and when the child bravely jumps at this chance, he feels incredible joy. This book will create an opportunity to discuss resilience and bravely taking chances, even with all the messy feelings involved.
Try a Little Kindness
by Henry Cole (2018)
This includes several ideas to help children with spreading kindness in the world, with pictured scenarios making the ideas come to life and providing an opportunity for rich discussions. For example, one idea is to invite someone over to play with you, with the Big Bad Wolf found pouring tea for one of the little pigs, with the pig nervously asking, “What’s for dessert?” The ideas and pictures provide an opportunity to tune kids into feelings in self and others and what has to be managed as we strive for more connection and kindness in our lives.
Listening with My Heart
by Gabi Garcia (2017)
This gem of a story is about a girl who finds a heart-shaped rock and sees it as a sign to put her heart into everything she does. She proceeds to show great kindness to others, including a lost cat and a new boy who looks lonely. When she makes a mistake in the school play that she was so excited about, she quickly criticizes herself. When the new student gives her a picture that says “Friend” on it, she is reminded that she often doesn’t treat herself like she would a friend, and she shifts into practicing self-compassion and positive self-talk. This book provides a great opportunity to help children lead with their hearts with others as well as themselves, and the author provides several activity ideas to help you in coaching children to build their self-compassion.
We’re All Wonders
by R. J. Palacio (2017)
This tells the story of Auggie from Wonder in a more simplified version for a younger audience. This book speaks to the value of being celebrated for our unique traits and seen for who we are. It helps children tune into how feelings are hurt when people are teased for being different and encourages seeing each person for the wonder that they are.
Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed
by Emily Pearson (2017)
This book is about an ordinary girl who does one tiny good deed on her way home – filling a bucket of berries and putting them on someone’s porch – and this has a giant ripple effect as every person who receives a kind deed pays it forward. The book ends with some fun math to show how many people were reached through tiny acts of kindness, speaking to the power of each individual.
by Gaia Cornwell (2017)
This is about Jabari, who is ready to jump off the diving board. It explores how fear can be involved as we take on new things and how we can courageously and steadily take steps to overcome our fears with the help of positive self-talk. The book also touches on the value of connection with trusted loved ones during these moments.
What Do You Do With a Problem?
by Kobi Yamada (2016)
In this story, a child is worried about a problem that won’t go away, wishing it would just disappear, or that he could just hide or escape from it. Eventually, the child decides to face the problem head-on and finds that there is a lot of good that can come from opportunities that arise when facing fears and worries.
Stick and Stone
by Beth Ferry (2015)
A stick and a stone are both lonely until they find each other, when Stick sees Stone being teased by Pine Cone and stands up to him. After this, a friendship builds between Stick and Stone, and they become inseparable. When a storm carries Stick away, Stone searches for him until they reunite and again find strength in one another.
Last Stop on Market Street
by Matt de la Peña (2015)
Though a young boy doesn’t want to wait in the rain or take the bus to go places, his Nana helps him to see each moment with presence and appreciation. The boy is able to enjoy a magical daydream after Nana inspires a concert on the bus, and the boy is able to experience the quiet beauty found in the diverse, vibrant city on their walk to the soup kitchen. The story teaches children to move on from feelings of envy and instead find appreciation and magic in the present moment, and with what one already has and can give.
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings
by Jo Witek (2014)
A little girl explains, “My heart is like a house, with all these feelings living inside,” and the book goes on to provide exploration of a range of emotions – happiness, sadness, courage, fear, anger, and calm – through concepts that can connect children to understanding of each feeling. This book will allow you to start tuning your children into how they feel and how that might be experienced in their body.
by Kathryn Otoshi (2014)
Two is best friends with One, and then Three comes along and mixes things up. This powerful and creative story explores the sometimes challenging nature of friendship trios, while helping children tune into different feelings, learn to cope with loss, let go when disappointed feelings come our way, and cultivate a better understanding of one’s self. The book helps children see what it’s like to take different sides and find inner strength to choose kindness and love. Because the main characters are numbers, and rhyming is used to tell this narrative, there are plenty of opportunities to support a love of math and literacy with this book as well.
The Invisible Boy
by Trudy Ludwig (2013)
Brian wants to belong at school but is often overlooked or teased by his peers, as this story brings up common, uncomfortable scenarios at schools, such as not getting chosen on either kickball team and not getting invited to the birthday parties that everyone is talking about. Brian uses drawing and story creation to make it through, and when a new boy is teased for his food, Brian leaves one of his drawings for the child, who remembers this act of kindness, begins to include Brian, and helps others notice Brian’s gifts and the value in all of us. This book brings so much hope for teaching children how to create a more inclusive world.
by Amy Krouse Rosenthal (2013)
This funny book tells the story of an exclamation point, who is having trouble feeling like he fits in. He tries to squish and contort himself to be like the others, but it just doesn't work. With the help of others, he comes to find his way to a sense of belonging and confidence in his special gifts and way. On top of the SEL lessons and opportunities for self-discovery in this book, it provides a fun way to teach children about punctuation!
Thank You Mr. Falker
by Patricia Polacco (2012)
This tells the story of a young girl excited to experience the joy of reading who then struggles with learning to read for many years, all while facing teasing and bullying. Then, her fifth grade teacher not only stops the others from being so cruel and encourages empathy, but also connects her with intensive support to help her learn to read. There is a super powerful ending that I won’t spoil for you, but I’ll say that the little girl certainly found the joy of reading at last. This book brings tears to my eyes every time, and every educator should own it!
by Kathryn Otoshi (2010)
Zero is a character who feels empty inside, often comparing herself to the other numbers. With the help of her other digit peers, she is encouraged to find the value in herself. She eventually realizes that she brings more value to everyone, as 1 becomes 10, 2 becomes 20, and so on. This book is another masterpiece by Otoshi providing so much opportunity to discuss SEL concepts, while also having fun with numbers.
Can I Play Too? (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
by Mo Willems (2010)
Elephant and Piggie are playing a game of catch, and when a snake comes up and asks to join, they don’t know what to do. The snake sees their body language, and expresses sadness that they seem not to want to play. Gerald and Piggie do want to be inclusive and just have to get creative in how they can make sure to involve their new friend with different abilities. It’s a great, hilarious book to discuss inclusion for all.
Moody Cow Meditates
by Kerry Lee MacLean (2009)
Moody Cow is having a terrible day, and his grandfather comes to help. The grandfather uses a “Mind Jar” (basically, like a glitter jar or snow globe) to help Moody Cow explores the many things that contributed to his big feelings and angry thoughts, how those feelings led to some problematic behavior, and how focusing on the present moment (by watching the mind jar settle) can help him better manage his emotions and return to calm, even when things don’t always go his way.
Do Unto Otters: A Book About Manners
by Laurie Keller (2009)
Far more than a book about manners, this tells the story of a rabbit, who is doubtful of his new neighbors, a family of otters, figuring out all the ways they can be kind to one another to ensure a positive relationship. Through the book’s creative humor, children will learn so very many ideas for how to follow the golden rule, from using a cheerful hello, nice smile, and good eye contact to help be friendly, to being considerate by “helping neighbors untangle ears,” to apologizing (“I’m sorry I used your ear as a tissue”), forgiving, and much, much more.
My Friend is Sad (An Elephant and Piggie Book)
by Mo Willems (2008)
After Piggie notices that her dear friend Gerald the Elephant is deeply sad, she attempts to cheer Gerald up by dressing up in several silly costumes, only to realize that the best way to make Gerald feel better is to just be there for him. This book provides a great opportunity to tune children into body language, while also helping them see the value in just being present for those who are feeling down.
by Kathryn Otoshi (2008)
Blue is a quiet color who gets bullied by “hot head red,” and though the other colors like Blue, they don’t stand up to the bullying, and Red’s behavior keeps getting worse. “One” comes along, and he stands up to Red. He encourages the other colors to stand up to Red too and helps everyone see that they all can count, with each color turning into a number. Although Red feels defeated when they all stand up to him, One invites Red to count too, making this story such a delightful way to tune kids into the value of including others to transform a community.
by Mélanie White (2008)
This funny book is about a squirrel who feels a lot of anxiety about leaving his tree – his comfort zone - and explores his desire for consistency and predictability. When a mistake leads him to realize that he’s actually a flying squirrel, he is able to experience the joy of branching out and facing your fears.
This page will be continually under construction, as I find new favorite books to to add to my bookshelf!
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In addition to the books on this page being able to nurture SEL for the kids in your world, Kimochis is my all-time favorite SEL curriculum and has some great books to nurture SEL.
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