Picture Books: A Window into the World of SEL

Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass…it’s about learning to dance in the rain.

Vivian Greene

Although SEL, or social-emotional learning, has been around for decades, it has really made headlines in the world of education since the pandemic. We as educators must explicitly teach students how to manage their emotions. Being able to identify specific emotions, as well as what to do with said emotions is a lifelong skill.

A common question from teachers is “What does that look like in the classroom?”. SEL can be used to help students play on the playground while also helping them collaborate in the classroom. Therefore, SEL should be a vital component of our back-to-school curriculum.

Those of you who know me know how strongly I feel about the first two weeks of school. They should be filled with fun activities, routines and procedures, and SEL lessons. In this blog post, we will be looking at five specific picture books that will lend themselves to learning key social-emotional skills that are sure to make this school year a success.

The Day You Begin

Jacqueline Woodson’s “The Day You Begin” is perfect for the first day of school. It reminds us that we all feel like outsiders sometimes. Maybe we are new to the school or maybe we look different than our peers. Perhaps we have different interests or hobbies. Whatever the case may be, it takes courage to meet new people and connect with them.

After reading this book, I like to do an activity about what makes each of us unique. This would also be a good place to discuss identity and values if you so choose. After creating posters, students can introduce themselves to each other, either in small groups or in front of the class. You could even play a round of “Guess Who”. Collect the posters before the students go to recess or lunch and display them somewhere in the room. When students come back, they can guess which poster belongs to which students. (Make sure the students DO NOT write their names on the front of their papers.)

TEACHING TIP: Before hanging up the posters, give students the opportunity to interview each other first. You may want to consider playing Student Bingo first.

Click here to read about Student Bingo and other first week of school activities.

The Magical Yet

“The Magical Yet” by Angela DiTerlizzi is a colorful book that reminds us that all skills at some point were first challenges.

I think this is a perfect book for the first or second day of school. Starting a new grade level in a new classroom with a new teacher can be both exciting and nerve-wracking. This book reminds students that they have overcome challenges many times before. They may have learned to ride a bike or play a sport or learned how to tie their shoes. At one point, everyone has learned something!

This book is a beautiful way to remind them that the challenges they will face this school year can be overcome just as previous challenges were. This book would best be read on a goal-setting day. Give your students the opportunity to not only set academic goals but personal goals, as well. Will they meet a new friend? Befriend someone new to the school? Learn how to play a sport? Help their parents at home? Help take care of their younger siblings? The possibilities are endless.


Jenn Larson’s “Songbird” is an endearing book that teaches kids to dream big, despite all odds. In the story, a small bird dreams not of collecting seeds but of being a conductor. Despite the obvious obstacles, the bird works hard to achieve what seems to be nearly impossible. This book shows students that with determination and support, the possibilities are limitless.

To me, this is the perfect story to read after goal setting. I like to revisit our goals made the day before and choose one to make even bigger. Maybe instead of befriending one student, we will try to meet one student in each class. Perhaps we can learn one sport and one art skill. Again, there are a lot of possibilities here.

The main goal here is to push students to challenge themselves. This would be a great place to do a quick write. You may even consider journaling with your students. Not only would you be able to have a first writing sample, but you would also learn a bit about your students’ interests and goals.


“Listen” by Gabi Snyder is a lovely book that teaches mindfulness. The main character, a young girl on her way to school, is confronted with the sounds of a busy city.

This picture book can help teach student to focus and eliminate distractions, especially during group time. It can also be used to bring up how to show we are actively listening.

I use this book to teach how to listen, not only to the teacher but to each other, as well. I begin by doing a quick activity where we all close our eyes and see how many different sounds we can hear in our classroom. We list them as a class and discuss how to focus our attention on only the teacher’s voice. We then discuss how we can eliminate distractions to allow us to get the most out of our lessons.

In terms of SEL, we discuss what it means to listen to friends rather than just hear them. We discuss trying to understand a person’s intentions before reacting in a negative light. This would be a good time to bring up nonverbal communication, especially during group time. I usually like to use this picture book before beginning our first collaborative activity.

After the Fall

We all know the nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty, but have you ever wondered what happened to him afterward?

This adorable book by Dan Santiat describes the struggle Humpty Dumpty endures after taking a terrible fall. The message is that no matter the setback, there is always a way to recover and overcome it.

If I had to recommend one book for back to school, it would be this one. (I have even used this after winter break as a way to remind students what we discussed at the beginning of the year.)

This book has so many applications. Students enter our classrooms with their own unique struggles, traumas, and hardships. This book teaches us that we can overcome any challenge, academic or otherwise, with time, support, and love. In the story, Humpty Dumpty finds that he is terrified of heights after his fall, thereby causing him to miss out on some of the activities he once loved. Similarly, students may have difficulty making friends after being isolated due to the pandemic. They may also struggle to be successful after failing a test or striking out during baseball. Perhaps they were embarrassed on the playground and are extremely shy now. Again, the applications are endless. This book teaches students that it is okay to struggle sometimes. We all struggle sometimes. What we do afterward is what makes us successful.

“After the Fall” is also the perfect way to teach students to be risk-takers and that it is okay to make mistakes. Mistakes are learning opportunities, and this realization does not come naturally to students. Honestly, it does not come naturally to adults either.

A possible follow-up activity could be to have students think of a time when they learned something from a mistake they made. Alternatively, students could design a poster that visually displays the book’s theme or message. I have done this poster activity every year, and you would not believe how beautiful they turn out! I usually like to display them for Back to School Night.

I hope that these picture books help you create a warm, nurturing environment for your new classroom family. Explicitly teaching these skills makes all the difference in the world, not just for this school year but for your students’ entire lives.

I would love to hear your success stories, so feel free to comment below or tag me on Instagram @learningnprogress. Let’s celebrate the beginning of this school year together!!!

Published by Learning N Progress

I am an elementary teacher who specializes in differentiated instruction and intervention. I have taught grades K-6, including intervention and gifted students. I am here to help other educators make differentiated instruction easy to manage and effective in reaching EVERY student in their classes.

4 thoughts on “Picture Books: A Window into the World of SEL

  1. Thank you for these great recommendations – I only have the first book but am definitely going to check out the others.

  2. Love all of these!! After the Fall, is the best in upper and primary. Thank you for sharing these read alouds. Look forward to more book reviews!!

    1. After the Fall is by far my favorite picture book, and I completely agree that these are great for both primary and upper grades.

      Thank you for writing. Make sure to check out my Reading Workshop posts! Be on the lookout for more book recommendations here and on Instagram (learningnprogress).

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