Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How to Introduce Journaling to Young Children

Students in preschool through second grade can benefit from drawing or writing to explore their thoughts and feelings.

February 27, 2024
Stígur Már Karlsson / Heimsmyndir / iStock

The symbiotic relationship between reading and writing can help our youngest students grow their emergent literacy skills. The idea of teaching writing at an early age can seem daunting. However, meeting children where they are developmentally can make a journaling activity become a magical experience—and they don’t have to write words but can convey thoughts in pictures.

Thinking Out Loud With Literature

Literature grows language skills, cognitive ability, and adult-child bonds. Sharing literature is a time to think out loud together, while the story is read. Emily Style beautifully shared that books are windows and mirrors, and Rudine Sims Bishop added sliding glass doors to the metaphor. The characters and plot create a reflection of our own lives and a window into the lives of others. Books offer a world that we are invited to enter through a door.

The benefits of sharing a story with children include self- and social awareness and enhance their view of the world. It also builds literacy by demonstrating that symbols, including illustrations, letters, and words, have meaning and tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. 

With so many wonderful social-and-emotional books to choose from, be sure to select titles appropriate for your students’ developmental stages. Look for books that have engaging illustrations, can develop emotional vocabulary, and are culturally diverse.

CASEL’s SEL Framework can offer options for your lesson’s objectives. Use interesting and open prompts that allow children to share how they feel, explore how someone else may be feeling, or identify fears they may share. While you read, you’re focusing their attention in a way that will guide their individual thoughts about the selected journal prompt that will be shared later.

Guiding Students Through the Book

Begin with the cover, and share the writer’s and illustrator’s names. Talk about the importance of sharing stories. Next, ask students what the cover might tell us about the story. 

While reading, notice the details in the book as your group thinks out loud. Ask them about characters’ facial expressions, feelings, problems, consequences, and solutions. 

Be sure to give them time to reflect and share their experiences of mirrors and windows. Connections with the characters provide an opportunity for students to develop a growth mindset, empathy, understanding, awareness, and resiliency. 

Thinking out loud is a key step to turn emergent readers into writers. They can share, discuss, and gather their thoughts together in a group setting, which builds confidence and creativity. 

Thinking With a Pencil 

Journaling has been called “thinking with a pencil.” It can look different for all of us because it’s a personal activity. Journals can grow over time as we add to our thoughts on various occasions. However, for early writers, the biggest difference is the journal itself. 

Journaling reduces anxiety. It allows thinking with a pencil or, in this case, markers or crayons. This isn’t handwriting practice; it’s personal communication with a purpose. The process empowers our youngest authors with a voice and a platform to be heard using their strengths in a creative, impactful way. 

We all start somewhere: Our students’ level of readiness for journaling, particularly at the preschool level, may include simple scribbles and drawings or just a drawing. Some children may add a nondirectional wavy line or symbols for writing. Writings might appear as separate marks or letters. Other students may use inventive spelling, with a few pairings of letters, words, or even sentences. Regardless of its appearance, it’s important to understand that each child is sharing their own message. 

Design prompts that spark a thought but allow freedom. Give students opportunities for writing and space for illustrations because a picture is worth a million words. Their responses give them a chance to share their understanding of the story and themselves. Share and model expectations and examples that are age-appropriate and meet each child where they are. 

As students work on their entries, walk around and ask each student to read their story to you. Take a moment to write exactly what they’re sharing. You can jot down their words on a sticky note or add their quotes at the bottom or the back of the page or activity. This will help them to later share their ideas with each other, at home, and enjoy their creativity when they look back on their work. 

Three Books That Offer Journaling Inspiration 

1. Maybe, by Kobi Yamada. This book allows readers to imagine everything they are and can be, with the possibilities and potential that they hold. It provides many possibilities for prompts of self-awareness, resiliency, and a growth mindset: “Maybe you are here to shine a light into places that have been dark for far too long.” Instruct the students to print their name on a moon shape, and encourage them to add a face that looks like theirs. Cutout stars can be added to the journal page with their words and drawings about how they shine.

2. Ruby Finds a Worry, by Tom Percival. This is a fantastic book about a worry that grows as Ruby thinks about it. The simply illustrated worry is a scribbled yellow ball with eyes and brows. After Ruby meets another child with his own worry, they realize that talking together is just what they needed. 

Have your students color their own worries and label them, adding an idea for how to shrink their worry. By sharing their stories together, they’re building a toolbox of coping skills. They may realize, as Ruby did, that talking with someone is a great plan for feeling better.

3. In My Heart: A Book of Feelings, by Jo Witek. This book descriptively talks about the many ways a heart can feel, such as feeling heavy as an elephant or shiny and bright like a big yellow star. 

After sharing this book, children can identify the feelings in their own hearts, by labeling colored or cutout hearts. This is a wonderful emotional check-in and can be used more than once, providing teachers and parents with a child’s emotional patterns or triggers. 

Building emergent readers and writers concurrently begins with children hearing what storytelling sounds like through a read-aloud. The guided discussion encourages students to think out loud as they share their own views and hear those of others. Finally, journaling lets them think visually and practice their writing skills as they create their own story.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Critical Thinking
  • Literacy
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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