George Lucas Educational Foundation
Subscribe to RSS

From Preschool to Adulthood: Building Social and Emotional Skills with Fiction

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Share

Earlier this month, a New York Times article by Annie Murphy Paul suggested that reading fiction was a powerful way to build social-emotional skills. She cited the work of several researchers in support of this, and I followed up one line of work, by Raymond Mar (York University, Canada). I am convinced, as well.

First, there is the logic of the premise. How can we hope to get into others' minds, know their feelings in detail, or track their thought processes, better than through well-written fiction? These are aspects of social and emotional skill development that are hardest to train in nuance and depth, and hard to pick up through interpersonal interaction alone.

Second, there is the science of the premise. Dr. Mar's findings in the Annual Review of Psychology (2011) suggest that the same areas of the brain are stimulated by our attempts to makes sense of stories and to make inferences about others with whom we are interacting. In a 2009 study, he found that frequent readers of fiction had greater capacity for empathy and interpersonal insight, and had social networks and social relationships that were no different from those who read less.

There were even some preliminary data suggesting that fiction readers have better social support networks. Dr. Mar's lab followed this with a study in 2010, published in Cognitive Development, focused on preschoolers. He and his colleagues found that exposure to stories, in particular, was associated with young children's development of theory-of-mind skills.

These are skills essential for taking others' perspectives and coordinating their relationships with diverse others. They note that these findings cannot be accounted for by language skills alone; they believe that something is happening in children's cognitive structures, fostering their social-emotional competence.

Finally, there is the common sense and action implications of the premise. Our children's knowledge of our social world would be, and is, limited if they rely only on information they obtain in direct interactions with others. Even media-like television provide relatively few insights unless adults are talking with children about what they are watching, giving them insights beyond the surface.

The action implications are clear. Particularly in early childhood, but still highly important thereafter, is the integration of well-written, evocative fiction in giving children a deeper view of the social worlds around them. This would extend to historical fiction, and dramatizations of scientific discoveries and artistic and performance accomplishments.

Educators and parents should consider the fiction that young people read to be building blocks of their SEL and social, emotional, and character development (SECD). It makes sense to incorporate more, rather than less, of this modality as part of systematic skill-building efforts.

Consider reading more about Dr. Mar's work. And I will immodestly suggest a book of stories for young children, designed to build their SEL skills through the stories themselves and the guidance given to teachers and parents about how to talk to children about the stories: Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Resilience and Emotional Intelligence in Young Children (Hankin, Omer, Elias, & Raviv, 2012).

Was this useful?

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (, Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (

Comments (15) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Lisa Siese's picture
Lisa Siese
Fifth Grade teacher from Bermuda

Thanks Gloria! I teach Grade 5, and I have read the "Al Capone" suggestion but am unfamiliar with the "Rules". I shall have to find my copy of the former and see if can locate the latter. Appreciate the suggestions!

Lisa Siese's picture
Lisa Siese
Fifth Grade teacher from Bermuda

Thanks for the suggestion - just to confirm, did you mean Paulsen?

Lisa Siese's picture
Lisa Siese
Fifth Grade teacher from Bermuda

Thanks for the suggestion - just to confirm, did you mean Paulsen?

Lisa Siese's picture
Lisa Siese
Fifth Grade teacher from Bermuda

Your unit sounds fabulous, and I'm sure the kids get a lot out of it. If you are interested in adding another book to it, "Touching Spirit Bear" (Mikealson) is fabulous. It is too much for my 5th graders though- it explores a lot of very difficult topics including substance abuse, foster care, what happens when the juvenile system fails the kids.

Alanna's picture
Early Childhood teacher of ESL and Children with Disabilities in Texas

In early childhood classes we use a lot of fiction and it does help with socialization skills. With repetition and role play of some of the fictional stories we use, children learn how to interact with one another in a very creative fun way. Imaginary tales and the characters in the stories can also guide children towards correct behavior skills with one another. We use some of the fictional stories and movie characters to make socialization books for the children with disabilities. These fictional characters serve as a role model for a behavior that needs to be addressed, such as spiting, biting, hitting, running away or scratching, just to name a few. Anytime a behavior we are trying to concentrate on happens, the child will get their socialization story book. We talk about how their character addressed the behavior in different or positive way and we talk about how they can be just like their character and treat their friends the same way. With my English language learners (ESL), fiction seems to be a key at helping them connect to the English language, it also helps them learn to network with their peers.

Lindsay's picture
1-12 Teacher

I am a teacher with five years experience, but I have not taught in ten years. I am always looking for fiction that I can use with my students to help develop their social and emotional skills. Most importantly, I am always looking for books that have characters and issues that my students can relate to. Many times it is when we see aspects of our own lives portrayed in literature, that we are able to deal with the issue in a more productive manner. These books give me a great starting point when I return to the classroom.

bpanitz's picture
Elementary Special Eduation Teacher from Baltimore, MD

Crow Boy by Taro Yashima is a beautiful picture book that won the Caldecott Honor. A small boy who rarely speaks is teased by his classmates. They call him Chibi, the small one. He is left alone at study time, at play time. One sensitive teacher appreciates the strange way the boy writes. At graduation, Chibi is recognized for being the only one who attended every day of school. Then he performs crow calls that help the children and teachers realize the long miles Chibi walked every day through all seasons and weather to come to school. After that, when they see him in the market, they call him Crow Boy. And he replies with a crow call... the happy one.

Caroline Fournier's picture

I appreciate this post, especially as a first year Kindergarten teacher. We have used stories throughout the year to deal with social issues that are both positive and negative. When I became aware of a student who was being called names, I developed a few lessons around the book "Say Something" by Peggy Moss. The students really empathized with a student who was not directly involved in bullying, but also didn't say anything to defend the victim... until she one day was bullied herself. It was really easy for the kids to relate to this character, and in our discussions we talked about ways in which we could deal with people who aren't making others feel good.

Another great book on this topic is "Chester Raccoon and the Big Bad Bully" by Audrey Penn. It is written for kinder-aged students and teaches empathy towards all people- even, or perhaps especially, bullies. It was sweet to hear students talk about how they could help each other through difficult times.

I really am excited to purchase Talking Treasure Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children. I have two students who are undergoing some family changes in the coming weeks, and I am particularly interested in the story called, "The Night the Toys Were Left Alone: Dealing with Separation." I think especially with concepts that are difficult for students to understand or verbalize their feelings about, fiction is a necessary tool that engages them, makes them feel comfortable and allows them to make connections to real life in a safe way.

I don't have specific recommendations geared towards older kids, but I think a novel study of a main character who marches "to the beat of a different drum" might be one direction to go in.. good luck!

Abby Church's picture

I just read "Wonder" by RJ Palacio published this past Feb/2012 - it has a great message, a boy born with a birth defect mainstreams into an independent school circa 6th grade and highlights topics like acceptance, knowing thyself, friendships.... The book is written from multiple perspectives and showcases a loving intact family (so refreshing in YA lit)

valmey's picture
Preschool Teacher in PA

Thank you for the book titles that would be helpful for social emotional development. I was always looking for books to read to my students about different issues that occurred in our classroom. We also use a program in our school district that teaches social-emotional skills. It's The Incredible Years program for the classroom. It uses puppets and videos to teach the lessons but I always looked for stories also.

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.