3 Library Lessons That Promote Social and Emotional Skills

Students sitting on steps and reading a book

Best friends from books stay with you for a lifetime. What young reader doesn’t connect to the endearing adventures of Henry and Mudge? Or tear up at the tenderness and worry of Charlotte and Wilbur? And who can forget the challenges and escapades of Harry, Ron and Hermione?

Children of all ages gravitate toward friendship stories. Through them, readers make connections, gain confidence and explore all the ups and downs of friendships. As educators we can use these characters and connections to strengthen our students’ enthusiasm for reading and writing.

In Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, he explains that the focus of education used to be improving IQ and academic skills as early as possible (what he calls “the cognitive hypothesis”). Preschools and tutoring programs pushed drills and worksheets on children as young as three! The belief was that intellectual aptitude was the foremost indicator of success in adulthood. In 1995 Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence began to change that focus.

Read through any current educational magazines or books and you will see an emphasis on social and emotional skills, character-building curricula and anti-bullying programs. A new hypothesis has developed in the past few years, one that focuses on noncognitive skills or self-regulation skills. These skills — the skills of friendship — have come to the forefront because many students show signs of stress, anxiety and aggression, and today’s children are busier and more plugged in than ever. Research shows that more than 50 percent of all students experience some form of anxiety on a daily basis.

Throughout the school day our classroom tasks require students to pay attention, cooperate with their peers, recall information, link it to new thinking and more — a multitude of processing skills that depend on a healthy state of mind. Studies indicate that skills such as empathy, self-control and perseverance have a significant positive effect on success, both socially and academically. These skills, when taught in an integrated and explicit manner, can pave the way to calmer, more confident students and academically robust classrooms.

I developed Friendship Workshop to address the social and emotional needs of my students. I created time for a twenty-minute workshop to introduce skills such as labeling emotions, apologizing, disagreeing and persisting. It is a conscious approach to helping children identify and regulate their emotions so they can make choices that support their relationships and their schooling. Our conversations and discussions during Friendship Workshop help us reach academic standards — they don’t pull us away from those goals. By understanding one another — orally and socially at first, then using community-building exchanges to strengthen reading and writing skills — we experience the joys of communicating, understanding and connecting to one another.

In the classroom, Friendship Workshop follows a similar format to a writing or reading workshop. There is a mini-lesson, an activity and discussion, and a reflection period. The themes come from careful and purposeful observation of the students while they are at work during independent learning and play time. Do they need more support in sharing materials? Is there constant jostling for a premium spot in line? Can they have a discussion with opposing opinions in a respectful and thoughtful manner?

In reading workshop or math workshop, the students have independent practice time. In Friendship Workshop, that independent practice is embedded throughout the week as authentic opportunities to be patient or kind arise. By collaborating with the classroom teacher, you can adapt Friendship Workshop to introduce the skills and text connections that are most appropriate for the group. The following lesson ideas will give you suggestions for trying a Friendship Workshop about kindness with your students. The most important aspect is to listen to the students and create opportunities for them to connect to literacy in authentic and engaging ways.

These lessons are written for grades K–2, but by changing the level of discussion you can easily adapt the ideas for grades 3–5. Also included are additional titles the classroom teacher could use as follow-up read-alouds to further the discussion throughout the week. The lessons can stand alone or be part of a series of lessons on kindness.

3 Lessons That Promote Kindness, A Key Social/Emotional Skill

Show students a collection of books that feature your favorite fictional friends (Henry and Mudge, Clifford and Emily, Frog and Toad). Ask the students to name some books about friendship they have read and liked. Ask them to name some traits they think make a good friend and record those on a chart. Explain that just like learning to do the monkey bars or write their name in cursive, they can learn how to be a good friend.

Lesson 1: Seeds of Kindness

glennas_seedsRead aloud Glenna’s Seeds by Nancy Edwards. Stop regularly and have students predict what may happen next. Ask whether the students have had an act of kindness happen to them (getting a gift for no reason, having a friend help with a project, etc.). What acts of kindness could we do for our school? Plant seeds, of course — seeds of kindness! Try one of the following ideas:

  • Have your students create a garden mural. Throughout the week, they can add their acts of kindness. They can start by “planting a seed” that says, “I helped Anna pick up her crayons.” Anna adds to that seed a stem that says, “I pushed Devon on the swings.” Devon adds to that stem a bud that says, “I taught Jeff how to tie his shoes.” Jeff adds to that bud a petal and so on. Students and teachers keep adding until a beautiful garden of kindness blooms!
  • Have students write to a local nursery for help with planting flowers on the playground. They might write a group letter or write letters as partners, or the class could create a short video. (Check with your principal or district to make sure planting is allowed.)
  • Students can create paper flowers and write a note of thanks to the “unsung heroes” of the school (custodians, office staff, cafeteria helpers, grounds crew). They can deliver them in person or anonymously like in Glenna’s Seeds.

These short but authentic writing pieces build student enthusiasm for reading, writing and being kind within their school community.

Additional Titles
Because Amelia Smiled by David Ezra Stein
The Lemonade Club by Patricia Polacco
Ordinary Mary’s Extraordinary Deed by Emily Pearson

Lesson 2: Kind Nothings

the_gift_of_nothingRead aloud A Gift of Nothing by Patrick McDonnell. Discuss why Mutt’s gift of nothing was so special. Compare this book to Glenna’s Seeds. How is it similar, and how is it different? Discuss how kindness is an important component of friendship. Ask the class to share a time when someone has given them a gift of nothing. Record answers on a chart (hugs, love-you cards, reading together, walks, watching birds, etc.). Tell students they will use their ideas to create a special “Box of Kind Nothings.” The box will be filled with kind thoughts and ideas to cheer people up when they are having a bad day. After the students fill the box, anyone will be able to come by and choose a card to help make their day better.

Give students two or three colorful index cards. Have them write and illustrate special nothings on the cards to give to other people (think of the “love coupons” kids often give at holidays). Some ideas from my past students:

  • Sit in the sun and feel its warm hug.
  • Read a funny book with a friend.
  • Eat ice cream.
  • Tell knock-knock jokes.
  • Watch a butterfly.

Create a box (a large shoe box wrapped in fancy paper) where students can drop in their “special nothings” any time they create one. This is an engaging writing activity to do for the two to three weeks before the winter holidays when so much emphasis can be on giving (and getting) material things.

Additional Titles
The Recess Queen by Alexis O’Neill
Those Shoes by Maribeth Boelts
Enemy Pie by Derek Munson

Lesson 3: Special Kindness

For this lesson, you will introduce and discuss with your students how sometimes children may need extra support in becoming our friend. There are various degrees of this, and choosing a book that fits your own personal comfort level is important. (Your special education colleagues are a great resource for collaborating on ideas and extensions.)

Show students a collection of books about “special needs” friendships — friendships that may be different or not typical for the group and may feel strange to them. You may want to include books about language differences, autism, divorce, different cultures and so on. Explain that sometimes when someone looks or sounds different, or when a new student joins the school during the school year, some people can be a little mean. Ask the students whether they have ever seen this or experienced being left out. Write down the key words they use to describe what they felt — sad, lonely, hurt and so on. Tell them that often it just takes one person to make a difference.

the_invisible_boyRead aloud Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig. Before reading, ask the students for some predictions about the book based on the cover illustration and title. After reading a bit, ask the students what they know about Brian and what they can infer. Read a little more and stop after meeting the new boy, Justin. What do the students predict may happen? Finally, at the end of the book, there is a powerful question: “How many kids did it take in this story to help Brian feel less invisible?”

Additional Titles
The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi
Apt 3 by Ezra Jack Keats
One by Kathryn Otoshi

In Friendship Workshop, I address the social and emotional behaviors of my students by connecting what I see my students doing and saying during independent work times with my insights about their developmental needs. I create a path to learning using their lives and emotions. Throughout the kindness lessons, the following curricular standards can be addressed:

  • Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson.
  • Compare and contrast the adventures and experiences of characters in stories.
  • Actively engage in group-reading activities with purpose and understanding.
  • Participate in collaborative conversations with diverse partners in small and larger groups.
  • Describe people, places, things and events with relevant details, expressing ideas and feelings clearly.
  • Add drawings or other visual displays to descriptions when appropriate to clarify ideas, thoughts and feelings.

These lessons on kindness, once introduced, will find their way into all aspects of your teaching, and your students will astound you!


Mary Anne Buckley

Mary Anne Buckley

Early Childhood Educator at Victor Primary School
Mary Anne is an early childhood educator and currently teaches K/1 multi-age in Victor, NY. She is the author of Sharing the Blue Crayon: How to Integrate Social, Emotional and Literacy Learning (Stenhouse 2015). She can be found on Twitter as @MA_Buckley.