Blog Posts

Reading Between the Lines: Understanding Feelings with Social and Emotional Learning

By Erin Bailey
Super hero woman

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is a crucial part of a child’s development and can help shape how they process their thoughts and feelings throughout life. Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) is committed to ensuring that every child can read and has the opportunity to develop their own understanding of themselves and their feelings. RIF’s SEL Center, proudly supported by Macy’s, is an online destination offering great resource including featured titles and activities that aid in this development. Read on to hear how Dr. Erin Bailey, RIF’s Vice President of Literacy Programs & Research, optimizes the benefits of understanding SEL with one of her own children, while highlighting titles available on Literacy Central to help young readers recognize (and appreciate) their own feelings through the power of books.

It’s 7:58 am and I’m hurriedly getting my kids’ lunches packed, putting the last dish from breakfast into the dishwasher, and hoping that I remembered to unplug my flatiron as we shuffle out the door. Just then my 3-year-old daughter spills milk onto her Elsa dress and bursts into tears. She doesn’t want to go to preschool now.

My jaw clenches and my immediate thought is to shout, “It’s no big deal, just go put on a different dress!” But my background in child development and social and emotional learning as an educator has taught me that, to a child, it is a big deal.

When I received training in Responsive Classroom®, a social and emotional learning approach to teaching and discipline, the example given was about a child not getting to be the line leader and becoming upset. As a teacher, it may not make a difference who the line leader is, especially when you’re in a hurry to get to P.E., but to a child, they may perceive this role as part of their identity and not being able to act on this is the biggest deal in their world.

I say their world intentionally because, developmentally, a child’s worldview is growing. And it becomes our task to guide them as they expand their world and provide them with the resources they need to successfully navigate it. For my daughter, dressing like Elsa was a part of her developing identity and this small moment gave me the opportunity to teach her about emotions, self-regulation, and empathy.

I want all educators and families to have the resources to do this with their children. That is why RIF created the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) Center, proudly supported by Macy’s, with books and resources to help educators and families guide their children through four research-backed domains of SEL: cognitive, emotional, social, and identity & values.

Like many, I’ve found rhyming phrases to be a quick and easy tool to call on in stressful situations and the following are two of my favorites that I relied on during the dress dilemma.

“Connect and Redirect”  

I adopted this one from Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. who write that connection helps a child move from being reactive to receptive, builds the child’s brain, and deepens your relationship with your child.1

In this moment, I decide to use what Shonda Moralis, MSW, LCSW calls “The Three-Breath Hug.”2 It’s a mindfulness technique in which you take three deliberate and synchronized breaths with your child. The benefits are two-fold. First, I slow down and calm myself. My jaw loosens, and my shoulders drop. Secondly, I’m modeling for my child a technique that she can use to calm down and I’m saying to her, “I’m here for you.” 

Books are also an excellent resource for making connections and building empathy because they allow children to see their feelings and experiences through the characters. Children can relate to the feelings and experiences of the boy in the rhyming tale The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings (ages 3-7) and learn breathing techniques to regulate their emotions through the book I Remember My Breath: Mindful Breathing for All My Feelings (ages 4-8). 

“Name it to Tame it”

After our three-breath hug, I looked at my daughter and said, “I believe that you really wanted to wear the Elsa dress and now you can’t today. It’s disappointing. We will have to wash it before you can wear it again.” 

I believe you. That’s a phrase I learned from Becky Kennedy, Ph.D.3 It’s similar to honoring the value that a child places on being the line leader. In my situation, although I thought my daughter was being dramatic, her feelings were real. And by acknowledging this, I can teach her to have confidence and self-trust in her feelings. 

Naming and visualizing are great strategies for helping children identify their emotions and self-regulate and books are an excellent tool for this. In the story, Molly’s Great Discovery (ages 4-8), Molly imagines her dyslexia as a character named Lexi and this helps her take ownership of her learning difference and overcome her fear of asking for help. And in the book How to Train Your Amygdala (ages 4-8), the emotional-response structure in the brain is animated to teach children the purpose of the amygdala and strategies for calming down. 

It’s critical to remember – a better understanding of social and emotional learning is helpful in aiding children in their development, but also requires patience and dedication. I wish I could say that because of my response my daughter immediately stopped crying and changed into a new dress. But she reluctantly changed and continued to cry until we got to preschool. And that’s okay. Each day brings both of us new opportunities for social and emotional learning. 

Because, after all, we all cry over a little spilled milk sometimes.

I invite you to explore RIF’s SEL Center today to start exploring tools to support the emotional development of the children in your life. And, be sure to explore additional featured SEL books recommended by RIF including The Dot, Mel Fell, The Boy with Big, Big Feelings, Even Superheroes Have Bad Days, and We Don't Eat Our Classmates.  

1 Breathe Mama Breathe: 5-Minute Mindfulness for Busy Moms 

2  No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind