Books That Promote Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Skills in Kids and Teens

Our kids need to be taught social-emotional learning skills (SEL) more than ever. In a world where far too many role models display values of selfishness, dishonesty, an inability to acknowledge or learn from mistakes, and a sense of hostility towards anyone who does look or act the same way they do, SEL skills are a key to creating a society where cooperation, compassion, and community are valued. We need to find ways to teach social-emotional learning skills so that our children can be be attuned to the well-being and needs of others. There are many school programs that teach skills such as the capacity to moderate feelings, recognize one’s strengths and weaknesses, and take on the perspective of others. In addition, our team at LearningWorks for Kids has explored how video games can improve SEL skills.

Children’s books can also improve SEL skills. There are some great kids books that demonstrate how to make good decisions, practice skills such as empathy and relatedness, and exercise effective coping skills. Other books show how kids care for other people, animals, or their environment. The following are well-written books (and amongst my favorite all time books for children and teens!) that kids will enjoy and that provide powerful opportunities to discuss and improve SEL skills. (Please pay attention to the age ranges on these books, as some topics may be too much for younger children).

Book Title: The Fault in Our Stars

Author: John Green

Genre: Romance, Fiction

Recommended Age Group: 11 and up

Also Available as: Audiobook, E-book, Whispersync   

Thinking Skills Used: Social thinking, metacognition, and flexibility

Book Summary: From Amazon, “Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.”

From Dr. K,  John Green is one of most popular authors of books for teenagers. But his books are serious and involve concerns regarding relationships, cancer, and loss. It’s easy to connect to the characters, they are full of life and emotion. It’s also easy to cry, in fact I’d say it’s hard not to when you read his books but they are worthwhile. There may be some teens for whom the more depressive themes are best to be avoided, particularly if they are anxious or struggling in their own lives. However, conversely, some of these children may benefit greatly from Green’s wisdom.

Talking Points: Were you sad while reading this book?

Have you ever found a friend in an unlikely place?


Book Title: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Author: J.K. Rowling

Book Type: First in a series of 8 as of July 2016

Genre: Science fiction

Recommended Age Group: 9-12

Also Available as: Audiobook, E-book

Thinking Skills Used: Flexibility, task persistence, social thinking, working memory, and social emotional learning.

Book Summary: From Amazon, “Harry Potter has no idea how famous he is. That’s because he’s being raised by his miserable aunt and uncle who are terrified Harry will learn that he’s really a wizard, just as his parents were. But everything changes when Harry is summoned to attend an infamous school for wizards, and he begins to discover some clues about his illustrious birthright. From the surprising way he is greeted by a lovable giant, to the unique curriculum and colorful faculty at his unusual school, Harry finds himself drawn deep inside a mystical world he never knew existed and closer to his own noble destiny.”

From Dr. K, Harry Potter is the best-selling book series of all time. More than 400 million copies of these books have been sold. Like many children, it’s my favorite series. I am not embarrassed to tell you that I am in the midst of reading the books for the third time. Except now, I am reading the illustrated versions and will soon be starting year three of Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban. For those of you looking for a great gift to give a child or know someone who is a big Harry Potter fan, consider gifting them, the illustrated versions of these books because they are wonderful. Overall, the characters are endearing. Who could ever dislike or not respect a friend and leader such as Harry Potter? Of course, he broke a few rules on the way, but it was always in the interest of doing what was right. It’s a great series for helping kids to think about the decisions they make.

Talking Points: How did the characters in the book work together to solve problems?

Did they ever get stuck or were the main characters in danger and how did they escape?


Book Title: The Fellowship of the Ring (The Lord of the Rings – book 1)

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Book Type: First in a series of 3 as of September 2012

Genre:  Fantasy, Fairy Tale

Recommended Age Group: 12 and up

Also Available as:    Audiobook, E-book, Whispersync

Thinking Skills Used: Task Persistence, social emotional learning, time management, and self-control

Book Summary: From Amazon,One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them

In ancient times the Rings of Power were crafted by the Elven-smiths, and Sauron, the Dark Lord, forged the One Ring, filling it with his own power so that he could rule all others. But the One Ring was taken from him, and though he sought it throughout Middle-earth, it remained lost to him. After many ages it fell into the hands of Bilbo Baggins, as told in The Hobbit. In a sleepy village in the Shire, young Frodo Baggins finds himself faced with an immense task, as his elderly cousin Bilbo entrusts the Ring to his care. Frodo must leave his home and make a perilous journey across Middle-earth to the Cracks of Doom, there to destroy the Ring and foil the Dark Lord in his evil purpose.”

From Dr. K, One of the most classic tales of all time. I first read these books when I was 14 years old but now kids are reading them at much  younger ages. The stories are complex and often can be fully understood after rereading a few times, which I have done, but still don’t remember all of the details. If you want to hear from an expert on Lord of the rings, listen to Stephen Colbert who seems to know every detail of every book. These are best for middle and high school children due to the complexity and the length of the books. They are great classics and children can enjoy them even more by watching the movies.

Talking Points: What did you admire about any of the characters in the book?

Which character did you like the most in the book and why?

Book Title: Eragon

Author: Christopher Paolini

Book Type: First in a series of 4 as of October, 2012

Genre: Fantasy

Recommended Age Group: 7-13

Also Available as: Audiobook, E-book, Whispersync

Thinking Skills Used: Social thinking, planning, and task persistence

Book Summary: From Amazon, “Fifteen-year-old Eragon believes that he is merely a poor farm boy—until his destiny as a Dragon Rider is revealed. Gifted with only an ancient sword, a loyal dragon, and sage advice from an old storyteller, Eragon is soon swept into a dangerous tapestry of magic, glory, and power. Now his choices could save—or destroy—the Empire.”

From Dr. K, This is one of my favorite series. I have read all four books twice, because I enjoyed the characters, plot, and intrigue. It’s not only a great story, but the relationship between Eragon, the dragon rider, and Saphira, the dragon is complex and loving. It’s a long series, the last book Inheritance is more than 800 pages so this is a series for teens who like to read. Also for your information, do NOT watch the movie Eragon. It is horrible and will turn your kids off from a great book series.Lastly, the books highlight many thinking skills such as planning, focus, and organization. It also illuminates the connections among people, animals, and the environment.

Talking Points: What can you learn about effort and stick to-it-ness from this book?

Are there any skills or abilities that the main character used in the book that you would like to improve in your real life?


Book Title: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Author: Ransom Riggs

Book Type: First in a series of 3 as of April 2017

Genre: Mystery, Thriller, Fantasy

Recommended Age Group: 13 and up

Also Available as:    Audiobook, E-book, Whispersync

Thinking Skills Used: Flexibility, task persistence, working memory, and social emotional learning

Book Summary: From Amazon, “A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive. 

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

From Dr. K, This is a really fun series and I’m waiting to read the fourth book which will be released October 2018. It’s a strange twist on fantasy and the main character, a teenager who has his own set of issues is a bit difficult to connect to in the beginning of the first book. Later, he shows his leadership abilities and his courage to help his peers. The story twists and turns and connects to historical events such as World War II and the modern world. There is a bit of politics and issues around freedom and decision-making for children seen in these books as well.

Talking Points: Do you wish you had any of the special abilities described in this book?

How would you use these types of abilities to help yourself and others?

See also:

Summer is Not for Vacation, It’s for Reading, Exploring, and Expanding

What to Do About Your Child’s Summer Reading Assignments

Summer Strategies for Reluctant Readers

84 Video Games That Encourage Reading



Flickr user Vilmos Vincze

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