Favorite Picture Books to Teach Social Emotional Learning

Image of picture book covers with text "Favorite SEL Picture Books"
Photo of Joe Burns

Joe Burns

Favorite Picture Books to Teach Social Emotional Learning

December 21, 2021


I am so excited to introduce myself. My name is Joe Burns, and I am a new member of the Capstone curriculum team. Prior to joining Capstone, I spent 10 years teaching in public education ranging from kindergarten through fourth grade. I pride myself on being able to find unique, engaging, and authentic ways to present concepts to students. I have a passion for emotional intelligence and celebrating the diversity of school communities.


SEL Content Areas

Since starting at Capstone, I have been compiling resources that supplement your school’s SEL program or serve as useful discussion pieces as students reenter the school environment. In our current educational landscape, emotional intelligence is at the forefront of all our minds. Providing students with the tools to become empathetic, resilient, thoughtful members of society will require explicit instruction and quality resources to support it.

I hope the picture books I have identified below can fill a few gaps and provide a fun, but elegant, way to approach these topics. I feel strongly about continuing to support SEL, social justice, and representation within literature for our youngest students. Please feel free to connect with me with on any requests, suggestions, and especially celebrations @BurnsDoesBooks.


Self-Awareness & Reentering Anxieties

As most schools transition back to an in-person teaching model, anxiety surrounding reentry is rising across the country. The following books serve as a discussion piece to support the self-awareness and self-efficacy required to begin the year. These books range from identifying and accepting negative feelings, to issues of self-worth and socialization.


Donut Worry featured title
Donut Worry

Donut Worry is the perfect way to kick off the school year. Enjoy the tale of Donut and her anxiety of returning to school. Frustrated with the world telling her “Everything will be fine", Donut learns the core value of all positive mental health – IT’S OK TO NOT BE OK. I love Donut Worry; the juxtaposition of illustrations and photorealism is stunning. The story is heartfelt and focuses on the first step to great mental health and emotional intelligence: understanding that not everything is perfect and that is OK.

  • I would use this book at the start of the year to help students share about any anxieties as they re-enter school.
  • Additionally, it can be used to introduce the concept of emotional intelligence and segue into your SEL curriculum.


Book cover image of The Very Last Leaf by Stef Wade, illustrated by Jennifer Davison
The Very Last Leaf

Take a trip through the eyes of a leaf at the top of his class. The Very Last Leaf  is a delightful tale about the fear of failure. I love this story as it explores the difficulty that students of all abilities may encounter when they are asked to do something challenging, especially the high-flier students. As educators we can lose sight of how traumatizing it can be for strong students to meet their match.

  • Try this book in a small group or as part of a larger discussion piece about taking risks and building resilience.


Book cover image of Too Shy For Show-and-Tell by Beth Bracken depicting a shy giraffe sitting at his classroom desk looking downward at the floor
Too Shy for Show-and-Tell

Join Sam the Giraffe as he attempts to overcome his fear and anxiety surrounding show and tell in Too Shy for Show-and-Tell. This book is easily adaptable to meet the needs of our current Covid landscape by helping to launch a discussion that explores the nerves associated with reopening schools and socialization.

  • Too Shy for Show-and-Tell can be utilized as a whole group read aloud as a way for students to explore their own self-worth.
  • After reading students could complete an all-about-me icebreaker celebrating their differences and strengths.
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PebbleGo Health Articles
  • [Self Awareness-> Self-Confidence, Self-Worth, Standing up for yourself ]
  • [Feelings and Emotions -> I Feel Scared, What are Feelings and Emotions?]


Managing Expectations & Teamwork

Two of the most difficult conflicts I dealt with as an elementary teacher were issues of teamwork and disappointment. To effectively manage expectations, students must first learn about empathy and perspective. The resources I selected are aimed at helping students visualize the process of empathy and gain perspective on how others view their actions. Through these books, teachers can start a discussion about having an appropriate reaction to a perceived problem.


Thumbnail image The Golden Acorn by Katy Hudson book cover depicting animal friends in a tree top with Squirrel hoisting a golden acorn above her head
The Golden Acorn

The Golden Acorn is a charming story about a squirrel who learns to pump the brakes and realizes the importance of life beyond winning. This is a remarkable story, which can be a conversation starter about several components of emotional intelligence: teamwork, mindfulness, or just reflecting on how our own actions are perceived by and affect others.


Possible questions for discussion include:

  • Why is Squirrel so frustrated?
  • Is Squirrel acting like a good friend?
  • Why doesn’t Squirrel win? What did she learn?


Book cover image of Awesome! by Craig Shuttlewood depicting a moose wearing a superhero cape and mask striking a pose

Explore the delight of the unexpected duo of Moose and Beaver in Awesome! Despite being best friends, jealousy creeps in to threaten their friendship as Moose is praised by their animal peers.

I love this story to help students understand that everyone is worthy of being extraordinary. As a teacher I often noticed students feeling jealous and competitive when they weren't the subject of my praise. 

  • Awesome! can be used as the cornerstone of any lesson to help students deal with the jealousy or envy that can occur when others are put in the spotlight.


Book cover image of The Perfect Birthday Recipe by Katy Hudson depicting Beaver pulling a wagon filled with his friends and baking supplies
The Perfect Birthday Recipe

A polished story that takes the reader through the steps of anxiety, disappointment, and acceptance as Beaver learns to value the effort and friendship of his peers. The Perfect Birthday Recipe is a great introduction to any lesson centered upon managing expectations.

  • This book could take the place of any social story within small groups or read aloud settings.
  • Students could be asked to practice their empathy skills by exploring the feelings of each character by asking them to make text connections.
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  • [Relationships and friends -> Cooperation, Teamwork, Communication]
  • [Feelings and Emotions -> Self-Control, Manners]


Growth Mindset

At its core, growth mindset states that brains and talent are just the starting point, and real improvement is developed through dedication and hard work. As an educational trend, growth mindset has been around for a while and has seen ebbs and flows surrounding the implementation and purpose surrounding it.

In the post-Covid classroom, growth mindset will be the backbone to build resiliency within our youngest learners. Growth mindset can act as the foundation for setting goals, taking risks, and tracking growth. The books I selected support this tangible process of achieving goals.

Catkwando featured product

Catkwondo is a heartfelt tale about an adorable kitten who desperately wants to break a board at her martial arts class. To reach her goal, Kitten must be resilient, patient, and learn the value of practice.

I love this story as an alternative way to start the discussion around growth mindset.

  • In a whole group, lead a discussion about the value of failure and that true learning is achieved through mistakes.
  • Students learn how to set achievable goals, create an explicit plan, and track progress along the way.


Book cover image of Let It Grow by Mary Ann Fraser depicting a large, orange pumpkin growing in a field
Let it Grow

Let It Grow is a unique story about a tiny pumpkin seed. With time and patience, we can see the realization of its full potential. Students will realize that meeting goals takes time, and sometimes the journey is the most important part.

  • This book draws inspiration from the Windsor Pumpkin Regatta, which is a fantastic annual event held in Windsor, Maine, which could provide a variety of extension activities outside SEL.
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PebbleGo Health Articles
  • [Self-Awareness ->Motivation, Self Confidence, Self-Discipline]
  • [Feelings and Emotions -> I feel Excited, I feel scared, I feel worried]


Mindfulness & Living in the Moment

Mindfulness is more than just a buzzword. It is something I always found useful for calming students and keeping them focused. Here are a couple of my favorite Capstone titles that support the introduction of this concept and aid in combating the unending onslaught of digital distractions by helping students stay present in the moment.


Book cover image of Selfie by Sandy Horsley depicting a squirrel holding a selfie stick snapping a photo

Amidst the blitz of Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube on our youngest generation, Selfie is a breath of fresh air. This story helps students understand that sometimes the best things are happening right in front of us, not behind a screen.

This story can also be a wonderful way to talk about digital literacy and digital citizenship for intermediate grades. After reading you could lead a discussion on internet safety and etiquette by providing students with authentic examples of the lasting impacts that a social media footprint can have as they get older.

Suggested Questions or Activities:

  • What are the dangers of social media addiction?
  • Create a set of guidelines to aid in digital safety.
  • Create a digital conduct contract.
  • Provide authentic examples of the impacts of social media, internet bullying, or lack of privacy.


Book cover image of Mindful Mr. Sloth by Katy Hudson
Mindful Mr. Sloth 

Sometimes you just need to slow down. In Mindful Mr. Sloth readers follow the story of an unlikely friendship as Sasha learns the virtues of slowing down and being mindful of her surroundings. You can start a conversation to help students gain perspective and learn how to reflect on their behavior and surroundings with questions like:

  • Did Sasha’s behavior cause any problems?
  • How are Sasha and Mr. Sloth different?
  • What happened when Sasha learned to slow down?
  • How could slowing down help you during the school day?
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PebbleGo Health Articles
  • [Self-Awareness -> Self Confidence, Self-Worth, Body Imagine]


Inclusivity & Diversity

Capstone believes in inclusive representation and celebrating diverse storytelling in children’s books. We believe that our differences make us special. Within the classroom it can be difficult to find a variety of appropriate resources to help build empathy and perspective-taking, essential skills for living in a diverse world. The resources I selected are perfect for helping kids notice and celebrate what makes us all different.

First Day of Unicorn School
First Day of Unicorn School

A quirky, fun time, First Day of Unicorn School explores what can happen when you accept yourself and celebrate what makes you different and special.

  • This is a delightful book to start conversations about inclusion and self-efficacy.
  • A follow-up activity to this book could include having students play games like two truths and a lie, or interview classmates to find out interesting hidden facts.


Book cover image of My Footprints by Bao Phi depicting a snowy winter scene with a birds eye view looking down on a little girl flapping her arms as she pretends to be a bird
My Footprints

Launch yourself into an emotional journey of self-discovery by Bao Phi. In My Footprints, Thuy struggles with her identity as a Vietnamese American child with two moms. This book is a great addition to any classroom. These days, however, it is increasingly important to provide students with the skills necessary to reflect on respect and inclusion. My Footprints can serve as a great conversation starter for empathy and inclusion.


Consider some of the following questions:

  • Why does Thuy feel different?
  • Why do you think Thuy mimics the footprints of the animals she encounters?
  • Have you ever felt left out or different?
  • What could you do to help one of your friends feel included or valued?


Thumbnail book cover image of Hello, Mandarin Duck! by Bao Phi, illustrated by Dion MBD, depicting a Mandarin duck leading a parade of multicultural children as it approaches a pond
Hello, Mandarin Duck!

Hello, Mandarin Duck!  is a colorful story that takes readers along on the adventure of a Mandarin duck. Through the collaboration of a diverse community, the duck meets many new friends and completes his journey to find a new home. This book reverently observes diversity within a community, as well as teamwork and inclusivity.

  • Hello, Mandarin Duck! offers many extensions for a classroom teacher to help students define difficult concepts like culture and community.
  • Consider having students compare each character that is introduced and make connections between the characters in the story and themselves.
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PebbleGo Health Articles

  • [Self-Awareness ->Self-Concept, Manners]
  • [Relationships and friends -> Empathy, Cooperation, Making new Friends, Acceptance]


Classroom Management & Common Behaviors


Book cover image of Harrison P. Spader, Personal Space Invader by Christianne Jones, illustrated by Cale Atkinson
Little Boost Series

In the wake of the pandemic, simply reentering the classroom could pose a challenge for many younger students. The Little Boost series is a great collection of stories to help remind students about classroom rules. Each story tackles common behaviors through lovable and relatable characters. All of the stories are a great way to help guide discussion on proper classroom etiquette but check out some of my favorites below.

These books can serve as a great way to begin building your classroom rules or social contract, or simply be used as social stories as needed to help remediate individual issues.

Thumbnail image of Sometimes I Feel Angry book cover depicting a boy screaming in anger
Name Your Emotions Series

Name Your Emotions is a series containing eight different emotions. These books provide more explicit representations of how students can recognize and name the emotion. 

  • All of the titles provide great examples and vivid images to help students visually identify how they are feeling. 
  • These can easily provide further context for any Social Emotional Program, but also offer their own spin on coping mechanisms and strategies to help alleviate intense feelings.
Thumbnail image of Keep Trying book cover depicting a little girl writing on a worksheet at her desk in a classroom
Health and My Body Series

Good health and academic success go hand in hand. Whether to support curriculum or satisfy curious students, the Health and My Body series provides essential information around children's health with kid-friendly text. 

  • Life is full of surprises and challenges, and it’s not always fair. How you respond to those surprises and challenges is what’s important. In Keep Trying! readers learn how to bounce back from problems by taking charge of their decisions and actions.
  • Sometimes you feel happy. Sometimes you feel sad. Sometimes you don’t know how you feel. You feel lots of different things all day long. Manage Your Emotions helps readers talk about their feelings and learn how to deal with them.
  • What Is Stress? helps readers understand how stress can be caused by lots of different things. A big test. A fight with a friend. A new experience. But no matter what causes the stress, what’s important is how you deal with it.
  • In Mindfulness, readers learn about the importance of slowing down and taking time to notice what’s going on around them. Being present in the moment can help you be more focused, patient, and self-aware. So readers are encouraged to take a deep breath, smile, and learn more about mindfulness.
  • Teasing. Spreading rumors. Leaving someone out on purpose. These are types of bullying, and bullying is never OK. Bullying shows readers they have the power to stop bullying by using respect and kindness, and that's an important power to have.
  • Communication Skills explains how communication is the sharing of information and while that sounds easy, that’s not always the case. Did you know your body language and the tone of your voice are just as important as what you are saying? Learn to communicate with confidence in every situation.


Looking for more Social Emotional Learning ideas? Check out our SEL Guide and browse our SEL Activities.