Barrett: Reading Books With An Adult Is A Great Way To Build Empathy And Other Social-Emotional Skills In Kids

Barrett: Reading Books With an Adult Is a Great Way to Build Empathy and Other Social-Emotional Skills in Kids

Numerous individuals, including families, educators, and community members, have a strong incentive to spend quality time reading with children. This is because it has been proven that reading with children can lead to various positive outcomes, such as improved reading skills, overall academic success, and increased career achievement. Reading Partners, an organization dedicated to bridging the reading achievement gap for low-income and minority children, has long believed in the power of combining high-quality books with the guidance of a caring adult mentor. Now, a study conducted by Child Trends on Reading Partners’ California regions has revealed another remarkable benefit of this approach: reading with children can significantly impact their social-emotional learning.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines social-emotional learning as the process through which individuals, both children and adults, understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, demonstrate empathy towards others, establish and maintain healthy relationships, and make responsible decisions. These skills have a profound impact on children’s overall success in various areas and are currently receiving increased attention in educational settings.

According to the findings of the Child Trends study, 83 percent of the Reading Partners students who participated showed an improvement in their social-emotional learning skills by the end of the school year. These students made significant progress in four out of the five areas of social-emotional learning: social competence, persistence, self-control, and reading engagement.

CASEL emphasizes the benefits of integrating social-emotional learning instruction with academic subjects, and one of the most natural ways to achieve this is by using books as tools for social-emotional growth in schools. Whether fictional or based on real-life experiences, stories serve as powerful examples to help solidify complex social and emotional concepts like perseverance, compassion, resilience, and integrity. In essence, they take readers on a journey of social and emotional discovery.

Just as Rosa learns about the satisfaction of working for the benefit of others in the book "A Chair for My Mother" by Vera B. Williams, young readers can experience this realization too. Similarly, in "Maybe Something Beautiful: How Art Transformed a Neighborhood" by F. Isabel Campoy and Theresa Howell, readers witness the power of individuals in fostering connections and creating change within their communities. These stories encourage young readers to imagine their own capacity for setting and achieving goals.

Books that feature diverse characters and settings have the ability to expand children’s capacity for empathy, enabling them to connect with the experiences of others, even when they may initially seem different from their own. For instance, "I’m New Here" by Anne Sibley O’Brien follows the journeys of four new immigrants as they enter an American elementary school. This book provides language and imagery that helps students understand the emotional experience of finding their place in a new environment and apply these lessons to other situations.

While it is true that any book can provide a more comprehensive experience when paired with the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, reading and discussing a book with an adult who can ask thought-provoking questions and share their own insights allows students to delve deeper into the concepts presented. For example, by asking a simple question like, "Do you think Rosa and her family ever felt discouraged?" after reading "A Chair for My Mother," children’s minds are opened to the potential challenges and triumphs associated with working towards a goal.

There is something special about the act of turning the pages of a physical book together. Research indicates that readers retain more information when reading a print version compared to a digital one. Engaging with books in this way allows students to fully understand and learn from the broader ideas and themes presented.

Print books also serve as visible conversation starters. Browsing books on shelves can create a social experience, and observing what others are reading can initiate dialogue. These brief interactions over books can foster a genuine interest in reading and cultivate an appreciation for different perspectives, which is a crucial aspect of social-emotional learning.

While digital reading certainly has its place in today’s world and can be a powerful tool for education, finding a balance between digital and print reading is essential. The opportunity for children to immerse themselves in physical books alongside an attentive mentor, flipping through the pages to discuss meaningful social and emotional themes without the distractions of screens, is incredibly valuable. Doing so not only enhances their reading skills but also nurtures human connections.

When a child reads alongside an adult, numerous opportunities arise for the adult to model and support important social-emotional skills such as self-control and problem-solving. Whether the challenge is restlessness, fatigue, unfamiliar words or concepts, or difficulties understanding a story, an adult can demonstrate how to slow down and choose appropriate strategies for overcoming these obstacles.

When students receive personalized attention and nurturing support in their reading journey, they can transfer these skills to various aspects of their lives. Moreover, they might even extend this kindness by becoming friends and mentors to others.

Lindsay Barrett, an experienced educator, literacy consultant, and freelance educational writer, has previously held the position of director of curriculum and instruction at Reading Partners.


  • isabelowen

    Isabel is a 30-year-old educational blogger and student. She has been writing about education for over 10 years and has written for a variety of different platforms. She is currently a student at the University of Utah.



Isabel is a 30-year-old educational blogger and student. She has been writing about education for over 10 years and has written for a variety of different platforms. She is currently a student at the University of Utah.

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