Google “reading fiction teaches empathy” and you’ll be provided a lengthy list of articles to peruse. Reading fiction allows a person to step into a character’s experience and perceive the world as someone else. When a reader experiences a character’s feelings, such as sorrow, anxiety, and even joy, the reader strengthens their empathy toolbelt, which can be utilized in the reader’s “real life” daily interactions. No other medium accomplishes what books can. With a
movie, the character’s world is built for us, no imagination required on our part. As we read fiction, we imagine the world as the character perceives it.
I began my career as a high school English and psychology teacher. After my sixth year, I started a master’s degree in Professional Counseling. I carried my love of picture books into the role of an elementary school counselor. Using literature to teach social-emotional skills just makes sense! Empathy is a critical social-emotional skill. Being able to recognize and process emotions is foundational to cultivating positive mental health practices.
Social Emotional Learning is not a new trend. CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) first used the term in 1994. Youth of all ages benefit from social emotional learning. SEL is the process in which children learn to manage emotions, establish and maintain healthy relationships, make responsible decisions, and other similar tasks.
Reading and discussing fiction creates a safe space for youth to process emotions and coping strategies. Discussing a character’s feelings and decisions allows the youth to contemplate their own reactions at a safe distance.
And as a writer, being able to empathize with others is crucial to writing dynamic and dimensional characters. Authors can also use the following questions to explore theircharacters’ feelings and motivations.
Consider a specific event in a character’s experience, and ask the following:
● How was the character feeling at the time of the event?
● How did the character cope with their feelings?
● Did the character’s reaction improve the situation? Why or why not?
● Could the character’s behaviors be misunderstood by others? Explain.
● If you were in a comparable situation, would your reaction be similar to the character?
Why or why not?
The above questions may be used with any level of literature from picture books to novels.Whether you’re reading to a child, in a book club for grown-ups, or writing your own stories, I would encourage you to ask these questions of the characters you meet. A few of my favorite picture books for SEL lessons:
The Most Magnificent Thing By Ashley Spires
The Bad Seed By Jory John
The Invisible Boy By Trudy Ludwig
Jabari Jumps By Gaia Cornwall
The Rabbit Listened By Cori Doerrfeld
The Very Hungry Worry Monsters By Rosie Greening
And my latest release When Mama Grows with Me not only provides lessons on gardening and yoga, but how to grow in patience!
Keep looking up-