My Top 5 SEL Books and How I Use Them in Group and Individual Counseling

Never underestimate the power of a good storybook, especially in your group and individual counseling sessions. Books are great for helping kiddos process strong/difficult feelings, learn various social skills, and pick up and practice positive character traits. There are a ton of excellent SEL books to choose from to use with your students based on their needs. If you're an elementary counselor and are looking for recommendations to stock up your SEL library, here are my go-to read-alouds and how I use them with my students:

1. Self Regulation/Anger Management - Allie All Along by Sarah Lynne Reul

The story follows little Allie who loses her cool when her crayon breaks. She experiences varying degrees of different emotions, ranging from frustration and anger to sadness. It is her brother who comes in and suggests effective ways for her to deal with her anger, by first coaching her to punch a pillow, and as she simmers down, he offers he offers her favorite toy to squeeze; and even asks her to take a deep breath and pretend his fingers are candles to blow out one by one. Counting backward is another technique he gets her to practice, and sure enough, she finally calms down and can't quite remember why she was angry in the first place. She is herself again. She was Allie all along!

I love using this book as a read-aloud with students I see in a self-regulation/anger management group or individually, for the same concerns. One of the follow-up activities after reading the book aloud is to have a debriefing with discussion cards that address questions such as 'Talk about a time you felt like Allie' or 'How would you feel if you broke your crayon' or 'Which coping strategy works for you when you are mad/sad/upset?'

Another activity that is more hands-on would involve practicing each of the coping strategies suggested in the story, giving students different scenarios and asking them to identify how the situation would make them feel and then act out the coping strategy they would prefer to use in that situation.

2. Grief/Loss/Transition - The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

This is one book I highly recommend for discussing emotions of grief. This one is not only helpful for students working through the death of a loved one but also for divorce and incarceration.

Children of all ages (and adults too!) are bound to reach a place of peace and reassurance realizing that we are all connected to the ones we love through 'the invisible string'. This compelling picture book depicts how these connections are not confined by geographical boundaries or even by one's existence on the earth.

As a follow-up, I usually ask my kiddos to either write a letter to the loved one they are missing/or are separated from. Alternatively, a journal writing task with prompts, works well too. I've even had my third graders put these letters in a 'memory box' to give to the family of their classmate who died last year. It is quite a therapeutic activity, to say the least. This book would be a great accompaniment to these grief activities.

3. Growth Mindset - Giraffes Can't Dance by Giles Andreae

If there's one book I've used in multiple ways, it's got to be this one. Gerald the giraffe is such a relatable character who wants nothing more than to dance. With his crooked knees and extremely thin legs, it's harder for his kind to be able to dance. However, he tries and is finally able to dance to his own tune when he gets some encouraging words from an unlikely friend. This is a great resource for kids who are struggling with a fixed mindset.

I get my kiddos to identify an academic, a social, and a personal goal they have that they think are too difficult to achieve. Using Gerald as an inspiration, we set SMART goals together and identify the steps and the time needed to achieve each of these goals. Students also identify their support system/ a person who can help or encourage them as they work on developing a growth mindset. We keep revisiting these goals to see how far they've come and how far they still have to go. I even like hosting a mini-celebration like a pizza party/dance party when they achieve the goals they've set for themselves.

4. Friendship - Making Friends is an Art by Julia Cook

Do you see students who are struggling with making friends? I highly recommend this literary treasure by Julia Cook. There's a good chance your students will identify with Brown who feels like a misfit and envies all the other color pencils who have fun coloring and playing together. The other pencils have talents to share, but Brown can't figure what his is! He is barely used, unlike Red, but soon he comes to discover that the only way to have friends is to be a good friend. With the help of Black, Brown comes to discover just how special he is and how he can learn the skills to be a good friend to the others.

This is a great book to help the students you're working with to break the ice with kids they haven't met before. It will also teach them how to interact positively with their peers and how to manage conflict effectively. The book also includes tips for parents, caregivers, and teachers on how to help children who feel left out and have trouble making friends.

Once we read this book together, I have my students take turns to share which crayon they identify with the most, which crayon they would like to be like, if they can put a name to each crayon from among their peers, and what are some lessons they can learn from Brown and the other crayons in order to make new friends. I then give them that week to put that lesson into practice before they reflect and provide feedback the next time I see them.

5. Back to School/New Student Transitions - First Day Critter Jitters by Jory John

If the Sunday scaries are bad, we all know what it's like to be the new kid at school! Will the alarm go off on time? Will the school bus stop at the right spot? Will we have friends? Will the teacher like us? This cute book is the perfect read-aloud with your New Students Group.. The animals in Jory John's book are gearing up for their first day at school and each of them have their own unique worries.

While Sloth worries about getting there on time, Snake can't seem to get his backpack fastened onto his body. Then there is Bunny who is afraid she'll want to hop around instead of sitting still. But they're aren't the only nervous ones. When they all arrive at their classroom, they find that there's somebody else who is nervous too. It's their teacher, the armadillo! Soon enough, the animals all figure out how to help one another through their jitters and school isn't as scary after all.

This is one story, kids and adults of any age can identify with. In our group, we first do a feelings check and we each take turns to discuss the one thing we were most nervous about being in a new school. We talk about if we're still feeling this way and we also take suggestions from other members of the group about how to cope with these specific fears/concerns. Here's when I also introduce my role, more explicitly, to my kiddos, so they know they can come to see me if they're feeling down. I also help them identify other peers/teachers who can be their support system in school. Another activity I do, following this book reading, is that I invite students who joined school the previous year to buddy-up with the current new students and have them share how they felt on their first day of school and what they did that helped them cope better with the transition.

What are your favorite SEL books that have been a hit with your students? Let me know in the comments!







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