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Use these Two Books to Help Primary Pupils Recognise their own Emotions and Empathise with Others

Bibliotherapy helps children to empathise with others by seeing what they are struggling with or feeling, says Susan Elswick...

  • Use these Two Books to Help Primary Pupils Recognise their own Emotions and Empathise with Others

Social-emotional literacy (SEL) is the process of learning to read ourselves and others, and then using this growing awareness to solve problems flexibly and creatively.

You may wonder how it’s possible to teach children this skill. In recent years, researchers and practitioners have affirmed how fundamentally important this form of learning is for behavioural and academic outcomes. Through research we have also learnt a great deal about how most effectively to integrate SEL into school life.

One such way is via bibliotherapy. This method utilises creative literature – novels, short stories, poetry, plays and biographies – to improve children’s psychological wellbeing. The following two bibliotherapy ideas will help you create safe, caring and responsive learning situations for your pupils.


My Many Coloured Days by Dr Seuss

This is a vibrantly coloured book that assists with feeling identification through the use of colours and silly animals.

Have you ever thought about how many feelings you have in one single day? You may have woken up this morning and been very happy because your nose could smell a wonderful breakfast being cooked, and then you spilt orange juice on your uniform and happiness soon turned to sadness.

You’d be surprised how many feelings you feel in only one day. That is exactly what this book is about. Through vivid colors and pictures, children will explore how feelings change and can be reflected in specific colours and animals.

Before you read the book…
As you introduce the book and title, ask the children to name as many feelings as they can. Explain that everyone has feelings and we all show them in different ways. Reiterate that all feelings are normal, but we must learn to monitor the way we treat others when we have bursts of emotions.

Next, ask the children to identify a time when they felt happy, sad, angry, silly, etc. What types of things make them feel this way? What colour do your pupils think of when they hear the word ‘happy’? Identify colours for multiple feelings. Explain how the book shows feelings through the use of colour.

After you read the book…
Have a feelings word chart available for children to see. Read and define all of the feelings on it before asking the children to identify their own. Allow the children to practise feelings identification by asking them to identify how they feel in a round-robin style.

Next, ask your class to sit in a circle and provide them each with some type of musical instrument. Explain that they are going to use these to ‘play’ feelings. As an example, tell the children that when you think of ‘sad’ you believe it would sound slow and long when played on a drum.

Announce another feeling, such as ‘angry’ and ask everyone to play it on their instruments. You could ask children to model each emotion, one at a time, before the group copies.

Children love music therapy activities and will be engaged in this learning activity.

Follow-up activity
Charades is a great game to play with children. This teaching tool will assist children with being more in tune with their own bodies, as well as being empathetic to others and the emotions or situations that others may be experiencing.

Beforehand, write feelings words on pictures of faces displaying those emotions. Each child draws a ‘feeling’ from the bag and, with help if necessary, silently reviews the feelings word/face before acting that feeling out without using words – just motions and facial expressions.

The other children take turns guessing the emotion being acted. This gets the children focused on body cues and body language. We can empathise with others when we can see what they are struggling with or what they are feeling.

Empathy training is vital for forming healthy relationships and appropriate social interaction.


The Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister

This is a story about a beautiful but lonely fish that is scared to share his beauty and friendship with others. He is shy but takes the advice of a dear friend to explore friendship, although it may be scary.

The Rainbow Fish encourages children to learn about sharing with others, the importance of friendship and the importance of inner beauty.

Before you read the book…
As you introduce the book and title, ask the children if they have ever felt nervous or scared to share their talents with others. You may have to explain what talents they possess.

Explain that everyone gets nervous or scared and share with the class what you do when you are feeling that way. Ask the children to identify a time when they were nervous and how they reacted.

Explain that the fish in the story is shy and scared to share his shiny, beautiful scales with others. Ask if anyone has ever been scared to meet new people or talk to a new friend.

After you read the book…
Ask the children to give examples of items they share with others. Using a feelings chart, ask them how they feel when they share with others. How do they feel when someone does not want to share with them? Discuss appropriate ways to respond when a friend does not wish to share.

Follow-up activity
Ask the children to colour and decorate a pre-cut paper fish. Next, glue a shiny object such as a sequin to their fish. When this task is completed, each child can show their fish to the group and name an item they would share with a friend. Pin the finished fish to your noticeboard.

Reward students who demonstrate sharing with their peers with a shiny scale. Remember to tell children specifically what they have done to earn a scale, for example, “Jaylon, that was kind of you to share your crayon with Ian, and for your willingness to share you have earnt a scale for your fish.”

Hold a sharing party when the class as a whole has earnt a certain number of scales.

Susan Elswick is assistant professor at the University of Memphis. This is an extract from Using Picture Books to Enhance Children’s Social and Emotional Literacy (£22.99, Jessica Kingsley Publishers).

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