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V.3 #5 Social-Emotional Development - Using Books to Teach Social Skills

As adults, many of us have discovered the value of a good book. Books can provide an escape from the stress of everyday life and are also useful as informational tools. A good book imparts knowledge and understanding; at the end of a story we know something that we did not know before we read the book. For many students with learning disabilities (LD), the opportunity to value books in this way has been missed. The language-based nature of the disorder for most students with LD prevents them from independently engaging in the multitude of benefits a good book provides.

Bibliotherapy, as the term implies, seeks to use books to help individuals gain, knowledge, insight and understanding into their own or others areas of difficulty. Researchers have looked into the beneficial properties of bibliotherapy for a variety of mental health disorders and concur that it can be an effective practice (Norcross, 2006; Prater, Johnstun, Dyches & Johnstun, 2006). For students with LD, integrating bibliotherapy into classroom practice allows the teacher to scaffold the book choice and to provide the instructional reading support for the student who is struggling with decoding, comprehension and/or application difficulties.

One way to utilize bibliotherapy in classroom settings to the benefit all children is in the teaching of social skills. Teachers understand that their charge is to recognize missing academic skills and to provide instruction to remediate the missing skills. So too, teachers are increasingly recognizing that children who are missing vital social and emotional skills must be taught these skills. The perspective that social skills are just one more thing for a teacher to do is fading as educators realize that without these skills in place, academics will suffer. The recognition that academic and social-emotional competencies go hand in hand in effective classroom situations has been established in research (Rimm-Kaufman, Fan, Chiu, & You, 2007). One strategy promoted to infuse social skills instruction into classroom settings is the Book in a Bag (BIB) model.

Book in a Bag

Legislation and high-stakes testing aligned with No Child Left Behind educational practices require that teachers concentrate their efforts on basic skills such as English language arts (ELA) and mathematics. As such, other areas of the curriculum such as social studies and social skills are viewed as extras and only taught when there is time. The BIB model addresses the need of educators to focus on ELA skills while infusing specifically selected content into lesson plans. Each BIB consists of a children’s book and three lesson plans—one for literacy, one for social studies and one for social skills, as well as all the materials needed to carry out the three lesson plans. Using BIB to teach social skills, allows teachers to explore prosocial skills depicted in the story while using the characters and plot as anchors for comparisons to incidents in their own life.


In order to fold social skills lessons into existing instructional time, some degree of preparation is necessary. Specifically, for BIB to be successful, educators will need to identify social skills that they would like to teach, select books that match those skills, develop lessons around those books and skills, schedule and deliver lessons regularly, and finally, communicate their efforts to parents.

Identify Social Skills. One approach is to select two or three skills that need to be developed in the student population and one or two skills that are emerging strengths of the students; these identified skills would then become the social skills explicitly taught for the year. From this perspective, student’s strengths as well as weaknesses could be recognized, taught to, and strengthened. In order to identify the skills to focus on for the year, educators are encouraged to use both informal and formal data sources. Depending on whether this is a classroom or school-wide initiative, sources of data could include:

  • Surveys of students, teachers and parents

  • Review of the types of disciplinary referrals in the school

  • Outcome data from school-wide screenings of behavioral difficulties

  • Notes from discussions of parent-teacher conferences/meetings

  • Direct observation of student behavior

This data would then be analyzed for concerns at specific grade levels and provided to teachers in those grades for suggested social skills to be addressed in the classroom.

Select Appropriate Books. There are many places to start when looking for books that target specific skills, but for many modern educators the internet provides a cascade of information in a relatively short period of time. Marchant and Womack (2010) suggest two sites to begin the search in conjunction with your school’s literacy specialist:

  • American Library Association:

  • Teaching Character through Literature:

In choosing appropriate books, the key is to match the content of the book to the context of the social skill addressed; finding books that provide clear examples and the absence of examples of the skill in question, and matching books and skills with the student’s developmental level. Developmental suitability is essential in regard to looking for engaging illustrations and or topic appropriateness.

Develop and Schedule Lessons. Although social and behavioral goals are typically not embedded within academic goals in state wide learning standards, researchers would support this approach (Zins, Bloodworth, Weissberg, & Walberg, 2007). In developing lesson plans for BIB, consult your own state’s learning standards, goals, and objectives in order to align your lesson plan to the specific grade and content area being addressed. Adding the social focus into weekly lessons allows for a coordinated approach that teaches social skills directly to students in an ongoing way. Marchant and Womack suggest teaching the BIB social skills early in the week followed by the social studies and literacy lesson plans. In this way the students can practice the skill taught all week long with encouragement of the teacher and classmates.

Communicating with Parents. In order to incorporate the connection between home and school as well as to promote the generalization of the social skill, a system of home notes is promoted with the BIB model. With home notes, parents are given information which includes:

  • Description of social skill being taught

  • Steps in producing skill

  • Reasons why the skill is important for children to acquire

  • Ways to integrate the social skill with other academics

  • Questions parents are encouraged to ask their children about BIB

  • Family activities that incorporate this skill

Final Thoughts

Although using the BIB model is time intensive for teachers in the preparatory stage, it is one way for teachers to infuse much needed social skills into the already crowded daily curriculum in schools. By taking the typical 20 minute read-aloud session that teachers engage in and multi-purpose the time to include social skills, the teacher, students, and school community benefit as students practice social skills that have been identified as worthwhile skills and directly taught and encouraged.


Marchant, M., & Womack, S. (2010, March/April). Book in a bag: Blending social skills and academics. TEACHING Exceptional Children, 42(4), 6-12.

Norcross, J.C. (2006). Integrating self-help into psychotherapy: Sixteen practical suggestions. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 37, 683-693.

Prater, M.A., Johnstun, M.L., Dyches, T.T., & Johnstun, M.R. (2006). Using children’s books as bibliotherapy for at-risk students: A guide for teachers. Preventing School Failure, 50(4), 5-13

Rimm-Kaufman, S.E., Fan, X., Chiu, Y.J., & You, W. (2007). The contribution of the Responsive Classroom Approach on children’s academic achievement: Results from a three year longitudinal study. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 401 – 421.

Zins, J.E., Bloodworth, M.R., Weissberg, R.P., & Walberg, H.J. (2007). The scientific base linking social and emotional learning to school success. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(2/3), 191-210.

Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. In addition to teaching courses in Exceptional Students and Instructional Strategies for Teaching Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders, she has presented at numerous professional conferences, published articles on students with exceptional needs, friendship and teacher attitudes, and has co-authored a book for Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk (2008).

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