LSC Journal Club: Social Emotional Learning & Libraries

After a long hiatus, the Denver Metro Area chapter of the LSC Journal Club finally met again in January to discuss social-emotional learning and libraries! We had lots of snacks to sustain us during our long discussion.


Who Are We?

What is the Library Services for Children Journal Club? We’re a local group of youth services professionals who discuss trending topics and recent research related to our field. We’re part of a nationwide professional development group initiative launched by Lindsey (of Jbrary fame) and her coworker, Christie. To learn more and find a group near you, check out

What Did We Discuss?

We read two recent articles from a special Educational Psychologist issue devoted to social emotional learning (SEL):

Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl (2019) Advancements in the Landscape of Social and Emotional Learning and Emerging Topics on the Horizon, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 222-232, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1633925

Stephanie M. Jones, Michael W. McGarrah & Jennifer Kahn (2019) Social and Emotional Learning: A Principled Science of Human Development in Context, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 129-143, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1625776


What is Social Emotional Learning (SEL)?

The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.” Or as Schonert-Reichel (2019) puts it:

SEL teaches the personal and interpersonal skills we need to handle ourselves, our relationships, and our work effectively and ethically.”

CASEL outlines five core competencies that SEL teaches: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.

CASEL: Core SEL Competencies

What Does the Research Say?

According to Schonert-Reichel (2019), more than two decades of extensive SEL research conclusively demonstrates:

  • SE competencies predict children’s success in school and life
  • SE competencies are malleable – they can be taught and assessed
  • Explicit attention to context is foundational to the promotion of SEL

…surprising no teacher ever! Ask any kindergarten teacher what’s more important: knowing the ABC’s or being able to get along with your peers. 🙄

Schonert-Reichel also identifies teacher well-being and teacher preparation as areas on the horizon for SEL learning. She says:

We need to move beyond just implementing SEL programs at the classroom level and instead need to integrate SEL into the entire system of the school, including school leadership, teaching and learning, and with families.”

Both articles’ repeated attention to context and environment really stuck with me. One more quote from Schonert-Reichel:

Fundamentally, children and youth develop in the context of relationships.”


What Might this Mean for Libraries?

Although both of these articles focus on the school setting, we thought there were clear implications for libraries. Is your library in the business of cultivating healthy communities and creating lifelong learners? Are you looking for ways to support your local schools? Then read on! We also thought about what we already do in libraries and how we might do it differently (or what new things we might try) in light of what we now know about SEL research.

Relationship Building

What could library programming and outreach from a relationship-building approach look like?

It could mean consistently scheduling staff to storytimes so they can bond with kids and caregivers. It could mean increasing services and programs for tweens and teens. If we’re really interested in a lifelong relationship with our patrons, we can’t disappear when they go to school, then expect them to return to us as adults and vote for library mill levies. That’s not how relationships work!

(Good) relationships require active listening. How are we listening to our communities? Do we hide our comment cards behind a desk (are they even available at all)? Do we have multiple ways for patrons to contact us and give feedback? Do we provide childcare for caregivers during community meetings – such as before a library remodel? How are we actively seeking our patrons’ stories and voices – and acting upon what they tell us?

Play: The Perfect Context

Erin pointed out how play gives young children the perfect context to learn and apply SE skills. Think about all the social skills required to put on a puppet show together or respond when someone takes your block! Guided play (play within a context set up by adults) can also help children develop self-management and self-awareness skills. Think about all the rules and group norms children must observe and follow when playing an adult-led game like Simon Says!

Fortunately many libraries already embrace play as one of the five ECRR practices! We’re well-versed in how play builds early literacy skills. Many of us are already incorporating play into our spaces and storytimes. What could creating and evaluating opportunities for play look like with SEL in mind?

Maybe it means talking with caregivers about how play supports social emotional development. Maybe it means purchasing toys that encourage socio-dramatic play. Maybe it means staying and playing WITH families after storytime and modeling talking about feelings while waiting for a doctor shot.

Using Picture Books to Promote SEL

Beth pointed out that we already have a powerful resource at our fingertips: picture books! Reading picture books and talking about the characters is a great way to help children learn how to identify others’ emotions and build empathy. And it’s something we already do!

How might we do it with SEL in mind? We might pause and draw attention to characters’ facial expressions while reading. We might ask kids to make connections and share what makes them feel mad/sad/glad. We might make sure to share a story with human characters when presenting a Feelings storytime because research suggests children are more likely to learn prosocial behaviors (like sharing) when picture books feature humans instead of anthropomorphic animals.

Strengthening Adult Capacity and Supporting Schools

Both articles discussed the importance of SEL training for adults. Teacher SE competence is linked with positive student outcomes; it just makes sense that teachers with better SE skills can create healthier, relationship-based classroom environments conducive to learning.

We believe that caregivers are a child’s and most influential teachers – and therefore their SE health matters, too. We wondered how we might go about supporting the development of SE skills and SE health of entire families? What resources could we connect them with? How might we message and model? How could we potentially partner with our local schools?

The Key Ingredient: Staff Well-Being

Schonert-Reichel considers staff well-being essential to any discussion of SEL. Why? One reason is research regarding stress contagion. A large-scale recent study involving 10,000 first grade students demonstrated a direct correlation between teacher stress and student well-being. Simply put, “when teachers are stressed, students are the collateral damage.”

I think this could also be said of library workers and patrons. Library work is demanding and emotionally draining. Now is not the time for me to talk about my feels in regards to the retracted October article on SLJ called First Aid for Librarian Burnout, but I will say this: self-care is not a fix for systemic institutional issues. Working out won’t get you a living wage. Reading a book about depression is not a substitute for seeking care. Burnout tells me much more about an organization than it does an individual.

So in regards to supporting the well-being and SE health of staff, I want to see schools and libraries say something besides just “more training.” It takes capacity to practice and model mindfulness/resilience/kindness day in, day out. How could we on an organizational level (and particularly our leadership) build up staff capacity?

What Other Questions Did We Have?

One of our first questions was how does Social Emotional Learning (SEL) relate to Executive Function (EF)? Although the two terms are connected and often mistakenly used to describe the same thing, they are not interchangeable. The second article we read by Jones, McGarrah and Kahn points out this confusing lack of controlled vocabulary –  probably because SEL research comes from so many different fields.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University describes executive function and self-regulation skills as the brain’s “air traffic control center.” Similarly to how an air traffic control center manages constant departures and arrivals across multiple runways, these mental processes help our brains “filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”

I love how Jen Perry (2019) explains the difference in this recent article from Edmentum:

While we all have the power of choice, good executive function allows us to take in enough information to have a basis for our choice, see that there are options to that choice, and take enough time to make the best decision. Social and emotional learning allows us to make a choice better by integrating the needs of others and the environmental norms and expectations into the context of the decision—function combined with awareness.”

In other words, SEL is dependent upon EF. Executive function is the foundation for SEL learning.

Edmentum: Link Between SEL and EF

We also wondered about equity. Although not included in our selected readings, there was another journal article in this special issue which specifically addressed the intersection of SEL and equity:

Robert J. Jagers, Deborah Rivas-Drake & Brittney Williams (2019) Transformative Social and Emotional Learning (SEL): Toward SEL in Service of Educational Equity and Excellence, Educational Psychologist, 54:3, 162-184, DOI: 10.1080/00461520.2019.1623032

Since we didn’t have access to this article, we explored some of CASEL’s other equity resources instead. We looked at the Equity & Social and Emotional Learning: A Cultural Analysis Framework Brief, which proposes the concept of transformative SEL:

Transformative SEL connotes a process whereby students and teachers build strong, respectful relationships founded on an appreciation of similarities and differences, learn to critically examine root causes of inequity, and develop collaborative solutions to community and societal problems.”

Dr. Jagers, Dr. Rivas-Drake and Teresa Borowski elaborate on each of the 5 core competencies with equity in mind. Lots of food for thought!

What Will We Do By Monday?

It’s hard to wrestle with big picture ideas and walk away with achievable action items. To help, each of us made a “By Monday” promise to use what we learned. Because I know how important building relationships is to children’s development (and to being trusted with feedback), I committed to spending at least 15 minutes before and after every storytime with my families.


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