Social and Emotional Learning through YA Literature

Classroom strategies for using literature to help students with daily struggles

It didn’t take long to realize Marissa was not going to be focused on the day’s lesson. Shortly after arriving in class, she took her seat, placed her head in her hands, and started crying. She shared that her best friend had betrayed her. “She doesn’t listen! I don’t know what to do.” She wiped her face with her sleeve and composed herself as classmates filtered into the room.

As middle level teachers, we witness the daily struggles of adolescent life. We are consistently reminded of our responsibility to teach the whole child. It is not enough to focus our instruction on academic standards. Rather, we must find ways to encourage our students in their development as social and emotional beings.

Social Emotional Competencies

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) refers to five interrelated competencies for social emotional development. These competencies include:

  • Self-awareness – recognizing one’s values, strengths, needs, and emotions
  • Self-management – understanding how to manage one’s behavior and emotions to achieve one’s goals
  • Social awareness – recognizing and understanding emotions and experiences of others
  • Relationship skills – forming and maintaining positive, healthy relationships
  • Responsible decision-making – understanding how to make ethical and constructive choices about one’s behavior (2005)

In our effort to merge the academic with social and emotional learning, we centered these competencies within the study of young adult (YA) literature.

Strategies for the Classroom

If It Happened to You…

This multi-day activity encourages empathy and emotional regulation by addressing students’ needs for self-management, self-awareness, and social awareness.

This activity works best when paired with a YA novel or short story. As an example, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky provides relatable scenarios for many of today’s middle level learners. The novel encompasses situations that include mental health, sexual orientation, alcohol abuse, love, friendship, domestic abuse, and more.

To begin, divide students into small groups. Provide each group a scene from the selected text that addresses a topic of social or emotional significance. Be sure not to include character names or page numbers as the students must complete the activity using their own experiences and perspectives; in other words, provide a “skeleton scenario.”

Once the students have been assigned their scenario, provide time to discuss their scenarios with group members and consider how they might best approach the situation they’ve been provided. Students may prepare a skit, short story, poem, poster, or present their ideas in any format they deem fitting. Students should prepare to discuss how they arrived at their choice of action and justify why they believe it is the best way to approach the situation.

After groups have presented, have students read their completed scenes. Hold a class discussion focusing on the differences and similarities in the way the character handled the situation, and the way the groups did: Why did the character choose his course of action? Do you agree or disagree with his approach? Why?

Focus on the factors that motivate your students’ decisions. This requires insight and introspection

from the students. This activity promotes dialogue that increases student empathy while allowing them to focus on personal biases, perspectives, and emotions. In addition, this exercise allows students to relate to others’ experiences and perhaps see that they are not alone in the circumstances surrounding their own life. Students should focus on what informs their perspectives; how their emotions affect their decisions and behaviors; and in turn, how those decisions affect others.

Blackout Conversation
Blackout poetry is a popular strategy for today’s English language arts classrooms. Students transform an informational or narrative work into a poetic wonder by blacking out sections of text to reveal only key terms and phrases. However, in an effort to focus on developing students’ social awareness, we adapted this technique to include a keen focus on textual dialogue.

To start, provide students a text selection that features a dominant focus on conversation. For instance, Sharon Draper’s novel, Tears of a Tiger (1994), contains chapters written explicitly in the form of character dialogue. Have students work with a partner reading the text selection—each student taking on one of the character roles and reading aloud that character’s portion of the conversation. After reading through the text, ask each student to read the selection again, only this time, do so independently while simultaneously examining the meaning, nuances, and silences depicted by their selected character. What is it their character is really saying? What are they hiding? What are they feeling? Expressing? Withholding? Students should then engage in blacking out all the “background noise” in the conversation, revealing only words and phrases that embody the essence of the conversation. Finally, have the students read through the text once more with their partner. Only this time, have them read only the words and phrases that remain exposed.

In working with students to further their social awareness and relationship skills, we want them to develop a greater sense of understanding and empathy for others. Blackout conversations expose students to the importance of taking time to truly listen and reflect on the experiences of others. They engage in literature in a way that helps them understand what others are trying to say, take note of words that remain unspoken, and identify their own strengths, habits, and needs in listening and reflecting on their interactions with others.

What’s Below the Surface?
When we think about an iceberg, there’s always more than what lies above the surface. When implementing this strategy in the classroom, this concept remains the same. Students are invited to extend their knowledge and further develop their ideas to reach that next level: going beyond the surface.

To start, select a text featuring an adolescent protagonist. For example, The Outsiders (1967) by S.E. Hinton is a YA novel that explores a plethora of issues related to the adolescent experience. Once a text is selected, pose a question to encourage student thinking and questioning of key events from the story. For example a question such as, “Why does Johnny kill Bob?” would work well for The Outsiders, as this question can be explored deeply inside the text.

At this point, have students illustrate an iceberg with a clear water line. Above the surface, students can cite obvious scenes from the text that caused the final effect. Afterward, encourage them to dig deeper—explore the nuances of the story, character traits, and facets of identity that have led the characters to the event in question. For instance, with regards to The Outsiders, provoke students to investigate the many facets of Johnny’s identity that led him to this time and place. Invite them to read between the lines by going back to various sections of the novel and building on what they believe they know. Students then converse with classmates to discuss how these underlying ideas help them understand more about the event and characters.

As students deconstruct characters in this way, they obtain a better sense of how to deconstruct, analyze, and manage their own actions, thus tapping into the self-management and responsible decision-making competencies of social emotional growth.

Character Scrapbooking
This approach to character relationship analysis is one that celebrates creativity and visual literacy. This strategy offers an interactive way to engage students in understanding characters and character relationships in any given text.

After students have completed their reading of a novel, ask them to select four key events in the story. For example, they might select a scene featuring a fight, a romantic connection, a turning point in the story, etc. Then, allow each student to select a focus character and consider what this character might have felt or experienced at each of these moments in the story. In scrapbooking the character’s inner thoughts, feelings, and experience during each selected scene, students are encouraged to use multiple modalities such as drawings, images, magazine cut outs, and quotes as a means of sharing insights.

If you wish to transpose this activity to social media platforms (such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.), students can respond to classmates’ images and captions in a “post” format. Students can also be encouraged to add hashtags or locations, or even tag other characters in individual posts.

This assignment further builds on student relationship skills. As students share and discuss their individual entries with peers, they can unpack the various relationships within that text and examine how these relationships interact with one another. Students can then consider their own lives and how people handle or react to similar situations in different ways, thus affecting diverse aspects of our relationships with each other.

Bridging the Social and Emotional with the Academic

As we strive to address the academic needs of our middle level learners, it is imperative we maintain focus on meeting their social and emotional needs as well. Finding ways to infuse the social emotional competencies within our curriculum not only helps us fulfill this goal, but engaging students in critical reading and discussion of YA literature can motivate adolescent learners as they navigate their ever-changing world.


Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. (2005). Core SEL competencies. Retrieved from: