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  • Writer's pictureEsther Harder

Teaching SEL with Quarantine Kids

What's SEL?

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is a buzzword in the educational sector; it describes and encompasses those skills that help a person know and regulate themselves, have empathy for others, and collaborate to build better communities. In many states, SEL skills are being integrated into classroom learning, as well as school-wide endeavors.

Literature is a great method for teaching and learning SEL skills because in reading a story, readers are offered the opportunity to side with a character. We may try on a number of different characters in the story to better understand who we are most like, who interests us the most, or feel a situation we might be going through from an external perspective.

Why Use Picture Books?

Using picture books to teach or model SEL skills has several advantages:

  • Picture books are short by design, so it's easier to focus on causal relations and see the whole string of cause and effect throughout the story.

  • Illustrations communicate visual data about emotions and can be used to teach what emotions look like on another person and how to predict what response a person is having based on their body language.

  • Picture books have fewer sub-plots, so the story is easier to comprehend, analyze, and discuss.

In some situations, picture books can work with older age groups who have already advanced beyond reading picture books. Picture books have that magical element that can tug at the child inside us and allow us to rediscover our curiosity. The important consideration when using picture books for a more intergenerational approach is to incorporate other components that are more challenging so that older group members don't feel like they are being talked down to. When used well, picture books break the tension and level the playing field while offering a simple discussion springboard for the topic of the day.

Quarantine Kids and SEL Concepts

Quarantine Kids is my picture book about the power of collaborative imagination during times of separation. Because this story is meant to encourage everyone to find ways to tap into their curiosity and imagination when they are feeling confined, there are a number of SEL skills baked into the plot. Let's take a look!


In the CASEL framework, there are five main categories of SEL skills. Self-awareness is described as understanding how your thoughts, emotions, and values influence behavior. Part of this skillset is understanding your identity and knowing how that fits into the larger societal whole.

Quarantine Kids is framed around Elia's emotions, and the illustrations are filled with clues that would support a variety of discovery or discussion activities. Elia represents our frustration with lockdown in particular, of all our disappointments of not being able to get out and do our favorite activities in the way we used to. I wanted Elia's feelings to be the focus of the book, so she is literally wearing her feelings on her shirts, and changes her clothes to match her changing feelings as she progresses through the story.

By tracing Elia's change, we can discuss how Elia's emotions impact her behavior and vice versa. We can also analyze what feelings contribute most powerfully to the group.


Self-management in the SEL framework relates to discipline, motivation, setting goals, and being courageous. Elia just wants to be able to play with a friend even though she is stuck in her house. We can discover her different attempts to play with neighbors, and how she responds when the neighbors aren't interested in playing with her, or want to play something other than what she wants. Even as she experiences this feedback, Elia continues in her resolve to play together. How does she succeed?

Social Awareness and Relationship Skills

Social awareness is the ability to empathize with people of different experiences or backgrounds. Relationship skills builds on social awareness to support and maintain relationships with a variety of people.

I created each of Elia's neighbors to represent different cultures as well as physical abilities, interests, and play types, so Elia's community naturally has a number of viewpoints.

One of Elia's growth points in the book is navigating her friend's choices and preferences of play. They don't automatically want to play what Elia wants to play, so Elia has to adapt her vision. This leads her to respond in an empathic way near the end of the story when another child, Akash, tries to contribute to the group.

To teach these SEL skills, students could consider the "what-ifs" of the story: what would have happened IF characters had responded differently to Elia, or IF Elia had pushed for what she wanted to play without considering her other friends' feelings?

Responsible Decision-Making

Responsible decision-making is a focus on one's behavior within diverse societal relationships. This is the widest skill as it builds on the person's understanding of themselves within a community to be able to make decisions that are thoughtful and respectful of self and community.

This is a significant skill that takes a lot of practice. We're seeing people reason this particular skill out in real time in the rhetoric around mask-wearing and how to behave in public spaces. Our personal needs and desires are not going to perfectly match up with a diverse community's needs and desires, so when reasoning out a decision, there are a lot of overlapping and competing factors that need to be considered. In the case of Elia and her friends, this might be a "next step" discussion: for example, once Elia and her friends can play together in the same space again, how will they decide what to play?

While Elia's context in Quarantine Kids is that she is stuck in her house in lockdown, this story can be used to talk about any number of situations where readers might feel that they are kept from being able to do things they would like to do. The pandemic is the context, but not an actor in the book. Readers can practice being empathetic to Elia's situation because they have lived through the pandemic too, and they can apply the knowledge they have gained from analyzing Elia's feelings and responses to a new context of interest. And in this application and discussion of what-ifs, they are practicing responsible decision-making.

Literature as Lens

Writers talk a lot about stories being a lens or any number of sight-aiding frameworks that allow us to see through to another space and experience something outside of ourselves. Stories are a natural space to dig into social and emotional concepts; don't forget to scour your picture book shelves for possible SEL material!


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