Tell Me a Story: The Power of Narratives in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

04/17/2015  |  By Nicole Forsyth

Why are the skills required to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions such complex skills to learn? Learning SEL* skills often means changing attitudes and behaviors that may have already been established through past experiences and relationships - attitudes and behaviors that were ingrained through a process our brains love most:  a narrative framework. Because of this, using narratives in teaching may be the most effective way to change behaviors and attitudes and build students’ SEL.


I can tell you three facts about narratives that are supported by research to explain the power of stories and why they have the potential to work so well in teaching complex skills like those needed in SEL:
1.    Our brains are wired to think in narratives.
2.    Stories have been shown to be more effective when communicating than facts. 
3.    The New School for Social Research published research in the Fall of 2013 demonstrating that reading literary fiction increases theory of mind, or the ability to understand another’s perspective. This is likely because good stories provide an opportunity to practice perspective-taking, the cognitive skill necessary for empathy. 

….or I can tell you a story:

One day, while facilitating a RedRover Readers workshop for educators, I had provided an overview of the program and bullet points about the power of narratives and why stories work so well in a school setting because they align to the Common Core and they work great for teaching complex social skills like empathy and decision-making. Most people were politely listening; a few were leaning back with their arms crossed. But then I read a story, and everyone’s body language changed. The book I read, Buddy Unchained by Daisy Bix is about a dog, Buddy, whose family is too busy for him, so they leave him chained up most of the time. The story begins:

“Not long ago, I was chosen by a family to live with them. I have food in my bowl. I have clean water to drink. Sometimes I get a treat! They take me for walks. They play with me. They teach me to know what they want from me. But I used to live in a different place. I slept alone in the garage. Everyday I was put outside. My collar was clipped to a chain. When it rained, my fur was wet clear through. Once in awhile, kids threw things at me. I couldn’t protect myself. I don’t know why they did that. When I got twisted in the chain, I couldn’t sit down or move until someone from the house came and untangled it. Many days those people forgot to change the water in my dish. It tasted bad. I was so thirsty I drank it anyway. Sometimes they forgot to feed me. I was hungry most of the time…”

As I read, I asked workshop participants, “How do you think Buddy feels in this picture?” In the book’s illustrations, Buddy’s dull eyes look out at the reader. They are half-closed, and his head and ears are sunk downward. Some pretend to be third-graders, others respond as themselves. They tell me, “He looks sad…lonely…” I can see by their faces, the story is making them feel sad. They are sharing Buddy’s emotional state. The questions I am asking are helping them reflect on their own experiences, their own narratives, helping them imagine what it would be like to be Buddy. They think about times they have been sad or lonely or felt unloved. They listen to each other respond to the story. When we break for lunch everyone has become fast friends. They have learned how stories can help children and adults practice empathy and how discussing stories could help connect classmates together. One teacher tells me, “This has forever changed how I think about teaching.”

But just how far can narratives go in changing behaviors and attitudes? Often I see that the workshop challenges existing narratives participants hold about teaching. I work with educators passionate about their subject areas who want to convey information they think is important, but asking them to be more of a guide, to step back and do more listening, to hear where students are coming from, what narratives they bring to the table, is often met with resistance. But just one story, one example of thinking from a student’s perspective is usually enough to change their minds.

Imagine an eight-year-old student, Alex. Alex is a bully to some of his classmates. His favorite uncle participates in dog fighting, and he doesn’t receive much positive attention at home. One day Alex attends a whole school assembly about bullying; another day a visiting educator presents a fact sheet and gives a talk about the cruelty of dog fighting. How will Alex feel… about his teachers, about his school? Do you think the assembly or the fact sheet will change his attitude or his behavior? 

What if instead of telling Alex how to treat an animal or a person, you present stories with narratives that are different from the ones he already carries around with him, and then ask him questions to help him challenge his existing narratives? What if Alex hears a story about another eight-year-old boy and his positive relationship with a friend, a dog named Max? While reading the story, you ask Alex and his classmates, “Can people and animals communicate?” “What does that look like?” “How is listening part of friendship?” “Why would anyone listen?” “Why would someone want to be friends with a dog?” What if Alex listens to what his peers think of these questions and this story, and he gets to know his classmates better? What if his teacher and his peers genuinely listen to him? Now Alex has other narratives in his mind besides his own; he sees other potential ways of being, something to grab hold of. He has pictures of positive friendships, images of a dog who could play with him, a friend who could be there when he feels sad and lonely, a dog who would want, more than anything, to be loved by someone like him.

How often do we have the opportunity to reflect on our own narratives about teaching and what inspired us to become teachers? I loved everything about school -- lectures, worksheets and all, but I was inspired to become a teacher from my sophomore English teacher, Mrs. Lawler, who opened up a new world of perspectives for me through books like A Separate Peace, Ordinary People, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Catcher in the Rye. In this class and through great literature, I learned a new way of connecting with my peers, with my friends. By discussing how characters felt and how we felt, these stories helped us make sense of our lives, helped us understand that we all have the potential to connect with each other. And, for me, building connections is at the very core of what education should be, especially if the goal is to nurture a future generation capable of making good decisions, a generation we can be proud of, one that can solve complex social issues and change society for the better.

*According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), social and emotional learning (SEL) is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.  


Nicole Forsyth is the president and CEO of RedRover. For more information, visit
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