Using social stories to improve emotional intelligence among young children


The purpose of this study was to explore the way social stories can be used as tools to help develop emotional intelligence in young children. To do this, I collected comments about feelings that were communicated during six separate story sessions with children in Years 1 and 2. This study also measures the effect of traditional storytelling, using spoken language and no pictures, compared with telling stories using pictures.

The study also measures the effect of group size on the level of communication to emerge from the storytelling sessions. I was interested in studying whether a more collaborative discussion type of atmosphere, with a smaller number of pupils, increases children’s communication, compared with carpet time with a full class.

I also wanted to measure whether prompting increased the amount of communication regarding social intelligence or whether this is not necessary. Due to safeguarding and the vulnerable position children may be in when discussing emotions and difficulties, in this study I limited prompting to only ‘Do feel free to interrupt if you feel this…’ and ‘Why did he/she feel like that?’ This was so that the children were not asked leading questions. I also wanted to see if children mirror the language or coping mechanisms used in the stories to communicate how they deal with their own emotional difficulties.

Literature review

Goleman (1995) defines emotional intelligence as the ‘understanding of one’s own feelings and using that knowledge to make good decisions’. It is proposed that this intelligence is developed in early life and that it is directly linked to high achievement (Goleman, 1995; Zins et al, 2004). It is also suggested that children today and the both Generation Y and the Baby Boomers generation have low emotional intelligence (Akduman et al, 2014). Reasons that have been suggested for this include over-attentive parenting styles; instant gratification by parents; higher levels of stimulation over computer gaming and screen time and less one to one conversation time between adults and children (Akduman et al, 2014).

Research suggests that literature is a powerful tool that can help children foster emotional intelligence by providing vicarious emotional experiences that shape the brain circuits and help the child gain insight into human behaviour (Zins et al, 2004; Ghosn, 1998). It is widely documented that it is specifically the vocabulary, as well as the low anxiety context, which are key to allowing children to acquire an understanding of their own feelings and also those of others (Ghosn, 1998; Goleman, 1995; Zins et al, 2004; Sullivan & Strang, 2002; Erickson, 2018). Bibliotherapy is a longstanding practise of using literature to assist in emotional development; records from Ancient Greece show scrolls above libraries which read ‘healing place of the soul’ (Sullivan & Strang 2002).

Lawrence and Paige (2016) studied how traditional oral storytelling (as opposed to picture book delivery) can help children successfully communicate about their emotions. For this reason, this study compares how children responded to oral storytelling with the use of picture book social stories. The study also includes data of different group sizes to study whether the participatory effect of small group storytelling produces a significantly higher level of discussion about feelings from the pupils.

Goleman (1995) states that emotional intelligence includes the ability to maintain hope and an optimistic outlook in the face of disappointment and difficulties. Harper (2016) maintains that high quality children’s literature provides a space for children to not only learn about empathy and tolerance of others, but it also provides models for children, whereby they can mimic story books’ characters’ coping mechanisms. It is suggested that story books specifically act as a learning platform to help children express themselves, and to also allow adults to help children navigate and value their feelings (Dettore, 2002). Therefore, this study will measure the overall amount of communication about feelings, to test whether the use of stories does generate communication about feelings, or emotional difficulties, or not.

Storytelling is also used as a mode of therapy alongside techniques like play therapy to help children with childhood trauma (Dettore, 2002). As someone who uses storytelling in general classroom routines as well as teaching the curriculum, I suspect that it can be a very beneficial tool for helping young children learn to cope with minor or major trauma they experience in their lives. The specific therapy of storytelling is to allow the child to speak about their feelings and difficulties, to offer repeated emotional lessons to shape the child’s brain circuits for a response which involves empathy and awareness of the feelings of others, and also to allow the child’s feelings to be validated (Goleman, 1995; Erickson, 2018). As well as offering these techniques for enhancing the emotional intelligence of all pupils, storytelling also benefits children who are not undergoing a specific difficulty, as it helps them develop empathy and broadens their vocabulary (Goleman, 1995; Erickson, 2018).

Research questions

  • Do social stories facilitate communication about feelings and emotional difficulties in young children?
  • Does telling stories orally, as opposed to using picture books, affect the quantity of communication about emotions?
  • When using literature for emotional intelligence in young children, does group size and context of the session effect their level of communication?
  • Do prompts yield more discussion about feelings and emotional difficulties?
  • Do children mirror coping mechanisms presented by characters in the stories, or use vocabulary from the stories, when communicating about their feelings?

Research method

The data for this study was collated using six separate storytelling sessions.

  • Story session 1 included a class of 15 Year One pupils. The picture book ‘A bag of Worries’ (Ironside, 1994) was used. The children were told they could interrupt. No other prompts were used.
  • Story session 2 involved the same group of 15 Year 1 pupils. The children were read the “Sad Book’ by Michael Rosen (2004). After each page, prompts were needed.
  • Story session 3 included a group of 22 children from Reception age to Year 2 age. The children were told the ‘Bag of worries’ (Ironside, 2004) story using no picture book, in a storytelling style. Every so often the children were reminded that they were allowed to interrupt. No other prompts were given.
  • Story session 4 included 22 mixed age pupils (Reception to Year 2). They were read the Fox (Fox 2006) using a picture book. Prompts were occasionally used.
  • Story Session 5 included 8 Year 2 children. They were told The Bag of Worries story with no story book, using a storytelling delivery, in a lunch meeting context. No prompts were used.
  • Story Session 6 included a set of 8 Year 2 pupils who were read ‘The Promise’ (Davies 2013) using a picture book. Prompts were used. The story was delivered in a lunch meeting setting.

In story sessions 1 and 2, comments were recorded by hand. In story sessions 3, 4, 5 and 6, comments were recorded on an iPad and later transcribed by hand.

Quantitative data

The data in the table and graph above shows that reading social stories to young children does yield responses about their feelings. Across the six study groups, the traditional story telling method yielded the highest amount of feelings related responses from across all six study groups. However, both oral storytelling and the use of picture books yielded responses related to feelings. These data suggest that both oral storytelling and the use of picture books can be useful in helping the children discuss their feelings.

One picture book session (4) yielded answers solely about feelings. However, this study yielded the smallest amount of responses across the six studies, and also had the largest amount of pupils. It is possible that the low response rate in this session was caused by the use of a picture book. However, this may also have been influenced by the large group size.

To explore this relationship in more detail, I plotted the number of responses against the group size for each of the six sessions (see Graph B).

The smallest group size yielded the highest amount of responses about feelings from the pupils. This finding supports the statement that the participatory way of sharing stories (Lawrence and Paige, 2013) is a positive context for using stories to assist emotional intelligence in young children.

I also wanted to explore whether using prompts affected the extent to which children talked about their feelings (see Graph C).

In this study, the use of prompting has no significant effect on the amount of comments relating to the children’s feelings. Indeed, the highest yields of emotion-related comments is found when no prompts were used. It is possible that the discussion type of arena set up by the traditional storytelling delivery, as well as a small group size in a lunch meeting atmosphere, affected this result.

Qualitative data

Here are some examples of feelings-related comments made by the children during this study. Here, we can see a number of clear examples of the children using the vocabulary from the stories to discuss their own feelings.

Book study 1

‘My brother always does that. I feel really sad when he doesn’t let me play with him because he is always on the computer’.

Book study 2

  • ‘I feel sad’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘I feel sad too’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘I once saw a man all covered in blood and mummy and daddy said he would be OK’ (Pupil 3)

Book study 3

  • ‘Yes I feel like that, I feel worried sometimes’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘They are worried because they are wimps’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘I always have that. My mum and dad shout at each other all the time. I go out and I shut the door’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘My mum and dad shout too, especially when friends come over for dinner’ (Pupil 4)
  • ‘I always hear arguments’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘They could share the problems with someone’ (Pupil 5)
  • ‘Yes they could share them’ (Pupil 7)

Book study 4

  • ‘That has happened to me’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘I have lost a friend before’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘I have not been invited to parties when others have’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘He feels left out’ (Pupil 4)

Book study 5

  • ‘I always worry about my friends’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘I worry about my work sometimes’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘Yes me too’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘I don’t have a friend anymore… XXX just said two weeks ago that he doesn’t want to play with me anymore and he hasn’t played with me for two weeks’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘You could talk to him’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘I feel like he doesn’t like me anymore’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘When my parents argue like that I go next door and I shut the door until it stops’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘My dad is so grumpy… he says moan moan moan moan (laughing)… grumpy daddy, grumpy daddy (laughing) (Pupil 3)
  • ‘Sometimes I try and tell someone’ (Pupil 6)
  • ‘I have written about how I feel before’ (Pupil 7)
  • ‘Sometimes I play with Lego to calm down’ (Pupil 2)
  • ‘Yes or you can do drawing’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘Mrs May has a kind face so she feels like she can tell her how she is feeling’ (Pupil 7)
  • ‘Sometimes when you really look at your problem with someone it doesn’t really seem big any more’ (Pupil 8)
  • ‘You should always tell an adult if you have a problem’ (Pupil 7)
  • ‘I sometimes get scared of the dark’ (Pupil 6)
  • ‘Me too’ (Pupil 1)

Book study 6

  • ‘I feel like my heart gets cold sometimes’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘Yeah me too (Pupil 2)
  • ‘My heart gets cold when my mum and dad tell me off because I feel like they don’t love me and my heart feels smaller’ (Pupil 1)
  • ‘My mum and dad always tell me off and then they are really nice to my sister’ (Pupil 3)
  • ‘I feel like my parents don’t love me when they tell me off’ (Pupil 4)


Overall, this study suggests that a small group size, in combination with traditional, oral storytelling, yields the most conversation about feelings and emotional difficulties. In particular, the informal lunch meeting atmosphere created a collaborative, discussion style to the storytelling, and this enabled the pupils to enter into a discussion about their emotions more freely. Out of the six sessions, communication occurred in both small and bigger groups, using both picture and traditional methods. This suggests that social stories are a very valuable tool for encouraging children to talk about their feelings, and that this is not particularly dependent on group size or delivery style. It is also clear from the excerpts above that children mirror the language in the stories to express themselves, confirming the research that the vocabulary is a key vehicle for the development of emotional intelligence. Likewise, to a small degree the children did mirror coping strategies presented in the book.

This study involved a fairly large sample of children (90 pupils) who attend a large independent school on the outskirts of London. Further research would be necessarily to determine whether the results of this study are representative of the wider population.

Key outcomes and project impact

  1. Both oral storytelling and the use of picture books yield comments about feelings and emotional difficulties in young children.
  2. A small group size with an oral storytelling delivery in an informal setting elicited the highest level of communication about emotions.
  3. Prompting is not always necessary when using literature to enhance pupil communication regarding their emotions.
  4. Children will mirror the language in stories when talking about how to cope with problems or express how they feel.
  5. Prompts are not essential when encouraging children to communicate about their emotions, although the soothing qualities of stories can mean that the children sometimes need a reminder that they are allowed to speak if they want to.


The qualitative data shows that these children could express their difficulties in these sessions, and it is clear that the vocabulary and themes given in the stories allowed the children to express themselves. A larger arena of social stories is needed so that the many themes of emotional intelligence can be covered and used as aids to enhance this area of learning. Training is needed on the safeguarding and psychological elements that such discussions can lead to, as well as how to respond to children’s expressions of their difficulties, without asking leading questions.

As a takeaway, I am left pondering two questions: Would these children have communicated about these issues if they had not been given these story sessions? And if not, what would the impact be on their emotional intelligence and well-being?


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Davies, N (2013) The Promise, Harper Collins, London.

Dettore, E (2002) Children’s emotional growth: Adults role as emotional archeologists. Childhood education 278‐281.

Erickson, E (2018) Effects of Storytelling on Emotional Development. Retrieved from Sophia, the Catherine University repository website

Ghosn, I (1998) New directions in EFL: Literature for language and change in the primary school. 32nd Annual TESOL Convention, Seattle. Available at‐39‐1‐c.pdf.

Goleman, D (1995) Emotional intelligence, Bantam Books, New York.

Gottman, J (1997) Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon and Schister Paperbacks, New York.

Ironside, V (2004) The Huge Bag Of Worries. Hachette Children’s Books, London.

Lawrence, R.L & Paige, D.S (2016) What Our Ancestors New: Teaching and learning through storytelling. New Directions and continuing education no.149 63‐72.

Rosen, M (2004) Sad Book. Walker Books, London.

Sullivan, A.K & Strang, H.R (2002) ‘Bibliotherapy in the Classroom Using Literature to Promote the Development of Emotional Intelligence’, Journal of Childhood Education, Volume 79, 2012‐ Issue 2. Available from

Wild, M (2006) Fox, Turtleback Binding Edition, London.

Zins, J E, Weissbery, R. P Wang, M.C & Walbert, J. W (2004) Building Academic Success on Social and Emotional Learning, Teachers College Press, New York.

Header image via Google images (labelled for reuse with modification)

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