Building Social-Emotional Skills Through Literacy

In this episode of The Preschool Podcast, we connect with Cheryl Lundy Swift, Professional Learning Director at Learning Without Tears. Cheryl shares practical ways that educators and parents can support the development of social-emotional learning and skills in young children.

Cheryl explains how educators and parents can reinforce and communicate social-emotional skills with one another in and out of the classroom and how to work together on common ground. She elaborates how literacy can play a critical role in educating children about their feelings and how to explore and manage their emotions.

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Episode 284 Transcripts-

Cheryl Lundy SWIFT:

Literacy is a fantastic way to reinforce these all-important social-emotional skills. And it really does. It’s important for families and teachers to communicate, again, how they’re doing it.


Cheryl, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thank you so much for having me, Ron!                                                                


We are delighted to have on the show with us today Cheryl Lundy Swift. She’s a professional learning director with Learning Without Tears. She’s been working with Learning Without Tears for over 10 years. We’re going to talk to Cheryl today about building social-emotional skills through literacy, a very important subject. Cheryl, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and your role as professional learning director with Learning Without Tears.


Sure, thanks, Ron. So, as you mentioned, my name is Cheryl Lundy Swift. And I live here in Westfield, New Jersey, which is about 45 minutes west of New York City, by way of Dinwiddie, Virginia. And I’ve been an educator for over 20 years – best decision I’ve ever made. And I’ve served as a teacher, curriculum professional developer, a consultant and even a principal.

And I’ve had the pleasure of working with Learning Without Tears for over ten years now. I helped to develop some of their pre-K [kindergarten] literacy and language materials, as well as that teacher guide, as well as some of their math products. And as you mentioned, I’m the professional learning director, which is a new promotion for me, where I’m responsible for the professional learning content to make sure that we’re developing and delivering professional learning that’s impactful and meets the needs of educators and families all over the world.


Awesome. And let’s start off with the basic basics: what would you define as social-emotional learning, for anybody who’s listening to the Podcast today, where maybe that’s a new term for them?


Sure. So, Ron, when I think about learning anything, we oftentimes think about cognitive skills, things like how to learn to read or how to add. We’re not born knowing how to do any of those things. But we’re also not born knowing how to navigate a social setting or how to even manage our emotions.

So, when we’re thinking about the social part of social-emotional learning, essentially what we want is for children to learn to build a healthy identity and relationship first with themselves and then to others. And we want children to be able to interact with one another and learn how to share and take turns and solve problems.

Now, from an emotional standpoint, we want children to learn to name their feelings. And we want them to regulate their own emotions and to manage challenges, but also to recognize the emotions of others and to communicate effectively about their feelings. And we really want them to be able to show emotion, or show empathy, I should say. And like learning to read or learning to add, for example, being more socially and emotionally aware is going to last a lifetime. And it’s going to help to really lead a healthy and more productive life when we know how, for example, to get along with others.


And if I feel like over the years and through my conversations with other folks on the Preschool Podcast, social-emotional learning has really advanced and taken a much more central role in early-childhood education over the years. Would you say that’s true? Maybe you can talk a little bit about sort of the background of social-emotional learning over time.


Absolutely. So, if you look at any of the research, what you’re going to see is that absolutely teachers and families are talking more about social-emotional learning. I think certainly with this interruption of learning, specifically as it relates to this pandemic, has also made this something that’s even more important. So, you are absolutely seeing more of a need for it as you find it. This has been a stressful thing for even our pre-K children. We want them to be able to navigate it, for sure.

The Collaborative for Academic and Social and Emotional Learning – or CASEL, as most maybe school districts or family will recognize – there’s a lot of great work when it comes to social-emotional learning. And like I said, there’s lots of research showing that we really do need to support children in learning these all-important skills, these lifelong skills. Again, like knowing how to get along with others and managing those important emotions that they’re feeling. And being able to name them as well.

So yes, there is an uptick in a need for that uptick. And it doesn’t have to be… I also want you to understand that it’s not an either-or, that they are going to learn academic skills or they’re going to learn social-emotional skills. Those things really need to be embedded because they’re both equally important.


Yeah, I almost feel like it’s kind of related to like Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs sort of thing, where it’s hard to learn your reading and math skills without sort of having some of those fundamental social-emotional skills and capabilities that are so, so important and so foundational, I guess.


You’re so right, Ron. I mean, when you when you think about anything, just even think about yourself as an adult: If you are hungry, if you are worried about your safety, it’s hard for you to take on other information. And so social-emotional learning absolutely does allow for you a space to be able to support children with those needs so that then you can bring in other kinds of skills that need to be taught.

So, I’m super excited that you actually mentioned Maslow’s Hierarchy because it’s key. And we have to keep it in mind that we’re talking about human beings. These are little human beings and we need to, of course, really manage and help them manage those all-important kind of basic needs first before we can get to the other parts of the Hierarchy.


And so let’s talk about how we can support children and their learning in social-emotional skills. So, from the perspective of both parents at home and early0childhood educators in the classroom, what are some practical ways that we can incorporate this learning?


Well, first it’s important for us to think about how we learn, how children learn. So, children will learn some skills implicitly. So, they’re going to watch us, for example, navigate social situations. They’re going to watch us, as parents and families or teachers, manage our own emotions, as well.

So, it’s important for us to understand that, as children are watching us, we are modeling for them, even when we don’t necessarily think they are. So, allowing for children to think and to hear about our own thinking, for children to see us kind of solve conflict or hear us think about a problem out loud is really important. And it really does help to reinforce some of those skills.

And while implicit learning is great, I also want to just make sure that teachers and families understand that social-emotional skills can be taught. And we want for them to be explicitly taught, which means that one of the first things to do to ensure that children are really learning these skills is to deliberately set aside some time to teach them. We want to dedicate some time to really reinforce these skills, whether that’s at home or whether that’s in school. So, we want to be able to certainly, again, give that time to do that.

And one of the things that I think is really a great way or a great tool to use when it comes to this explicit teaching is really reading books. So, I’m an English teacher at heart. That’s who I am, that’s how I started in education. And what I love is, reading books opens up worlds for children, for sure. But it’s a great way for children to learn how to navigate social situations and solve problems and to learn about feelings through characters that they read about.

This is also an opportunity for families and schools to partner, to really talk about, “Well, what are some of the great books that will reinforce the skill, perhaps, that maybe children might be struggling with or still need to learn?” And really, we want to allow for children not only to read those books, but then to talk about what they’ve been able to read.

So, this shared reading experience is really important for us to really think about some of those thoughtful questions that we want to ask about how characters may feel and then allowing children to draw about those things, to color about it or even act out those emotions. And then, of course, to build those important oral language skills is also key to kind of, again, think about, “Well, what did this character do?” Or, “Have you ever felt like this? Has this ever happened to you?” So, not just asking questions about the story, but really taking that story and then making it real to them, asking what’s going on in their own lives.

So, literacy is a fantastic way to reinforce these all-important social-emotional skills. And it really does. It’s important for families and teachers to communicate, again, how they’re doing it. “So, hey, we’re working on this particular skill this week. So, look for that at home. See if there are opportunities that the child could perhaps participate.” So, it’s important for us to really leverage those opportunities to do it, not just in school but also at home.


Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And especially the discussion or a conversation about the books you’re reading. I really like that idea because, of course, reading the book in itself is very impactful for children’s learning. But trying to take a step back and have some conversation and relate it to their life is super valuable.

What about, I guess, kind of like a basic question here, maybe, or for somebody like me who’s not an expert in social-emotional learning: Maybe some parents are concerned about their children’s feelings and their emotions. And so talking or learning about being angry or sad, maybe they think that’s something that is not beneficial. Can you just talk through why it’s important for children to understand all emotions and how that comes into play with social-emotional learning?


Sure. I mean, so it’s very interesting that you ask this question because when we think about our children, we don’t want our children to ever feel sad. We don’t want our children to ever be angry. We would love it if their world was always happy and there were always rainbows and butterflies. But we know that that’s not always true.

And what we don’t want is for our children to experience these emotions because we’ve provided an environment where they have never had to experience those emotions and all of a sudden, they don’t know how to manage or handle them. And so one, we want to be able to teach children how to name their feelings. So, we want to give them some language skills to be able to see how they feel.

And again, we can do this with literature. I think there are so many great books out there. When we think about anger, you brought up anger. There’s a really great book by Molly Bang, When Sophie Gets Angry – Really, Really Angry. It really talks about how to kind of support and manage children when they’re feeling that way.

It’s really important for us to really show all of those emotions, the range of emotions, because that’s what human beings do. Human beings have more emotions than just feeling happy. Sometimes we feel really nervous. And so we want to be able to give children an opportunity, again, to not just feel that emotion, but name the emotion and then try and figure out what to do when they’re having that emotion.

And so some specific strategies that teachers and families can use… I love, thinking of the classroom, for example, that when children first come in and that greeting period, they have children go over and maybe they can identify what emotion they’re feeling in that moment. It also helps for us that when a child is frustrated, for example, for them to maybe pick out from an array of faces. Like, “Here, how might you be feeling?” All those things are really key.

So, again picking out those emotions, talking about those emotions, stopping in a book to say, “Has anyone ever been angry before? What makes you angry and what do you do when you’re angry? What is the proper way to kind of handle that anger?” It’s important for us to know that, again, that is a real emotion. And we want to teach children before they’re just feeling it and then not knowing what to do with that emotion. So, if we, as much as we can teach, it’s important for us to do.


Yeah, and even just for me personally – with our children, they’re [ages] two and four – and I’ve noticed the benefits of the early-childhood educators and teachers that are working with them, talking about and building these social-emotional skills has been very beneficial for them, I can tell, just through those experiences. And I guess just talking about different ages, Cheryl, is there any guidance you can provide to the audience in terms of age-appropriate books or resources or areas to focus, sort of as children go through the stages through early-childhood education into the school system?

Sure. So, one of the most important things about the question you just asked me is to know that you want to do this at the onset. So, you can begin to talk about these things when children are in preschool and even before they get to preschool, for sure. And this is something that should be ongoing. This is something that you can continue to do all through high school and college, for that matter.

And so one of the things that I would love to share with you, we have these books to support social-emotional learning. And they’re actually, Learning Without Tears, they’re part of A To Z For Mat Man And Me’s material. And so this A To Z For Mat Man And Me is a supplemental literacy program. It’s really designed to teach alphabet knowledge, but it does it through these culturally diverse stories that embed social-emotional learning within it.

So, there are 26 books. And for every single one of these books, we focus on a particular letter, but also a particular social-emotional skill. And these are really designed for pre-K to first grade students. And we’re focusing on a variety of emotions, for sure, again, as they learn more about the characters. But really, what’s awesome is that we’re focusing on some specific habits that children are learning.

So, they’re learning about how to problem solve, for example. They’re learning to understand feelings; they’re learning how to persist when they may get frustrated; they’re learning how to work with others through cooperation; and they’re learning how to be kind. And what’s really awesome about this program is that we have another program coming out soon called Phonics Reading And Me that kind of continues on from where A To Z For Mat Man And Me lets off.

And it provides some, again, additional materials where you’re going to find that there are going to be five additional habits, like understanding themselves, decision making, understanding points of view, those kinds of habits that are going to be reinforced even more so.

So, I think the key here is to make sure that you find books like the one that I mentioned, When Sophie Gets Angry, like the 26 books that I mentioned, From A To Z for Mat Man And Me. But there are other materials like… let’s see, like the Knuffle Bunny series [by Mo Willems] is really awesome, that’s a great way. Again, reading these really kind of high-quality interest books that have these wonderful pictures is really great.

Rita And Ralph’s Rotten Day [by Carmen Agra Deedy] is another great read as well. Jabari Jumps [by Gaia Cornwall]. So, really kind of helping children understand the emotions, that’s a really, really great book, as well. I’m Enough [by Grace Byers] is a great book. I Am Human [A Book Of Empathy, by Susan Verde], a book about empathy.

Really leveraging all of those kinds of stories to really build social-emotional skills is really key. And these are stories that you can read at home. These are stories that you can read in school. And you should read them over and over again as children really develop these more nuanced ways to kind of think about their emotions and their moods and their behavior.


Awesome. Those are some great resources you shared and a long list of excellent books for those listeners out there. Again, whether you’re supporting children’s learning at home or in the classroom, sounds like some solid resources there. And Cheryl, if folks want to get in touch with you or learn more about Learning Without Tears, access some of these resources and books about social-emotional learning, where can they go to get more information?


So, we have tons of information, tons of free resources and special discounts at So, that’s a great way. You can go there and get lots of great resources.


Very cool, our own HiMama webpage on Learning Without Tears. Go check it out. Cheryl, it’s been so nice to meet you, to chat with you. And thank you so much for sharing your perspectives on social-emotional learning, such an important subject for our young ones out there!


Thanks, Ron, for having us. It’s such a pleasure to partner with you guys. We love your HiMama audience. They’re awesome!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!