Sharing Story Books to Improve Emotion Understanding: A 3-Step Strategy

Children with language deficits, including those with developmental language disorder, language impairment, autism spectrum disorder, social pragmatic communication disorder, and intellectual disability, often struggle to understand their own emotions and those experienced by others. This lack of emotion knowledge leads to difficulties getting along with others, forming friendships, and even learning academic content.

Story sharing can be employed to facilitate emotion knowledge within an authentic and engaging context. To make the most of story-sharing activities, however, it is important to select the right book, identify important concepts, and engage the child in the story.

1. Select the Right Book

For children with language deficits, reading a storybook with a caregiver may be so demanding that it is absolutely no fun. Children with language problems don’t just struggle with the vocabulary and language structures within a book; they often fail to understand the emotions, intentions, and motivations of characters. This makes it even more important to select books that are geared to the child’s developmental level.

Begin with books that have clear story structures and plots set within familiar contexts such as going to bed, sharing toys, or visiting relatives. Books with vivid illustrations and limited print are most engaging. It is particularly important to select books with rich emotion content—those in which the emotions that characters experience are essential to the plot and the sources of those emotions are evident.

Highlight basic emotions such as happy, mad, sad, scared, surprised and disgusted. More complex emotions such as guilt or jealousy may be introduced as a child’s emotion knowledge increases.

2. Identify Important Concepts

After selecting a book, it is important to highlight the specific emotion words and concepts that are integral to the story. For example:

  • What specific emotions do characters experience?
  • What events and situations elicit those emotions?
  • How do characters express and manage emotions?

It is helpful to emphasize instances where events elicit different emotions from different characters (“Papa bear feels mad, and Goldilocks feels scared.”) and where characters experience mixed emotions (“Timmy felt happy because he won the race, but he felt sad that he tore his shirt.”).

3. Engage the Child

Engaging a child in story sharing may be challenging. Exaggerated stress and dramatic vocal intonation draw children in and provide important emotion cues. It is also helpful to create a series of prompts for each story page or event. Prompts may consist of comments, questions, or other cues that focus a child’s attention on important emotion content (“Look at Goldilocks. Look at her face. How does she feel?”).

Prompts assist a child to interpret the characters’ expression of emotion. Prompts can also teach emotion words and help children recognize and anticipate the emotions that specific events may elicit. Prompting a child to imitate the characters’ facial expressions in front of a mirror facilitates emotion knowledge. Prompts also help a child draw comparisons between the characters’ emotions and his or her own emotional experience. Perhaps most importantly, prompts guide a child to consider positive ways of expressing and managing emotion in a variety of contexts.

Story sharing is a powerful tool to facilitate language learning and emotional knowledge. By taking the time to select an appropriate book, identifying the most important concepts, and engaging the child in the story, you’ll be better able to immerse the children you care for in story-sharing activities.