George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

How Storytelling Supports SEL in Kindergarten

Active participation during story time is an effective way to help young learners develop emotional connections with each other and strengthen their literacy skills.

March 29, 2024
.shock / iStock

For almost 10 years now, I’ve been writing about why storytelling in the classroom matters and the many benefits that arise from using it. I’ve visited many kindergarten classes in schools around the world, and I even visited once a week online, during the pandemic lockdown. In the last six weeks, I’ve been able to do daily visits in person because I’m currently on family leave, having my turn to be at home with our precious daughter. Every day, I visit my wife’s kindergarten class so that the baby can feed and I can tell the class stories. Both the students and I have been delighted by the results.

Learning Can Start With Storytelling

Kindergarten students need to learn a lot: the basics of reading and writing; how to self-regulate their bodies and emotions; how to have empathy for others; how to communicate their thoughts and ideas; and how to become independent learners. Over the last few years, my colleagues have seen increased issues with social and emotional learning (SEL). Storytelling can be a helpful tool for that. The state of Oregon has recently invested in a new Early Literacy Framework that hopes to address some academic issues. I think storytelling is rightly named as an essential element of this framework:  

“Storytelling has the power to create connections between humans, animals, and the land, to pass on traditions, entertain, and affirm identity.” 

Storytelling Offers Interactive Benefits

With my particular style of storytelling, I involve the children as actors, which makes the story more interactive and participatory. The children watching use their voices and bodies for sound effects. These are some other benefits of this activity:

Improved listening and attention: Children have an innate desire to listen to stories, and storytelling is a motivating reason to build stamina.

Body regulation: Students sit in a semicircle with the “stage” space equally visible for everyone—keeping hands to themselves.

Behavior regulation: Students want to participate, so they adjust their behavior accordingly or with minimal reminders.

Taking turns: Students have to “audition” (volunteer) for the acting roles and patiently wait until the next story for their turn.

Presentation skills: Students stand up in front of their peers for the first time to act in or tell a story.

Speech development: I say a line of dialogue and a student repeats it, with actions. This interactive repeat-back method is helpful for emerging language users and students with other speech-related difficulties.

Showing appreciation: Students give compliments and applause.

My daily storytelling sessions have led to a range of new benefits I haven’t experienced before. For example, my wife asks her students to retell the story, which was hard for them to do at first. However, with practice, the students have become better at sequencing and retelling. I also ask the students what the big idea or learning of the story is. For example: “For example, in a story where two characters work together, the learning might be: "Problems can be overcome with teamwork. 

I then relate this to their lives and daily experiences: How have they worked with friends to overcome problems? When did they show kindness to others? How have they resolved conflict with using words rather than their bodies? 

Student Storytellers Become Writers

The ultimate goal for my storytelling practice is for the students to write and tell their own stories. I’ve written about this process occurring in my grade one and grade four classrooms, and this year, I achieved this in kindergarten for the first time. The key step for this was showing the students how their ideas could be used. 

I asked them to generate ideas for the hero, villain, companions, and central problem of the story. I then made up the story using those suggestions. I also used a box of props (mainly pieces of salvaged fabrics and random hats). Props aren’t essential for this, but they do help kick-start the excitement. If the students wanted to write stories, I told them they could be the storyteller—picking props and their friends as actors.

This unleashed a whirlwind of creativity. As their teacher, my wife promoted story writing during writing time. The first story came from a very confident writer who could already create several pages of legible writing. This was a great opportunity to provide extension and demonstrate to the class that a student can be a storyteller. After that, there came a flurry of stories, all of different lengths.

A student who received special education services started writing for the very first time because he loved acting as an elf who accidentally broke toys. One shy student read her story—and spoke in front of the class for the first time. Another overcame speech difficulties, finding delight in her three-page story. My role now is to assist the students in telling their story by helping them read their text (typed up by their teacher), project their voice, and manage the actors. 

Unfinished Stories Inspire More Writing

In the past, one of the few requirements I made was that the story had to be completed. However, this isn’t a goal that all kindergarten students can meet— most of them are writing for the first time. Several students tell half a story, which leads to after-story discussions where they suggest what could happen next. This activity inspires the storyteller to keep writing the next day and also gives other students ideas. For example, there have been at least three stories now about princesses who love gymnastics. 

The students have asked to do storytelling with other classes, and a colleague has observed the activity and will be including her class in the process. The aforementioned advanced writer has even read her story to camera so she can be featured in the school’s weekly video newsletter, which is a first for a kindergarten student! 

I believe that if every kindergarten class had a time of the day set aside for interactive community storytelling, it would create an extraordinary foundation for all the key skills that need to be fostered in this crucial first year of school. The words “Once upon a time” can lead to so much magic and joy.

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  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Literacy
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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