Promoting Empathy and Kindness through Books on Animals and More…

One Mom and Educator’s Methods for Promoting Her Own Son’s Social and Emotional Development

As a parent and an educator, I believe strongly in the power of social and emotional learning (SEL), and in the power I have as a parent to help my child develop into a healthy and kind person. There are several things I’ve done to encourage my son’s SEL growth and development. I talked with my son from birth. I described everything in rich detail to him when he was an infant: all about the lights, stairs, sounds, and more, but I didn’t stop at labeling objects. I frequently modeled using emotion words and explained what they mean. As a result, my son was highly verbal from a young age. In fact, despite him developing multiple ear infections, the doctor chose not to put tubes in his ears because he had such a strong vocabulary.

I have video of my son at about two-years-old making his face look sad, mad, happy, relaxed, excited, worried on cue when we prompted him with “show me a ___ face.” I didn’t stop at labeling and practicing our own emotions. We paid attention to when other children were crying in a store and said, “I hear something. What is it? Yes, someone is crying. Why do you think that child is crying?” We did this to help him develop his sense of being aware of others so he would become sensitive to how they express their needs. I also took him to the park and on play dates regularly so that my “only child” could practice his social skills and learn that the world is not only about him. As a parent, I did these things and continue to do them because I believe it will help my son better relate to others. In some ways, my child is my own little social science experiment: If I pour all of the intentional practice of SEL into him, will he be able to fill others’cups later in his life?

As an educator in the field of SEL, I believe in reinforcing the foundational skills he will need as an adult. Another intentional strategy I use with him comes straight from my work world and is from the RedRover Readers program ( The RedRover Readers program is a literature-based, social and emotional learning program designed to promote empathy. Educators learn how to ask specific questions and invite students into the stories. They invite children to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences in the context of animal- themed books about kindness and relationships. So, while reading books at night, I ask my son questions, and we delve into the story by taking the perspectives of each character to help him imagine how they might be feeling and what he might do if he was in that situation.

My intention as both a parent and an educator is to foster empathy and awareness in children – which contributes not only to their own wellbeing, but to a kinder, more compassionate world at large. By now, using SEL strategies with my son is second nature, and it is deeply rewarding to see how the social and emotional skills he has learned continue to develop and even influence those around him.

RedRover is a national non-profit organization helping to strengthen the bond between people and animals and bring animals from crisis to care through emergency sheltering, disaster relief services, financial assistance and education.

Karly is a parent and former classroom teacher who oversees the national RedRover Readers program. She has led workshops on topics including parenting, SEL, self-care and humane education. She lives in Sacramento, CA with her young son, husband, two dogs and one cat.

4 Comments on “Promoting Empathy and Kindness through Books on Animals and More…”

  1. Hi Jen,

    Wonderful as always.

    I’ve been working with the zoo and members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra on a series about animals. Here is a sneak peak, it will be released in late January:

    Password is Lettuce

    Your old friend,



    • Zak! Oh my goodness! Thank you for that amazing sneak preview! She is crazy cute! No wonder everyone loves her! Hope you really did get to swim with her. 🙂 What a fabulous song! Smart, creative and fun – as always! 🙂 LOVE it! Hope it’s a smashing success! It should be! Thanks for sharing. All the best, (who’s old?!) Jenn

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