The Use of Biographies to Develop Social and Emotional Learning Competencies

Cindy D'On Jones
Chantal Wahlquist
Holli Humphrey Baker
Kourtney Schut


The roles and potentials of classroom social and emotional learning (SEL) are receiving increased attention. The authors describe the competencies students can achieve and some associated benefits. They introduce biographies as a way to integrate social and emotional learning with language arts curriculum, along with an easy procedure for doing this. Several books with strong SEL potential are presented and reviewed.

As educators work to prepare students to be successful in their future endeavors, the role of social and emotional learning is becoming more prominent, due in part to the challenge of serving students with varied motivations and abilities for learning (Learning First Alliance, 2001). Over time students who lack social and emotional competencies may become disinterested and disconnected from school and show signs of academic struggles, which may lead to feelings of further disconnect from the academic setting. 

The level of disengagement with schools is concerning, with one report stating that 40-60% of students are "chronically disengaged" by the time they reach high school (Klem & Connell, 2004). Supporting social and emotional learning though school-based instruction is recognized as a way to promote engagement and accomplishment in school and in life (Zeng, Benner, & Silva, 2016).

To aid educators in implementing social and emotional learning, several organizations are supporting its advancement through research, policy, and practice. The world's leading organization for social and emotional learning is the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). Founded in 1994, CASEL's goal is "establishing high-quality, evidence-based social and emotional learning as an essential part of preschool through high school education" (CASEL, 2017a, p 1). Another organization, announced in September 2016 as "one of the most important developments in the field of education in the past 20 years," is the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development (CASEL, 2017b, p. 1). This Commission seeks to advance "a new vision for what constitutes success in schools: the full integration of social, emotional, and academic development to ensure every student is prepared to thrive in school and in life" (Learning Policy Institute, 2016, p. 1). Additional support for social and emotional learning is provided by recent policy interest, including the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 which broadened the definition of student success to include consideration of students' social-emotional development (Melnick, Cook-Harvey, & Darling-Hammond, 2017).  

Competencies of Social and Emotional Learning

Social and emotional learning (SEL) is "the process by which children and adults learn to understand and manage emotions, maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions" (O'Conner, Feyter, Carr, Luo, & Romm, 2017, p 1). Elias (2006) suggested that character education, service learning, emotional intelligence, and citizen education can be expressed in the single term social and emotional learning. CASEL (2012, p. 9) identified five interrelated competency clusters of SEL. 

  • Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one's emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one's strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
  • Self-management: The ability to regulate one's emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  • Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
  • Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  • Responsible decision making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions considering ethical standards, safety issues, and social norms, as well as realistically evaluating the consequences of various actions and attending to the well-being of self and others.

These competencies help students succeed in a social world and enable them to accomplish their goals (Melnick et al., 2017). Educators can help students develop SEL competencies by teaching the skills explicitly, using engaging instructional materials, and guiding students to practice applying their learning.

Benefits of SEL

Development of SEL competencies has been shown to enhance academic performance, improve attitudes toward school, and promote positive changes in behavior (Jennings & Greenberg, 2009; Zins & Elias, 2006). A meta-analysis of 213 studies involving over 270,000 kindergarten through high school students indicated that SEL instruction increased academic success, as reflected by an 11% achievement gain (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011). In fact, researchers have suggested that a focus on developing SEL competencies in elementary school "holds promise for closing the achievement gap" (Blair & Raver, 2014). 

Furthermore, attaining SEL competencies has long-term effects in relation to academic success, career achievement, and overall well-being (Jones, Greenberg, & Crowley, 2015). SEL competencies are associated with increased rates of graduation, employment, and income; low SEL competencies are correlated with increased behavioral issues, mental health problems, drug use, and criminal behavior (Kautz et al., 2014). A cost-benefit analysis projected that for every dollar spent for rigorous SEL development, there is an eleven dollar return due to these long-term effects (Belfield et al., 2015). Given the importance of SEL competencies, development of these skills should be embedded in existing academic curriculum throughout a student's years in school (World Economic Forum, 2016). 

Biographies as Texts to Develop SEL Competencies

To strengthen development of SEL competencies, students must be exposed to information that requires interpretation, analysis, and acceptable responses (Crick & Dodge, 1996). Although the availability of SEL programs is increasing, many schools have limited resources to acquire these programs (Durlak et al., 2011; Zins & Elias, 2006). As educators seek to incorporate SEL instruction, they must consider how current curricular materials can be used with a focus on developing social and emotional competencies. Fortunately, SEL instruction can be integrated with English language arts instruction through studying biographies as students consider perspective, identify alternative solutions, or anticipate situational consequences (CASEL, 2012). 

The use of biographies offers several advantages for the development of social and emotional competencies. Biographies allow students to explore possibilities, gain connectedness, develop creative reasoning, and ponder other perspectives (Langer, 2011). Students can emotionally connect to life experiences that may be the same or quite different from their own (Barone, 2015). Biographies offer an authentic context in which cognitive, social, and emotional interactions can take place (Morrow, Tracey, & Healey, 2012).              

A simple outline to aid SEL instruction with biographies is the acronym IDEA.

I Identify the SEL competency to be taught, including texts that address the competency.

D   Develop think alouds to emphasize the SEL components of the text.

E   Explicitly describe, model, and discuss the SEL competency, including ways the text reflects the competency.

A   Apply the SEL skills through role play, discussion, and other collaborative tasks to reinforce the use of SEL competencies.

Outline of Sample IDEA Lesson

Identify SEL competency. This lesson will focus on the SEL competency ofself-management, which includes developing self-motivation and working toward and achieving goals (Casel, 2012). Several texts could be used to promote students' understanding and progress in developing self-management. This lesson highlights one text, Marie Curie by L.W. McCormick.

Develop think aloudsThese three think alouds could be used with this text (corresponding page numbers given).

  1. Pages 9-10 describe how Marie Curie was a good student, finishing college in only three years, and how she dedicated her life to science, working so hard that she sometimes "forgot to eat."

    Think aloud. Marie Curie really had what we call self-management. Most people need four years to finish college. Marie had a goal to get her college degree, and she must have studied very hard to get it in just three years. And she graduated with degrees in two very hard subjects¾math and physics. In her time these were not areas that attracted many women. But Marie wasn't like many women. She was motivated to do scientific work and determined to meet the challenges she faced. Can you imagine working so hard you forgot to eat?

  2. Pages 15-17 describe how working with the radium caused Marie to get sick and how she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

    Think aloud. Marie's self-management was so strong, she not only worked when she was hungry, she worked when she was sick. The dangers of radium were not fully understood in her time. Marie knew that radium was making her sick, but she also knew that it had the potential to help people. So she was motivated to keep working toward her goals. Marie's work was recognized by scientists of her time; she was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. Today we appreciate her sacrifice. X-ray machines were invented because of her work. And radium helps people with cancer.

  3. Pages 18-21 describe how Marie remained dedicated even with daunting challenges in her life, and how this hard work enabled her to win a second Nobel Prize.

    Think aloud. What we are reading about Marie's life tells us how she showed self-management, although her life became very difficult. Even after her husband, who was her research partner, died, she kept working toward her goals. Marie won a second Nobel Prize; she was the first person¾man or woman¾ to win two Nobel Prizes. Her motivation and hard work changed the world, and we still benefit from the things she did.

Explain how the text reflects the competency. Through reading this text about Marie Curie and using these think alouds, teachers can explain and demonstrate the SEL competency of self-management. We recommend that teachers continue to discuss self-management by reading additional texts and engaging in more think alouds focused on the same competency. Students can better understand the competency through numerous examples in various settings of people they learn about in the biographies.

Apply the SEL skills to reinforce the competencies. After reading and discussing the SEL competency, teachers can engage students in collaborative tasks that help them further apply the SEL competency. Here are three example tasks related to the text Marie Curie with a focus on self-management.

  1. Role play. Have students role play what Marie Curie might have said when someone tried to discourage her from working on her goals.

    In Marie's time most people thought that women didn't need an education and that science was something men did—not women. Marie often heard comments like this: "You're a woman. You don't need a college degree
    ¾it's too much work. And science? Science is too hard." What do you think Marie would have said to someone who told her this?

  2. Discussion. Engage students in discussions focused on the SEL competency that involve the information presented in the text.

    How are our lives better because Marie Curie had good self-management skills?" 

  3. Collaborative Writing. Encourage students to consider ways they can exhibit the SEL competency as Marie Curie did.

    Everyone tell your partner about something that is hard for you (for example, doing math, catching a baseball, playing the piano). Talk about how self-management (motivation and working toward your goals) can help you. Write a paragraph about this together. 

Selection of Biographies

We suggest the following biographies for teachers to use in promoting development of the SEL competency self-management.

Biography: A Boy Called Slow by J. Bruchac. 1994. New York: Philomel Books.

Brief Summary: This is the story of challenges faced by the boy who would become a great leader as Sitting Bull.
Noticeable Features

SEL Related Character Traits of the Person: Sitting Bull was slow at everything he did as a child. He even grow slowly; he was short. But as he developed self-management, he developed the courage and determination for which he is well known.

Additional Teaching Connections: Cultural influences. Inclusion of Lakota legends and traditions. 

Biography: Coming Home: From the Life of Langston Hughes by Floyd Cooper. 1994. New York: Putnam & Grosset Group. 

Brief Summary: Langston Hughes grew up in poverty. Hee often dreamed of having a happy, welcoming home. The story relates how he found it.

SEL Related Character Traits of the Person: Lanston struggled with problems of poverty. On one occasion he had to wear women's shoes because his grandmother couldn't afford new ones. He escaped at first by daydreaming. But he as he worked with his talents for listening to and learning about people and for writing incredible poetry and prose, he learned to find his own welcoming place.

Additional Teaching Connections: Importance of storytelling, listening, and oral language

Biography: The Perfect Wizard: Hans Christian Andersen by J. Yolen. 2004. New York: Penguin Books.

Brief Summary: This book details the hardships of Andersen's life and the multiple failures he faced trying to be an actor and a writer.

Noticeable Features of the Book: Includes quotations from Andersen's own stories.

SEL Related Character Traits of the Person: As a child Hans struggled with the challenges of poverty and a dysfunctional family. His grandfather, who was known as "terribly mad," would wander in the woods. His grandmother incessantly told lies. His father died when Hans was age 11. Hans needed more self-regulation; he did not do well in school because of his storytelling. He loved the theatre, and he had a passion to write. He did work hard for these things. His writing is still read and treasured today, but he was not always successful during his lifetime.

Additional Teaching Connections: Oral language to teach folklore and superstitions. Origin of fairy tales.


Although social and emotional learning may have previously been "placed on the sidelines, seen as a distraction from academics" (Melnick et al., 2017, p. ix), its importance is coming to the forefront of education. The development of SEL competencies can be effectively embedded into classroom literacy instruction by teaching biographies that contain SEL content (Shechtman & Yaman, 2012). As teachers identify, explain, model, and guide students to discuss and apply SEL competencies to diverse situations, these skills will become part of their behavioral repertoire, leading to the benefits associated with social and emotional competence and well-being.

Cindy D'on Jones is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Leadership at Utah State University, specializing in literacy education and classroom instruction. She also serves as director of the department's Literacy Clinic. Cindy holds a current Level 3 Utah Professional Educator License, and she continues to work in public schools providing professional development about reading and writing instruction.

Chantal Wahlquist is an undergraduate student at Utah State University. She has worked as a tutor in the USU Literacy Clinic, participating as an undergraduate teaching fellow. Chantal will be doing her student teaching this spring in Italy, after which she will graduate with degrees in early childhood and elementary education.

Holli Humphrey Baker is an undergraduate student at Utah State University, studying elementary education and hoping to teach in a dual language immersion setting. She will be graduating in spring and is excited about starting as a teacher in the Wasatch Front area. She has worked in the Literacy Clinic at USU as an undergraduate teaching fellow and a tutor, and she loves the experiences and opportunities that have come through her time there.

Kourtney Schut is an undergraduate student at Utah State University who will graduate with degrees in early childhood and elementary education this spring. During her studies at Utah State, she has enjoyed participating as a tutor at the Literacy Clinic. She is planning to use what she has learned during this experience to enhance her teaching.


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Elias & H. Arnold (Eds.) The educator's guide to emotional intelligence and academic achievement (pp. 4-14). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

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Klem, A. M., & Connell, J. P. (2004). Relationships matter: Linking teacher support to student engagement and achievement. Journal of School Health, 74, 262–273.

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Morrow, L. M., Tracey, D. H., & Healey, K. M. (2013). Reading standards for literature: Developing comprehension. In L. M. Morrow, T. Shanahan, & K.K. Wixson (Eds.), Teaching with the common core standards for English language arts: PreK–2 (pp. 22-45). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

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(Eds.), Children's needs III: Development, prevention, and intervention (pp. 1–13). Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists.

References for Children's Biographies

Bruchac, J. (1994). A boy called slow. New York, NY: Philomel Books.

Cooper, F. (1994). Coming home: From the life of Langston Hughes. New York, NY: Putnam & Grosset Group.

McCormick, L. W. (2006). Marie Curie. New York, NY: Children's Press.

Yolen, J. (2004). The perfect wizard: Hans Christian Andersen. New York, NY: Penguin Books.