SEL Themed Children’s Literature with Possibilities for Music Integration

Debbie Beninati has over twenty years of experience teaching elementary general music, elementary orchestra, early childhood music, private piano lessons, and substituting in the regular elementary classroom. Ten years of her general music experience has been in Title I schools and five of those years were at Sandy Elementary–in Canyons School District–as a BTSArts Music Specialist. She graduated with a Bachelor of Music Education from the University of Colorado and a Master of Arts in Teaching Fine Arts from the University of Utah. She currently serves as the BTSArts Music Professional Development Partner for the University of Utah Region.

SEL themed children’s Literature with possibilities for music integration:


Our Class is a Family by Shannon Olsen

This book is a wonderful way to introduce yourself within the context of the classroom as a whole—especially if you are on a cart, pushing into each homeroom. It presents families of all shapes, sizes, colors, and configurations and explores ways in which classrooms function as a family. It can also serve as a jumping-off point for whatever musical warm-up or ice-breaker activity you plan to use.


I Promise by LeBron James

LeBron James has given us a way to create a dialogue with our students about personal conduct, responsibility, and accountability. This story can be used to create a Safe Space Contract between members of the classroom community that reaches beyond the basic school rules. After reading the story, the students and teacher—together—can generate three to four “We will” statements as guiding principles for conduct that all agree to follow. This should be a student-led, teacher-facilitated discussion. Students I have worked with have generated statements like, “We will be our best selves,” and “We will respect our time together.” The final contract is signed by everyone—even the teacher—and displayed on a large piece of butcher paper or poster board each day the class meets for music. For more behavior management ideas, click on this YouTube link:

You Matter by Christian Robinson

This story celebrates and values diversity. In addition to being a wonderful way to welcome a class back to school, the text can be used to create ostinati–using spoken chant and body percussion–to create a complete four-part, layered rhythmic piece. To see how to put this together, click on this YouTube link:

Grumpy Monkey by Suzanne Lang and How Are You Peeling by Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers

These stories validate emotions and feelings during a time when students are experiencing a multitude of changes to their daily lives. In addition, they help students expand their emotional vocabulary to express what they might be experiencing. What they glean from the stories can be used as a launching point for sustained, active listening and musical interpretation. Some possible prompts to engage students in a musical listening exercise are:

  1. What do you think the title of this piece should be?
  2. If you could choose an emoji to represent the mood of this music, what would it be? It may be helpful to display examples of emojis that students can choose from on an emoji bulletin board.
  3. Pretend this music is from a movie soundtrack. Describe or draw the scene you imagined.
  4. What music vocabulary can you think of that matches what you heard? This is helpful if you have a music vocabulary word wall.

Some suggested listening examples:

Music-focused children’s literature with possibilities for SEL integration:

Because by Mo Willems

The musical value of this story is evident because it starts with a composition by Beethoven and ends with a concert of original music by the main character. Beyond the musical ideas presented, the book highlights how our lives are influenced by and connected to others. Discussions can be launched with sentence prompts like, “Because _______, I was able to finish my homework,” or Because________, I had a great day.” These ideas and more come from this resource: Because by Mo Willems activities – Book Companion on Teacher Pay Teacher

Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo by John Lithgow

This delightful book introduces instruments of the orchestra as well as an abundance of new vocabulary. The main character overcomes his initial terror and exasperation and just “rolls with it,” only to discover he was dreaming all along. Retelling the story with a new title provides students the opportunity to turn something potentially frightening into something funny. Potential titles could be: “Never Play Soccer, Never Have a Dance-Off, Never Have a Food Truck, Never Build a Library, or Never Have a Birthday Party Right Next to the Zoo.” Bonus: the hardback edition comes with a CD!

Questions or comments? Contact me at

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