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Marissa is the Chief of Staff at the non-profit Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma where she overuses sticky notes and obsesses over new teacher development. She is a former Tulsa Public...
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5 Books That Help Students Manage Disappointment

Even for a 5th grader, Aidy was energetic. But today she could barely quiet her gangly limbs from tapping desks and rattling against her chair. She had waited all month to visit her mother in prison so when the day finally arrived, she was perfectly prepared with a tidy pink hair bow and tiny heeled dress shoes. As she crammed her coat into a messy locker, she confidently explained how her aunt would pick her up early from school and they would eat burgers wrapped in crinkly paper on the way see her mother. 

As the afternoon rolled on, Aidy’s eager fidgeting turned agitated. By the end-of-school bell--long after her opportunity to see her mother had passed--she melted into sniffling disappointment.

While not all kids experience Aidy’s crushing disappointment at missing a parental visit, life is full of letdowns. Kids watch with dismay as parents separate or become ill, as financial stress means no birthday gifts or things just don’t go as planned.

Most teachers heartily agree that handling disappointment is crucial for school and adulthood success, but supporting students racked with disappointment can feel complicated. Teachers are pressed for time and often feel untrained for the social-emotional support that students in crisis need.

One simple but effective way to support disappointed students is to use bibliotherapy, a technique in which teachers select literature that guides students towards personal solutions. For a student mourning the loss of a friendship, a teacher can choose a text with a protagonist dealing with similar disappointment. As the characters in the text learn to manage their emotions and learn new coping skills, students do too.

The most important aspect of choosing a text to help students manage disappointment is a relatable story. Novels are often a natural choice but any genre, length, and style can work. A comic book with a strong disappointment story line can have the same impact as a piece of historical fiction. If you need a place to start, we’ve suggested a few books below as a place to start.

New Kid by Jerry Craft is a great pick for middle grade students faced with disappointing school changes or sudden life changes. In this just-released graphic novel, protagonist Jordan Banks doesn’t want to switch middle schools but his parents insist that he leave his cozy neighborhood for the rich halls of Riverdale Academy Day School. Upon arrival, there’s plenty to be sad about. Jordan doesn’t know anyone, gets lost regularly on campus, and immediately gets booted from his chosen cafeteria table. As one of the few black students on campus, Jordan also faces regular microaggressions as teachers call him the wrong name and classmates overlook his art talent and instead assume he is an athlete. Hand this book to middle grade students who can learn from Jordan’s savvy approach to managing his disappointment, making new friends, and deciding when to stick up for himself. 

For younger students, the picture book I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien is a great way to explore the disappointments and surprises that come with attending school in a new country. The book follows three immigrant students as they tackle new challenges instead of giving up at every setback. This book works great as a read-aloud to teach students how to support their friends who face challenges and disappointments.

Younger students will love Roda Ahmed’s beautifully illustrated book, Mae Among the Stars. Based on the story of Mae Carol Jemison, the first African American woman in space, the book follows a young Mae who is wracked with disappointment when her teacher suggests that she isn’t cut out to be an astronaut and should focus on an easier profession. Read this book with little ones who can learn alongside of Mae as she re-focuses on her goals and puts in the work to follow her dream of going into space.

For a lighter read about how to respond to disappointment, Bad Seed by Jory John, follows a tiny seed who is horrified to be spit out of someone’s mouth at a baseball game. In reaction to this disappointing turn of events, he spirals into rude responses and refusal to wash his hands. This picture book is a perfect way to talk with elementary school students about how responses to disappointment impact ourselves and others.

For middle grade struggling with friend-related disappointment, grab Out of My Mind by Sharon Draper or Wonder by RJ Palacio. Both main characters struggle to when people let them down, leave them out, or ignore them altogether. In both books, the main characters muster the courage to face their disappointment and confront other people’s expectations.

The texts we suggest are just a starting point. We suggest keeping a list of books about disappointment to access during particularly tough moments. The important thing to consider is how the characters or problems relate to students.

Robin Harris teaches gifted and talented courses at an elementary school in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You can find her cozied up with a picture book at her local independent bookstore. Marissa King is the Chief of Staff at the Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma and a former Tulsa Public Schools teacher. She still visits former students at lunch.