A daily dose of literature can enhance children's mental wellbeing
Do your pupils read in their spare time? Or, perhaps more importantly, do they read for pleasure? We all know that reading is great for academic reasons, but how about mental health?
Children as young as primary age are struggling. Depression and anxiety can be counted among the issues young people are facing, and 27% of teachers said that those with symptoms were aged between 7-11, according to recent research by the NASUWT teaching union.
In the midst of cuts to specialist support, what’s a teacher to do? Reading and mental wellbeing are possibly not things that seem obviously linked, but they are something I’ve been passionate about throughout my career working with young people.
I’ve found that children who enjoy reading, and who read for pleasure, often have a high level of mental wellbeing. Reading can play a vital role in helping young people cope with daily life. It’s more important than ever to encourage a love of reading, especially when the growing pressures of exams and daily life can all too often take it away.
In my experience, reading, especially fiction, can be a form of therapy for young people. It has been suggested that reading boosts confidence and self-esteem, and the more stories we read, the more we empathise. When children read about people like themselves and characters they relate to, it can help to quell feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reading helps us to understand each other; emotional intelligence is vital for today’s children who are learning how to face a multitude of pressures both academically and at home.
As a primary teacher, there are a number of ways to encourage your pupils to read for pleasure, and to boost their mental wellbeing.
Guided reading is the perfect way to lift the focus from a potentially self-conscious child. Fictional stories are often great starting points for discussions around tricky topics. Try reading the story together a couple of times, and if the child is facing a particular issue – bullying, for example – find a passage which resonates to help them to talk about it. Repeating a story once or twice is no bad thing – it shows that children are interested.
Talking about a character might help children recall certain challenging experiences in their own lives, and thus help them to confront and discuss them. Seeing a character they relate to resolving conflicts lets children explore ways of dealing with issues which may be too difficult for them to confront otherwise. Discussing fictional problems can also help children to explore difficult issues in reality, and to build an understanding of different relationships.
Good habits often start at home, and it’s never too early to start. In fact, reading at home is one of the biggest indicators of academic achievement. This is why the more you can do to encourage reading with a parent or guardian, the better. Ask parents to read with their child at least once a day, preferably one-on-one – this way there are fewer distractions, and the book they are reading can be matched to the child’s level, rather than a younger sibling’s. Physical contact with loved ones while reading is also great – it releases happy hormones and helps children bond and associate reading with positivity, thus boosting their mental wellbeing.
The move to secondary school can be a crucial time in a child’s development, and according to the National Literacy Trust it is also a time when reading for pleasure decreases, alongside mental wellbeing.
As well as being useful tools when it comes to helping children look at past experiences, reading can also be helpful when it comes to preparation. If a big event is on the horizon, reading about the experience beforehand is a great way to familiarise children and help them comes to terms with what is to come.
Elaine Bousfield trained as a counsellor and has worked in mental health. She is the founder of ZunTold Publishing, a new publisher of fiction for children and young people. The first two titles in ZunTold’s Gangster School series are now available to buy.