The headlines and the frontlines agree on one important effect of the pandemic: Young people are struggling with mental health challenges like never before. It is difficult to determine if there are actually more cases of mental health challenges. Maybe students found their voices and some autonomy during COVID learning so they are more vocal about expressing their need for help. Or maybe there has been a rise in youth mental health crises due to uncertainty, isolation, and social media use over the last two years. Regardless, our students are counting on us, the adults in their lives, to help them.
Reading provides academic, physical, mental, and relational benefits and more. In a previous blog post, “Just Let them Read,”and webinar by the same name, we explore the many academic and social benefits students gain when provided time and encouragement for reading during the school day. Plus, when we provide time to read in school, educators can join in too, reaping the health benefits along with their students.
Today, let’s explore the benefits of reading that will surely improve students’ social and emotional well-being.
Reading Reduces Stress
When we read a book we enjoy, it is proven to reduce stress. After just six minutes of reading, stress is reduced by 68%. This reduction is greater than when listening to music or taking a walk. If stress relief is the goal, it is important that students read books that provide an escape or allow them to experience pleasure while reading, and not something that could be upsetting.
Reading Can Help Alleviate Feelings of Isolation and Depression
When readers immerse themselves in a story, fiction or nonfiction, they escape their own thoughts for a while. This can be a helpful strategy when students are experiencing anxious thoughts. Often characters demonstrate strategies for coping. Some of these strategies are healthy and show students what they can do when they are struggling. Other times, characters cope with their challenges in destructive ways, showing readers what not to do.
Often for individuals who struggle with anxiety and depression, the most challenging time of the day is bedtime. The quiet invites thoughts that are loud and difficult to turn off. Fortunately, reading has been proven to help us fall asleep and stay asleep. Physiologically, we are stimulated by the hormones that are released when we feel anxiety. But because reading is proven to relax us, and books provide an escape from the reality of our own thoughts, we are much more likely to fall asleep when we end our day and begin our nighttime routine with a book. So, what does this mean for educators?
First, we need to be patient with students who fall asleep reading in school. They haven’t built up the stamina to stay alert and it is a sign that they are relaxing into the book. Second, we need to commit to getting students hooked on books so they are excited to keep reading at home and will open one as they crawl into bed.
Reading Promotes Empathy and Improves Interpersonal Communication
Reading is a strategy for helping students develop empathy and build social skills. Reading “literary fiction may help us deal with complex social relationships and develop empathy for others,” states Dr. Douglas P. Zipes in a Saturday Evening Post article. Failure to develop strong interpersonal communication skills leads to fractured relationships, conflict, and even anti-social behavior. When we read the stories of others, we emotionally and intellectually interact with the characters, plot, and setting of the fictional story. This interactive relationship provides an opportunity for the reader to reflect and grow.
In my current role of supporting educators to improve literacy outcomes for adolescents, I often hear requests for programs (usually computer) or packages to help our kids get better at reading. I also hear requests for programs (usually computer) or packages to promote social and emotional learning goals. It is in the absolute best interest of our students to set those requests aside and instead invest in books. Books for our libraries, books for our classrooms, and books for our students to take home to have on their nightstands. We are at a time in our country where a lot of funds have been dispersed to schools to support student learning. Let’s use that money for books.