How often do you read to your child? How much do you read each time you read to your child? Reading has been shown to be the single most predictive variable for success in school……but what if that is a very narrow view of the importance of reading?
It is true that reading to your child from an early age will help them learn language skills crucial to effective communication. Those language skills are also the foundation for learning math and science. Having a child within the deaf community I have witnessed the importance of reading in the development of language first-hand. What if that was not the most beneficial picture of what reading can provide our children?
I would like you to take a moment to reflect on the last time you spent reading with your child or children. Was it hurried because you’ve had a long day and just need the kids to go to bed so you can have your down time or catch up on household chores? Were you clenching your jaw because you’ve asked your child 20 million time to put on their pajamas, and you know you are speaking clearly, yet they are still half naked trying to have a conversation with you…or doing anything but putting those jammies on? Did they asked you to read yet another book and you’ve surpassed your threshold for needing your adult time?
Bedtime routines can be exhausting, which includes the ritual of reading to your child. I would like you to take a moment to consider a new view of reading to your children. What if reading, as the most important predictor for academic success, does not simply teach your child language skills but also helps your child form secure attachment to their primary caregiver, YOU. Children who are securely attached to their primary caregivers, often their biological parent(s), typically thrive in school. They also demonstrate healthier emotional regulation which leads to few problems in school, like being sent to the principal’s office.
How can reading help with emotional regulation? Well, we know from various research studies that appropriate physical contact, such as snuggles, releases neurotransmitters that reduce cortisol levels and help us relax. If you snuggle up to read, your presence alone is a stress reducer and natural antianxiety therapy for your child. At my house, we have a special reading chair, complete with special blankets. The first blanket is a fleecy warm blanket to feel a little cocooned. The second blanket is a less comfy, heavier blanket to provide a small amount of “deep” pressure which contributes to a feeling of calm. This dual blanket system is a similar concept to a weighted blanket without spending the money for such an expensive item.
Another way that reading may help children regulate themselves is the routine of reading before bedtime, or whenever you choose to read. As you read, the neurotransmitters mentioned above can make you both a little drowsy, or at least very relaxed. Often what happens is the breath of parent and child synch up. A calming affect! In my experience, the rhythm of my breathing can put my child to sleep if they have had a stressful day. The rhythmic sound of your voice can also be soothing. Having a regularly schedule time where these things happen helps the body anticipate this time and creates a healthy habit for calming our minds and bodies every day.
Okay. We have talked about the biological factors that can help your child regulate themselves. Now, let’s talk about YOUR creative role in the self-regulating process. First up are your inflection skills. You’re what skills? Your inflection skills! Reading teaches children about emotions when we read with inflection in our voices. This is not a natural skill for everyone, including me. Eventually I got the hang of it, and you will too. Use different voices for characters. You probably won’t be a Robin Williams. It’s okay though. Your child will not care. Give your characters inflections that represent the emotion the story reports for them. The best way to achieve this goal is to imagine yourself in the story. Your child will likely develop an understanding of a broad range of emotions and develop emotional flexibility.
You need to select a large variety of story lines as well. Different story lines will further the development of emotional flexibility. Different story lines will also expose your child to more circumstances than they are likely to experience on their own. Experience is the best teacher, when you can get it. The second-best teacher is a story. Children develop some of their problem-solving skills through reading stories that present various problematic circumstances that require a solution. Ask your child what they think happens next before you turn the page to teach them how to think of solutions on their own rather than being handed instructions. Ask your child what the characters are feeling before the story tells them.
As they mature, select more complex story lines so your children will continue to be challenged to solve problems. Make sure you pick story lines that include an interpersonal relationship problem. It does not have to be a dramatic problem, just a problem that creates an interpersonal relationship decision. The more problem-solving capacity a child has the less likely they are to be emotionally rattled by the unexpected, such as activity transitions or someone else’s behaviors. They also become skilled in assessing their environment for non-verbal communication, which also helps with emotional flexibility and regulation.
So…what book are you going to pick up next at the library?