The mental health and well being of young people is increasingly becoming an educational priority. Recognising that there is now greater awareness of the importance of good mental health in educational settings, Damian Hinds stated in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference this month that mental health education would be introduced in schools ‘over the next couple of years.’ However, a report released by The National Literacy Trust last week suggested that we might already have a powerful tool for well-being in our classrooms and homes – books. The report found that children who are the most engaged with reading are three times more likely to have high levels of mental well being than those who are least engaged. This finding will not be a surprise to neo-Aristotelians who agree that the arts can be used to sensitise pupils to ethical questions, help emotions become virtuous dispositions and promote critical thinking – all leading towards a flourishing life (Sanderse, 2012).
The National Literacy Trust surveyed 49, 047 young people aged 8-18 and included questions about attitudes to reading and writing, current attainment and, for the first time this year, questions about well being (which was conceptualised as self-belief, coping skills and life satisfaction). Interestingly, it is reading enjoyment and attitudes towards reading that have a relationship with mental well-being, while reading attainment is not a significant predictor (Clark and Goff, 2018). Therefore, all children, regardless of reading ability, can benefit from the therapeutic value of a book. There was also no correlation between the frequency of reading and reported levels of well being, suggesting that it is the content of what is being read rather than the physical act of reading which matters (ibid).
In light of these encouraging findings, how do teachers and parents harness the power of reading to support the well being of young people? Children do what they see, so having adults who role model enjoyment of reading both at home and in the classroom is hugely important. From my experience as a teacher, my pupils engaged most with books that I am passionate about – enthusiasm is infectious! From an Aristotelian perspective, this relationship between child and role-model can be mutually beneficial in terms of virtue development. The child, through emulation, seeks to develop the love of reading that the adult possesses while the child can enhance the adult’s virtues of open-mindedness, optimism and courage that come from a life less tainted by experience (Kristjansson, 2006). TTYTThe Literacy Trust found that content seemed to be more important than frequency when it comes to well being, so providing children with a wide range of high-quality books that meet their interests could nurture a love of reading. I found that, in my classroom, comics and graphic novels worked really well to enthuse some of my more reluctant readers! Finally, creating a positive environment for children to read in could encourage them to pick up a book. In a classroom, this might be a themed reading corner with bean bags, book recommendations and some attractive decorations. There is a wealth of really creative ideas online to inspire you. At home, this might be a comfy chair with blankets or a routine of reading while tucked up in bed.
As an adult, books are my refuge from both the minor and major stresses of everyday life and I can’t think of any greater strategy for well being to pass onto a child. If you would like some book recommendations for children, focused on discussing and exploring virtues, please visit: https://www.jubileecentre.ac.uk/1764/character-education/parent-resources and to read the full report from The National Literacy Trust, visit: https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/mental-wellbeing-reading-and-writing/
Rachael Hunter is a Research Fellow at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
Clark, C and Teravainen-Goff, A (2018) Mental Well being, reading and writing [online] The National Literacy Trust. Available at: https://literacytrust.org.uk/research-services/research-reports/mental-wellbeing-reading-and-writing/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2018].
Kristjánsson, K. (2006). Parents and Children as Friends. Journal of Social Philosophy, 37(2), pp.250-265
Sanderse, W. (2012) Character Education: A Neo-Aristotelian Approach to the Philosophy, Psychology and Education of Virtue, Eburon Academic Publishers, Delft.