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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Founder and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Barbara Howard, MD

Reach Out and Read Redux

When I speak with parents and colleagues about the well-being of today’s youth, the nearly unanimous cry is the negative effects of social media. But then, after a few moments of silence, they say, “I don’t know how we can stop it. The genie is out of the bottle.”

The helplessness we as responsible adults and professionals feel about our inability to change this cultural shift to youth fixation on social media and its increasingly clear impact on depression, anxiety, self-esteem, and even suicide is profound. In China, the country has “simply” regulated access to the Internet for children to 2 hours per day and blocked many websites. But such universal restriction is not likely in the United States. We need some other solutions.

A solution for all ages

Reach Out and Read, an international program promoting early relational health and literacy by encouraging and modeling reading and handing out books to families with children aged 0-5 years, has significant evidence for improving child development and parent-child interaction.

But why stop promoting reading and the associated parent-child bonding at 5 years old? Academic progress, child mental health and well-being, and family relationships are all currently in trouble and could all benefit from more reading. As pediatric providers for all ages of children and youth, we can effectively promote reading as part of preventive care, not just for the youngest.

Reading fluency is a key factor in academic success. A study from 2019, before the pandemic, found that by the end of high school, students were reading 19% slower than were students of a similar age 50 years ago. The possible reasons, among many, include poverty with its effect on vocabulary, modeling and access to books, hours on social media, and less unstructured time to read for pleasure. With less reading comes less practice. Reading then doesn’t feel as comfortable and is avoided.

The pandemic made measures of academic level even worse, with reading fluency in second and third grade now about 30% behind what would be expected. Reading fluency and comprehension becomes more critical for future academic progress beginning in third grade when “learning to read” shifts to “reading to learn.” Educators are doing their best to catch children up but with limited support resources, and families need strategies to help their children.

Early strategies to promote reading by discussing the benefits with parents of bedtime stories and sharing books seem easy in comparison to encouraging school-aged children and older youth to read. But there are good reasons and strategies to persist.

Reading can help a child’s mental health as well as development. After a day at school, picking up another book may seem to the parent like more homework. But “reading for pleasure” is different. Reading has been shown to lower heart rate and muscle tension and reduces stress by as much as 68% in minutes, even lowering cortisol and activating pleasure centers of the brain. An immersive story can distract one from worries and be a real escape; the opposite of looking at social media online where peer comparisons and a constant stream of nasty comments 24/7 are culprits producing anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and suicide. Books that have characters going through similar struggles as those of the youth provide a sense of not being alone with these stresses and generally include models of problem-solving and resolution that can inspire hopefulness. Joining (or starting) a kids’ or parent-child book club offers a chance to socialize with a nonjudgmental shared focus. There are books with content about all sorts of topics that may be areas the child or youth have as life and career goals that may help them gain new ideas and confidence as well as knowledge and skills. Having clear ideas about future roles is one way to reduce the chance of developing depression and even suicide.

Reading a book, ideally illuminated by a warm colored light, assists in falling asleep, a huge issue for many youth. This is valuable in itself as inadequate sleep is a large contributor to the worsening of many mental conditions. In contrast, the blue light from computer screens makes it harder to fall asleep. When reading a book is a bedtime habit, just as for babies and toddlers and whether read to by a parent (no age is too old!) or reading alone, the routine itself helps prepare the brain to transition into sleep.

Encouraging good habits

But how can parents get their children away from scanning the Internet to reading books? The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests setting time blocks for the day designated for school, exercise, homework, media, and sleep with a goal of a healthy balance. Reading could be added to the family’s plan. Making reading in the same room with parents a regular habit both models reading (as parents have to get offline, too!) and sets up an opportunity to ask questions and converse about the reading materials, thereby building family relationships. Children are notorious for being recalcitrant about talking “about their day” when coming home from school. Having a less personal and intrusive subject to talk about creates a favorable setting for precious parent-child discussions. Some families read aloud to each other. This comes up naturally when reading a clip from a newspaper or magazine. It is especially valuable and inclusive for younger children who may not yet be able to read that level of material.

Getting creative

Some other strategies to promote reading include bringing books, magazines, or even comics with subjects that interest the child or youth into the house and leaving them around without comment. Getting started on a book series (Nancy Drew, Harry Potter, etc.) that is captivating provides extra incentive. Parents can talk about their favorites from their childhood, some of which are timeless! Families may need to be creative and find literature about the online characters from video games or movies that already interest their child, even if those are not seen as ideal learning material. Not commenting on the presence of the reading material takes the pressure off and makes it clear that it is their choice whether to read them or not.

Books need to be seen as a gift rather than a “penalty” for being online. Visiting a bookstore together or giving a gift certificate for books are other ways a parent can support reading while indicating that the youth has a choice. There are now more than 150,000 Little Free Library locations worldwide (visible on the app) where books can be obtained 24/7 at no cost. Bringing books to donate or even joining the cause and becoming a steward of one of these pop-up libraries models a high valuation of reading but is also a volunteer activity of which the child can be proud. We brought our children’s old books to our pediatric practice and encouraged patients to “bring one and take one.” Of course, the public library is often an option and is free. Another advantage of the library is that librarians and other children there may make suggestions of books that are popular with children their age. There are lots of specific suggestions online as well.

We need to be aware that children who resist reading books may have reading weaknesses. We can assess reading fluency with standard Gray Oral Reading paragraphs or the Wide Range Achievement test in the office or recommend a reading assessment by the school. Parents who already know that their child has a reading problem may be getting advice from teachers or tutors on how to help. But to promote reading that is not onerous for a child with a reading disability, parents can do more reading aloud at home, offer audiobooks or podcasts at home or play them while driving, and aim for books with a lower reading level. Teachers or librarians can make suggestions. It is important for family members to not be judgmental about a child’s choice of reading materials.

We do not need to feel helpless in the face of the Internet – we can recommend more reading!

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