Healthy individuals and healthy school communities
Joy Court looks at the role that reading can play in children’s mental health.
How well a school supports pupils’ personal development is a key feature of the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework that was published in May. There is actually much in this framework that could be used to justify (should you ever need to) the reading of quality fiction and the role of the librarian as reading promoter and reading mentor. The curriculum provided by schools should ‘extend beyond the academic, technical or vocational’. British values, diversity, the inclusive environment are all strongly mentioned as is the requirement to ‘support learners to develop their character – including their resilience, confidence and independence – and help them know how to keep physically and mentally healthy’. Although they do not mention this obvious support strategy, we all recognise that there is nowhere better, or anywhere more safe, than a book to develop an age-appropriate understanding of healthy relationships, or to gain an understanding of the consequences of behaviour and actions.
If you do need to justify reading for pleasure, then you also need to be fully aware of two very interesting reports published late last year.
Most of you will be aware of, and maybe even participated in, the National Literacy Trust Annual Literacy Survey. From the 2017 data, the researchers published Mental wellbeing, reading and writing: How children and young people’s mental wellbeing is related to their reading and writing experiences (Clark, C. and Teravainen-Goff, A. (2018). London: National Literacy Trust).
It is not surprising that Ofsted want to focus on the support for pupils’ personal development when the research that the NLT quotes suggests that mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden across the world, and that half of mental health problems in adulthood manifest themselves before the age of 14.
The NLT inserted questions about mental wellbeing into the survey conducted between November 2017 and January 2018, in which overall, 49,047 pupils aged 8 to 18 participated. The items chosen focused on three aspects of mental wellbeing: life satisfaction, coping skills and self-belief.
Responses to the three components show children and young people who enjoy reading very much, who read daily, who think of themselves as very good readers and who hold positive reading attitudes reported higher life satisfaction, better coping skills and higher self-belief than their peers who don’t enjoy reading at all, who never or rarely read, who think of themselves as below average readers and who hold negative attitudes towards reading.
The same holds true for writing. Similarly, more children and young people who have high levels of life satisfaction, coping skills or self-belief say that they enjoy reading or writing, that they think of themselves as above average readers and writers, and that they think positively about reading and writing than their peers who have low levels of life satisfaction, coping skills or self-belief.
The report by Demos for the Reading Agency: A Society of Readers goes even further to underpin the value of the act of reading.
Demos carried out research over the summer of 2018 to assess the potential impact of reading on ‘several great challenges of our time: loneliness, mental health problems, dementia and social (im)mobility’. Building on existing data, they forecast the effect that these problems will have on society by 2030 and then present the evidence of the power of reading to change this bleak outlook.
‘Books can train our brains and lessen the symptoms of dementia. They can help us foster connections with other readers and help alleviate loneliness or depression. They can open up new ways to fulfil our individual potential, spreading opportunity to workplaces, deprived communities and prisons.’ In short, they say that reading can transform British society and this is why we must nurture ‘a society of readers’.
In essence what both these reports tell us is that a library has an invaluable role to play in young people’s individual mental health and wellbeing but also an invaluable and often unrecognised role in supporting and developing positive relationships in the whole school community. Reading initiatives can unite the whole school in shared enjoyable experiences building empathy and understanding.
So we really must all do our bit to nurture a ‘society of readers’ in our own school communities and even more importantly, be acknowledged for it!