Originally printed in L.A. Parent Magazine, September 2020
In this highly digitized climate of remote learning, reading to your child matters now more than ever. Check out my article in the September issue of L.A. Parent to find out why. Follow the link below.
The Single Most Important Thing Parents Can Do to Mitigate Covid Slide
If you’re a parent worried about Covid-19’s long-term effects on not only your child’s academic growth, but their social-emotional well being too, you are not alone. “Covid Slide” is the new buzzphrase for the worry that students who miss out on regular school will have long-term gaps in their learning and struggle to catch up.
It’s an understandable concern. The Distance Learning programs that schools and school districts delivered during the final third of the school year varied widely. Some schools pivoted quickly into a fairly robust program, while others faltered and even petered out toward the end of the year.
Children have been out of physical school since March and, with the number of COVID cases spiking this summer, schools across the country are facing agonizing decisions about how school will take place in the fall.
The uncertainty of it all is bound to cause anxiety in parents. Sending their child back to some semblance of normalcy if their school does open under physically distanced circumstances, participating in their school’s distance learning program, or keeping them home and figuring it out for themselves are possibilities every parent will have to grapple with soon.
In the meantime, what can a parent do to help their child continue to grow academically and feel safe and healthy emotionally?
The single most important thing a parent can do during this time of school upheaval is to support their child’s love of reading. Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Two Critical Tools Every Child Needs
In The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, I explain the tools a parent bestows on their child through reading to them from the beginning that will affect their future school success. Here, I’ll explain just two as these are two of the most critical ones a child needs during this time.
Tool #1: Intellectual Curiosity
The child who reads will want to know more
One of the most important tools that a child who finds pleasure in reading gains is intellectual curiosity. It may sound lofty, but intellectual curiosity is simply the quality of wanting to know more about the world. Young children are innately curious, but I’ve learned through over thirty years in the classroom that this quality is easily lost if it isn’t nurtured. Children who read learn more than those who don’t, and, they are more curious than their non-reading peers.
Why is the cultivation of intellectual curiosity important during this time of interrupted school? A child who reads for pleasure during this time continues to want to know more and will read more in order to learn. They are intrinsically motivated to do this, regardless of whether they are in school or not. These students want to learn for learning’s sake. They are much less likely to fall behind and will be primed to resume regular instruction because they have not stopped learning.
Tool #2: The Ability to Find Joy Anytime, Anywhere
A child who reads for pleasure can find joy through being transported beyond their circumstances
Parents and all who care about children are not only concerned about academic slippage. Earlier this summer, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that schools re-open in the fall, despite spiking cases of COVID-19, for the sake of children’s social-emotional health.
Children need to be with other children, and face-to-face learning with a caring adult is ideal. But what if public health circumstances prevent this from happening in the fall? How then can a parent best support the social-emotional needs of their child?
Encouraging a love of reading is helpful here too. There are two ways a parent can promote their child’s emotional well-being through reading.
A daily family read-aloud time is a comforting oasis for both parent and child during a difficult time. Sharing a picture book or a novel together is an opportunity not only to escape into another world, but also to connect with each other through the experience. Having a parent’s full attention at some point each day has an enormously positive impact on a child’s well-being. Enjoying a story together offers an opportunity for conversations not only about the story, but also about a child’s feelings around it. This may even lead to other conversations that wouldn’t occur without the prompting of the story. A daily family read-aloud time is an excellent opportunity for bonding.
Having books to jump into independently can be a soothing haven for a child during a difficult time as well. Neuroscience has taught us much in recent years about the impact that reading for pleasure has on the brain.
What we now know that we didn’t understand before is that when we read fiction it impacts not just the language-processing portion of the brain, but all parts of the brain. Studies show that when we read, we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us. (Murphy Paul, 2012.) What this means for a child immersed in a book is that they are truly transported when they read; they experience the story as if they are actually participating in it. Studies also indicate that reading puts our brains into a state similar to meditation and that it brings the same health benefits: deeper relaxation, inner calm, lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression.
Reading provides a healthy escape from the monotony of being stuck at home.
Lest a parent worry that their child could grow into a reading recluse unable to relate to others, studies also show that reading fiction develops a person’s capacity for empathy. Entering into a story necessitates that a reader put themselves into a character’s shoes. With fiction we come to understand that others have viewpoints different from our own. These important ingredients for social-emotional wellness cultivated through reading can make a lasting impact on a child’s ability to understand others. (Mar, 103-134)
Finding pleasure in reading is so critically fundamental to all learning that fostering it is the best possible insurance a parent can employ in preventing not only academic decline, but also emotional distress.
Come fall, whether or not schools reopen, no child will experience school in the way they’ve known it in the past. Regardless of your child’s school circumstances, encouraging their love of reading remains the one of the most important things you can do.
Last spring, as soon as my school announced that we were going into Distance Learning, one of my fifth grade students made a beeline for the school library and checked out 17 books. His ability to think ahead and plan for lost access to the library was impressive. The parents of another student of mine did a very smart thing too. They ordered every single Rick Riordan title from Amazon so that their son would have a complete library of his beloved series to read during the quarantine. By June this boy had read over 19 novels.
As a teacher I felt good about the language arts program I was able to deliver remotely to my students on such short notice. It wasn’t nearly as expansive as what I would have been able to offer in person, but except for a very few, most of my students remained active and engaged until the end of the year. The boys who were reading continually for fun were two I knew I didn’t need to worry about.
Parents can let go of some of their anxiety, too, through supporting their child’s love of reading. While not every parent can afford to buy an entire library of their child’s favorite author’s books, the public library, their child’s school’s library, or free books available online can provide a child with what they need to carry them through this time of disruption and build a strong foundation for their future.
Dickson, Kim Jocelyn. (2020). The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. Coral Gables, FL/USA: Mango Publishing Group.
Mar, Raymond. (2011). Annual Review of Psychology. Vol. 62: 103-134.
Murphy Paul, Annie. (2012). Your Brain on Fiction. New York Times.
Did you know that The Invisible Toolbox is available on audio too? It’s not only a quick read, it’s a fast listen, too, at just two hours. Here’s what Adrian, the youth services librarian at the Westmont Public Library, has to say about it:
“You may have heard that it’s important to read aloud to your child from birth, but you may not have heard why…”
The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is available on audio as well as paperback through these links:
Jane Goodall’s list of accomplishments is well known, but what may not be as widely recognized is how she came to be the remarkable woman she is today.
From early on British born Jane loved animals. In 1935, on the occasion of King George V’s silver jubilee celebrating 25 years on the throne, her father gave one year old Jane a stuffed chimpanzee in honor of the birth of Jubilee, a baby chimp born at the London Zoo the very same year.
Jane traces her early fascination with animals all the way back to her own little Jubilee who resides with her still in her childhood home in England. But it wasn’t until she was a little older that this affection expanded into a passion that would ultimately draw her into a career that changed the way the world understands animals.
She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.
As a young girl Jane grew into a voracious reader and spent hours at the public library or perched on stacks of books at her local second hand book shop. When she could save a little money, she was occasionally able to buy one. In a lovely letter to children published in A Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader, Jane explains how these books inspired her future:
“…in the summer I would take my special books up in my favorite tree in the garden. My Beech Tree. Up there I read stories of faraway places. I especially loved reading about Doctor Dolittle and how he learned to talk to the animals. And I read about Tarzan and the Apes. And the more I read, the more I wanted to read.”
At the age of ten Jane decided that when she grew up she would go to Africa to live with the animals and write books about them. And that is just what she did.
Jane’s story beautifully illustrates the power books have to inspire the human imagination.
One can’t help but wonder…what if Jane had grown up in a different time? Consider the present for instance. What if she’d had access to screens and the internet and never fell in love with reading as she did? Would Jane Goodall have become the person she is today?
By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.
Books have a unique capacity to fire the imagination. Neurologists now know that we humans experience reading fiction as if it’s actually happening to us. All parts of the brain are engaged when we read, not just the region that processes language—which is what we used to think. The deep and organic engagement that comes with written text doesn’t happen with fiction depicted through images on a screen. A book that a child becomes immersed in, however, literally becomes a part of them.
Jane read and reread the Tarzan books, developed a crush on the noble savage himself, and was quite put out at his choice of a partner. “He married the wrong Jane.”
Fortunately for Jane and for the world, she grew up in the time that she did. She became an avid reader who found her way to the books that were right for her and, because of those books, she found her life’s passion.
What does Jane’s story have to say to us today? Simply this. As parents it is our responsibility to nourish our children’s inner worlds.
Jane was fortunate in having parents who encouraged her to believe she could do whatever she set out to do. They also supported her love of reading.With the myriad distractions parents and children face today, helping children find their way to the books that inspire them is a taller order than it was in Jane’s time. But, it is definitely doable. By reading to our children from the beginning and supporting their love of reading throughout their childhood, every child’s imagination can be sparked and ignited.
Your baby has found their walking legs, and now—full of their own power and personal agency—sitting and looking at a book with you just doesn’t happen. They are on the move. Staying stationary and listening to a story? Yeah, right.
“I try to read to him, but he scoots off my lap and starts playing instead. Now what?”
This is a fairly common lament that I hear from parents, but it’s easily dealt with. Your little one doesn’t have to be on your lap or next to your side to benefit from your reading aloud to them. I’ll explain why in a moment and also share some tips for how to get around this.
But first, I want to remind you why it’s important to begin reading to your child from the beginning.
When you read to your baby you’re gifting them with tools they will use forever. One gift is that reading a story trains your child to pay attention. Some may balk at the word ‘train,’ but the fact is the ability to pay attention is a life skill that must be practiced in order to be learned. It happens, ideally, on the lap of a parent, and whether it’s taught—or not— will have long-ranging consequences for your child.
Along with learning to pay attention, your child also learns that being read to is a rewarding experience. You will have created buy-in for listening to a story and your child will likely eagerly look forward to it.
However, regardless of when you started reading to your child, there’s no need to worry when they won’t sit still for it.
Here are 3 simple tips for reading to that busy body:
1. Establish a read-aloud routine to match your child’s rhythm.
It’s easiest to encourage on-lap story time when your child’s energy level is not in high gear. When my son was a toddler we had two regular daily story times. Right after his bath and just before bedtime was perfect because he was already in wind-down mode. The other time was just after a nap when he was just re-awakening to the world. A bottle, a cuddle, a story or two, and then he was back in business.
2. Keep an eye out for a window of opportunity when you know your child needs a break.
You know as well as I do that there are moments when you’ve both just had it. When your little one is exhausted, but not yet ready for a nap—and you may be too. Grabbing a picture book or a book of nursery rhymes and settling down for a few minutes on the sofa or your favorite comfy chair may be just the thing to help them—and you—recharge. I always found these moments of downtime to be a welcome pause. Your child will too.
3. Read to that busy mover anyway.
Some children are simply wired to move more than others. Maybe your child simply won’t sit still long enough to listen to an entire story. No worries. They may prefer sitting on the floor playing with Thomas the Tank Engine. Let them be. Read to them anyway. They can hear you.
Here’s the secret to why reading to your child is beneficial, even if they aren’t sitting by your side or on your lap while you’re doing it. Your child will pick up on your feelings about what you’re doing. If you are enjoying the story—or at least the reading of it, and sometimes we really do have to work at that by having some fun doing voices—your child will absorb that. They will be listening to you even if they aren’t looking at the pictures. They may even circle back to check in and then return to their play a few times.
The key to reading to that active child of yours is simply to relax and have fun. Enjoy that story, regardless of whether you have a rapt audience sitting on your lap. Because if you do, you can be sure your little mover will too.
“It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”
Once a parent understands that reading to their child is not just a good thing, but an essential thing that will enable them to reach their potential and bring great joy—fears and anxieties might emerge. A parent may wonder, how can I help my child fall in love with reading when I don’t love it myself? Where do I begin?
Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence:
Tool #1: Parent Yourself
“Parents who struggled with reading as children or who have never really discovered its pleasures for themselves may feel helpless or ill-equipped to lead. My advice to them is that this is not only your child’s golden opportunity to grow; this is your opportunity as well. One of parenting’s greatest benefits is having the chance to rework or recover experiences that we may have missed out on in our own childhoods. Do not misunderstand; I’m not promoting the type of vicarious living we see on the Little League field when overly aggressive parents relive their dreams of baseball glory through their children. The benefits I refer to have to do with the fact that when we raise children they open up new experiences to us through the worlds they are drawn to. This can happen with reading as well. If your experience with reading was difficult or unremarkable, doing right by your child gives you an opportunity to rework and overcome that. It is never too late to parent yourself as well as your child.”
Parents, you are not alone. There are tools and support out there for you to help you give your child the best possible start.
“Every child begins school with a lunchbox in one hand and an Invisible Toolbox in the other…”
Check out longtime elementary school teacher and author Kim Jocelyn Dickson’s overview of what The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence is all about and why she wrote it.
“Recent research in neuroscience tells us that 80% of the brain develops in the first three years of life. This is the time when the infrastructure of the brain is laying down actual physical pathways that will enable a child to fully access all that the world of school has to offer.
Through reading to our children regularly, we not only build that infrastructure, filling their invisible toolboxes, we nurture the parent-child bond that is the foundation for a child’s motivation to learn.”
If your family is feeling anxious and adrift in these uncertain times, a nightly read-aloud ritual can bring enormous comfort, not only to your children, but to you too.
Excerpt from The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence
“Reading aloud nurtures the parent-child connection. When reading aloud is part of a daily family routine it provides a steady point of connection both parent and child can look forward to and count on. Practicing this daily ritual communicates not only that reading is important, but that the child is important. Snuggling and cuddling up together with a book creates feelings of warmth and can even provide a bit of an oasis from daily pressures and burdens.
Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine.
My son’s father and I divorced when he was quite young and our nightly story-time ritual meant a great deal to us both during those difficult days. One winter evening an old friend of mine from high school was visiting from out of town. After dinner and his bath my son, who was about five, trotted downstairs in his footed blue pjs, a book tucked under his arm. He marched right over to my friend who had settled into a rocking chair by the fire, and politely instructed her that she would have to move. A bit startled, she asked why.
“Because my mom and I have to toast our toes by the fire,” he answered matter-of-factly.
‘Toasting our toes by the fire’ was code for our nightly ritual of snuggling up in the rocker by the fireplace and reading together. My son was not about to let anything or anyone interfere with this. Our daily ritual was such a source of comfort and security for him that even the novelty of having overnight company paled next to this important routine. The warmth and closeness of cuddling together with a book at the end of a long day meant just as much to me….”
Social distancing is an opportunity to cultivate a family routine that benefits everyone
With children home from school and multiple disruptions in the daily routines that keep us grounded, families may be more in need than ever of new ways of being together that bring comfort. Reading together as a family can fill that need.
How to get started?
Sooner or later, you will need to develop a schedule for your family. Whether your work keeps you home or takes you away, your children will do best if they are provided with some structure that includes keeping up with school work, time for independent reading, and play.
Schedule a time in the day when your family gathers to share a read-aloud together and stick to it. This can be an enormously comforting way to wind down the day as you bond over a great story. Regardless of when you come together, what’s most important is that you create a ritual that everyone can look forward to and count on.
What to read?
Family read-alouds are the perfect opportunity to introduce children to the books they might not pick up on their own: the classics. (See resources below.)
What are the classics, and why are they such a great choice?
As I tell my students, the classics are stories that are so outstanding that they have stood the test of time, and appeal to readers regardless of their time in history.
They make excellent read-alouds for families because of their cross-generational appeal. Classic stories have complexity and universal themes, and lend themselves to rich discussions.
Reading the classics enriches us and enlarges us intellectually—and spiritually too. As screenwriter William Nicholson wrote in his biopic of C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands, “We read to know we’re not alone.”
The daily comfort of connecting with characters in a gripping story, surrounded by the people you care most about, may just be the perfect port in this storm.