Want to Teach Social Skills? Start with Reading
Readers pick up books to be entertained by the stories they tell. Take Charlotte’s Web for example. It is the story of a girl, Fern, and a runt-of-the-litter pig named Wilbur. Wilbur learns that he is being fattened up for Christmas dinner, which rightfully saddens the pig. It is then that a spider named Charlotte vows to help him avoid becoming a winter meal. Through the course of the story, all of the characters have their ups and downs. Readers develop affinities for the various characters. They become real to the reader, which is critical to any story.
This is more than just good storytelling, according to a study done by Emory University. Emory researchers discovered that neural pathways in the brain stay active long after a person finishes a book. In some subjects, it was up to five days. Readers become charged by the emotions that were being felt by the characters.
Good fiction immerses the reader in the story. You feel the terror that Wilbur feels when he discovers he is going to be a meal, as well as the desperation the animals around him have to save him. But it is not always pigs and little girls on a farm where the reader feels a connection. There are many books out there that can help children develop social skills and empathy for fellow students.
The Newbery Medal-winning book Bud, Not Buddy, one of the books we offer on our Wish List, is the story of an orphan and his travels through Michigan to find his father. During the story, there are fantastic adventures and long, sad stretches for Bud. The story goes beyond something to entertain. It shows readers that there are people with different lives than they have. By feeling sad or happy for Ben, readers begin to develop empathy for him. Something that, through their new neural connections, can translate to the real world. These lessons can be extraordinarily powerful if the characters look like the student, or come from a similar background.
Books can also teach the importance of having friends. In the book My Friends by Taro Gomi, a girl recounts all of the lessons she learns from her friends. The experiences are all related to their abilities; horses teach running and birds teach singing. By showing students the power of interacting with others, this can encourage otherwise shy or socially uncomfortable students to interact with their peers. There can even be in-class exercises where students are encouraged to learn from the people around them.
Children can learn through reading the books. They can learn just as much be being read to at a young age. In a study published in April of 2018, researchers discovered that parents who started to read to their children from birth saw reductions in behavioral problems like aggression and short attention spans. This is even more important for children in low-income families where time spent with children may be scarce.
A wise grey spider teaches the whole farm, and the reader, some valuable lessons during her time with Wilbur and Fern. Lessons about friends, working together to overcome a challenge, and life on a farm are all themes that the book explores. Books teach more than the meaning of words, how they are strung together, and how they sound. They teach lessons about how to interact and empathize with people. Those are success skills that every classroom could use.