Books, and the stories within them, offer safe and engaging teachable moments for children to explore emotions, understand common life challenges and apply social and emotional skills.
Bibliotherapy is the technical term for using books to help children, youth and adults work through tough issues that they face in their everyday social worlds. Many books are written explicitly about feelings or problems. But many more are more subtle in their approach - offering characters and events that children and youth can relate to which broaden perspectives and offer opportunities to develop empathy and practice critical thinking.
Research shows that by identifying with characters and events in books, young people may feel less isolated, can be relieved of emotional pressure and gain insight into their own behaviours and self-concept. Stories also provide a problem-solving playground where students recognize that there is more than one way to approach problems. Using a book as a safe scenario, children are able to discuss problems more freely and can actually practice generating solutions or planning a course of action.
To be clear, a book on its own does not offer the same depth of learning compared to when adults provide guidance and help children to think, understand and engage with the story and with each other in prosocial ways. One framework for adults to structure bibliotherapy suggests four steps;
Choose well written, age-appropriate books whose stories use familiar language.
Activate the child's background knowledge. This can be done by holding up the book and asking for predictions about the story or offering a general statement about the book and asking if they have ever experienced the topic?
3. Post Reading Discussion
Have children re-tell the plot, describe and evaluate the characters’ feelings and/or comment on events that occurred.
Ask probing questions to help children think about their own feelings and better identify with the characters and events in the story
4. Use Reinforcing Activities
Apply problem solving strategies to expand on the book’s resolution of a situation.
Practice and apply social and emotional learning using activities such as journals, role plays, debates, art activities or interaction with parents.
Consider reading the same book for several days (with younger children) as an additional strategy to support children’s social emotional development. Children learn the story, they can re-tell the story, and it becomes their story! They feel successful, confident and competent!
The research is mixed whether bibliotherapy is an accepted "therapy" but it remains a popular technique for educators to teach about the external and internal lives of children.
The process of identifying with a book's character and/or situation builds empathy skills.
The framework for a bibliotherapy lesson plan considers that most educators (or caregivers) are exploring common problems such as anger, teasing, bullying and issues of self-concept. The four steps offered by Dr. James Forgan in his 2002 article encourages children to identify with the main character of the story and develop insight to solve their problems.
Consider open ended questions such as:
- Why do you think....(eg. this character feels sad)?
- Show me your favourite page and tell me about it.
- What's happening here? (point) How can you tell?
- I wonder how....
- What if.....?
- What do you think will happen next? Why? (part way through)
There are a number of problem solving approaches available to help structure and support how children work through problems.
6-Block Problem Solving Plan - is based on a traditional problem solving method known as the Dewey Sequence which is a reflective thinking process organized as a series of steps but adds on the important steps of action and evaluation.
- What is the problem?
- What could I do?
- List what might happen.
- Pick the best solution.
- Do it!
- Did it work?