Literacy · Topics for Parents and Students

Reading and Mental Health

I recently gave all my classes a mid-semester Independent Reading Self-Reflection (feel free to make a copy) as a Google Form. My reasoning was two-fold: first, I wanted students to take a serious look at their behaviour and successes (or lack thereof) in terms of their reading goals; secondly, I wanted info about my students experiences with the Independent Reading Program in my classroom.

I gleaned many realizations from my student results, but two key messages stood out above others: my students wanted more reading time, and they liked reading because it was ‘relaxing’ and/or they enjoyed ‘quiet time’.

Some of you with teenagers at home or in your classrooms are laughing right now. And I agree – before I started an Independent Reading Program in my classroom I would have laughed at this too. Seriously? Teenagers want to read more and be quiet?

Crazy but true, here are screen shots of my student feedback from all 3 classes; responses have not been coerced or altered in any way :


These results both pleased me (what? my students want to read more – awesome!), and concerned me (hmmm…….do they need relaxation and quiet time this badly?) In my mind, what my students are telling me by requesting more reading time is partly because they enjoy reading, but more so that they need a mental time out – time to let their brains relax and be quiet. I’m not sure if they realize this, but it’s what I gathered from their feedback.

This anecdotal snapshot does follow scientific evidence on the topic of the connection between reading and mental health, and recently, I’ve read  many articles about this relationship. A quick Google search will result in a variety of research articles about this phenomenon. But how does this information translate to my classroom and school at large?

First of all, it reinforces the need for independent reading time in multiple classrooms, on a regular basis during the school day. Secondly, it reminds me that my students know what they need and that I have to honour this – if they want/need more quiet time to read, then I have to find some way to provide if for them if not in my classroom, then at other times during the school day. Finally, it tells me that (once again) a non-graded activity in my classroom has the most benefits for my students. If I can connect them with the idea that reading = relaxing, it’s an experience they can take with them far beyond the walls of my classroom, for the rest of their lives as a method of stress management.

If you don’t have an Independent Reading Program at in your classroom or at your school, you need one; period. Now, more than ever, our students need both time to discover themselves through reading, improve their vocabulary and focus while reading, and find a positive method of stress management. If you need a quick start guide, I wrote a blog last year about the topic, which can be accessed here: Start an Independent Reading Program Now.

Is independent reading a cure-all for student achievement and mental health? No, of course not. But it will help many students achieve both gains in reading achievement as well as mental health.

Interestingly, as a side note to this conversation, in my classroom as part of my reading program I have a ‘Reading Hall of Fame’ whereby I challenge students to set reading goals and achieve them throughout the semester all the while gaining ‘prizes’ at different levels of achievement.

Through this program, both last semester and this semester the student who read the most books, in the least amount of time was an ‘at risk’ student. Last school year, each of these students were struggling with attendance, drug abuse and other serious mental health issues. Through reading, each of them have found an outlet for stress as well as a way to cope with the challenging situations they face in their daily lives. I can easily tell by their reading selections that the books they choose to read offer them both solace and a view into the lives of other teens/adults who have experienced challenges in their own lives.

This is yet another example of how through offering teens avenues into reading without pushing them via didactic reading of 100-year-old books, we can encourage them to become life long readers. More importantly, we can implicitly teach them a method of stress management that is healthy, fulfilling and potentially life changing.

Do you notice a connection between reading and student mental health in your classroom? Has your independent reading program changed the life path of one of your students? Comment below!

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