Monday 5 December 2016

How can I encourage my son to read more at home?

Published 15/09/2015 | 02:30

Illustration: Maisie McNeice
Illustration: Maisie McNeice

The clinical psychologist on how to encourage your child to read more and what you can do to address separation anxiety for a child who has just started school.

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Question: My son has just started in third class. He does well at school, especially maths, but we struggle to get him to read books, and always have to bribe him - read five pages and get a reward, that type of thing. His school report said we should really encourage him to read more over the summer, but we had no luck with that. The only things he read were football magazines. Should he be reading books? I fear he doesn't have the concentration for books, and worry what effect this will have on him long term. How can I encourage him to read more?

David replies: It is always a good thing to encourage children to read. Especially in our digitally dominated world, reading inspires our imagination in a way that no game, TV programme or film ever can. From what you have written, I am unsure if you want him to read more because that is what the school have advised, or if this is something that you believe is really important in its own right.

Depending on how your family views reading, you may have to do the first steps of creating a print-rich, book-friendly, and reading-friendly, environment in your home. Maybe you already have lots of books, and lots of focus on reading; but if not then that is where you start.

One way to begin to populate your bookshelves with lots of age-appropriate books is to suggest to aunts, uncles and others that books make great gifts. Always include books in any gifts that you give to your children. This might be a start to build up your family library.

Even if you don't have lots of books at home you can join your local library and make a visit there each week with your family. Simply spending time in the library might spark more interest in discovering what is beyond the covers of the books. Always bring home books from each visit.

Model reading at home. If you have joined up at the library then start to take out books for yourself and allow yourself to be seen reading them. Show your son that you associate reading with taking a break, so indulge yourself with a nice cuppa or even a sweet treat as you read.

Schedule some "down time" each evening that isn't filled with some kind of screen-based entertainment. So perhaps set up an hour or so, after dinner, when there will be no TV or gaming. This might create a bit of an entertainment vacuum that can be filled with playing (indoors or out) or by reading.

Read with your son. He is still only nine or 10 (if he is going into third class) and so he may still enjoy having stories read to him. You might also want to get some books as an audio CD, as hearing the stories might excite him to read them too.

With both of these, your purpose is simply to try to engage him with the actual stories, so that he is keen to find out what happens next. Try to pick books with lots of adventure and excitement that might catch his imagination.

Keep an eye out for talks by some of Ireland's great children's writers. Even if he doesn't know the authors he is likely to be fascinated by their presentations and may be enthused to read some of their stuff.

Remember, also, that you have already got a point of interest, for him, in the football magazines. Find out what it is about the magazines that he likes. It may be the content or it may be the layout, with a mix of pictures, short articles or short paragraphs.

Comics or graphic novels might also engage him, particularly if he likes that mix of pictures and words, where the pictures give him clues to help him process and understand the words.

In many ways it doesn't matter what he reads, the most important thing is that he sees it as a natural part of life (to read) and that he enjoys what he is reading.

Both of these can be achieved by building more opportunities to read into your family life and by prioritising reading as a form of relaxation and entertainment.

Lots of children will discover an interest in reading for pleasure when they get a bit older. What you may focus on for now, is simply taking the pressure to read off his shoulders, but also creating a print-rich and reading-friendly home for him.

My daughter has just started primary school and has extreme separation anxiety

Question: My five-year-old just started Junior Infants and gets very upset going into school each morning. It could take two teachers to get her off me, the whole process being very physical, and emotionally distressing for both of us. Her teacher taught my older boy, and was wonderful and kind. She assures me that within five minutes my daughter is absolutely fine. She is popular, has good friends who were in pre-school with her, yet her separation anxiety seems so extreme. I don't know why she is so upset, nor how to help her?

David replies: It sounds like her anxiety has taken you entirely by surprise. I could imagine that, if she was well settled in the pre-school, that she used to go happily in there each day. You may not have expected her to be anxious this time around.

It is worth bearing in mind that starting in primary school is a big deal, even for the most confident and self-assured children. In the early days of attending, nothing is predictable for them and everything can seem new and strange.

We know that when we are unsure about what to expect, or when we can't anticipate what will happen next, that it provokes anxiety. Any kind of a change introduces uncertainty and unpredictability and so may also prompt anxiety.

I think that this is what is happening for your daughter.

Your daughter's anxiety sounds very natural to me. It makes good sense that if she is feeling unsettled and stressed by the newness of the school that she would look to you for her comfort and security.

The intensity of her distress at the separation may also be surprising to you. I'd say the moment of separation is really distressing for you too, if she is so upset and physically clinging to you. None of us like to see our children so distraught.

However, consider things from her perspective and the reasons for the intense clinging may become more understandable.

From her point of view she is being sent off every day into the unknown. She has to work really hard to try to learn the rules and expectations of pupils, like her, in the new environment. Even though she knows and gets on with some of the children, there are probably lots more that she doesn't know.

So, there will be work to be done from an academic perspective and from a social perspective. And, most importantly, it is all new and all requires lots of effort. She probably wants you to protect her from all of the stress and the effort that is required.

Perhaps she feels she must make a huge effort, putting on an intense display, to try to hold you there, keep you by her side and prevent you from leaving her there.

Although she may be operating at a sub-conscious level, it is as if she hopes you may be swayed if she acts really distressed. She may hope that if you see her being so sad and so upset that you will relent and take her home with you.

So, be patient and understanding with her. When she is at home, with you, spend some time each evening talking, empathetically, about how new the school might feel and about how hard she must be working to get used to all the change.

Then remind her about her positive coping skills, her bravery, the fun she has with her teacher and classmates and how impressed you are that she is sticking with each school day. Show her how confident you feel in her ability to do well in school.

Then, in the mornings, continue to be understanding with her, but be firm at the moment at which you need to leave. Be confident that her teacher will help her to settle down and that she does, in fact, enjoy the day.

You might consider letting her dad bring her to school, to change the dynamic at the drop-off. This may interrupt the current pattern of her interaction with you.

It may seem like a wrench for you and for her, but if you remain warm and understanding about her distress it will probably diminish significantly in the next couple of weeks.

In time she will feel settled and happy, knowing what to expect from each day in school, having fun with her friends and learning new things.

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