Programs that encourage parents to read with their kids may teach more than just book smarts – a new study suggests they may also be associated with better behavior and emotional health.
Reading interventions have long been linked to improvements in language and literacy, especially among young children whose parents have limited income or education. But less is known about the benefits for more affluent families or the potential for these efforts to improve social, emotional or behavioral functioning for kids and their parents.
The current analysis examined data from 18 previously published studies that included 3,264 families from a variety of backgrounds. Results showed that kids who participated in reading programs had better social and emotional skills, behavior and literacy than children who didn’t.
Parents in the reading programs also had less stress and anxiety and more confidence in their parenting skills than parents who didn’t participate in these interventions, researchers report in Pediatrics.
“Reading to children is not only for having a smart child but also for having a happy child and a good parent-child relationship as well,” said lead study author Qian-Wen Xie, of the University of Hong Kong.
Some parents may not realize it’s important for them to read aloud with kids from a very young age, Xie said by email. Even when they know reading matters, parents might be pressed for time, unable to afford books, or unfamiliar with interactive reading techniques that can make the biggest impact on cognitive, social, emotional and behavioral development.
All of the studies included in the analysis randomly assigned some families to participate in reading programs and others to join control groups that didn’t receive this help. Some included free books.
Some programs targeted toddlers and preschoolers, while others focused on children in elementary school. Often, the reading interventions were provided to children at risk for behavior problems or language delays, or kids in low-income households with parents who had limited education.
The majority of programs gave parents structured training in how to read with children, with anywhere from 2 to 28 group or individual coaching sessions.
One limitation of the analysis was that the studies were too varied to test the effect of specific aspects of the reading programs. Researchers couldn’t tell, for example, whether free books or one-on-one coaching in families’ homes might influence how well the interventions worked.
Still, the results offer fresh evidence that early literacy programs have the potential to improve wellbeing for parents and children, regardless of race, income or gender, said Dr. Caroline Kistin, a pediatrics researcher at Boston University School of Medicine who wasn’t involved in the study.
“Shared reading supports child cognitive development, helps children develop the ability to pay attention and cooperate, and serves as a bonding opportunity for parents and children,” Kistin said by email.
“The shared experience - spending time together, sitting close to each other, making connections between the book and daily life - are critical,” Kistin added. “The findings from this study highlight that the time spent reading together also improves parents’ wellbeing and is associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, and increased markers of parental competence.”