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Reading Aloud Gives the Gift of Self-Regulation

The Imagination Library and BEGIN WITH BOOKS encourage parents to read aloud 15 minutes every day. These 15 minutes could be one of the greatest gifts you give your child. Reading aloud promotes language development and builds the skills needed to learn to read and arrive in kindergarten ready to learn.  But that’s not all.  By establishing a regular reading habit, you are also building your child’s emotional resilience and giving them the gift of self-regulation.

What do we mean by self-regulation?

Self-regulation is the ability to manage our emotions and deal with life’s challenges in healthy and predictable ways.  We develop self-regulation skills through the building of the neural pathways that make up our stress-response system.  Children who grow up in stable households, with loving and attentive caregivers, have an easier time regulating their emotions.  This, in turn, makes it easier for them to make new friends and get along with others in school and other social settings.  Not only are they able to express emotions in appropriate ways, they have an easier time down-regulating.  In other words, calming themselves down after a particularly stressful experience. 

Children who are not so lucky, finding themselves growing up amidst chaos, and experiencing less sensitive and responsive care-giving, may see the world quite differently.  Their stress-response system wires up to be on high alert for perceived threats in their environment, and they have a harder time controlling their emotions.  They have a tendency to over-react, or under-react, in emotional situations that most children would find quite manageable.  They may struggle to calm themselves down after an episode is over.  Or, conversely, they can appear emotionless when an emotion like excitement, fear or anger is warranted.  Ask any kindergarten teacher.  It is no surprise that self-regulation is a key measure of kindergarten readiness.  Children with poor self-regulation skills have difficulty making friends, are prone to tantrums, have behavioral issues, or simply struggle to fit in as their behavior tends to be outside the norm.  As they get older and their social relationships become more complex, they become even more disadvantaged.  For success in school and in life, self-regulation truly is a gift.

How do we develop healthy self-regulation skills?

Fortunately, responsive parenting comes naturally to most.  Remember, “babies are designed to learn, and adults are designed to teach them.”  However, there are some things you can do to ensure stable and positive wiring up of your baby’s stress-response pathways.  The quality of your interactions matters, and the more you engage in back-and-forth interactions – the kind psychologists call “serve-and-return” -- the better. 

Think of “serve-and-return” like a game of tennis or volleyball.  Your child “serves” by reaching out for interaction – with eye contact, gestures, babbling or facial expressions.  You “return the serve” by responding appropriately with eye contact, cooing, words, or a hug.  If you are to be in tune with your baby’s cues, serve-and-return interactions require your full attention.  When you return a serve, your child feels seen, heard, and valued.  And the more times they get this message, the more they see the world as a safe and predictable place.  It is from this place of security that they can eventually start exploring the wider world with curiosity and imagination, and with the emotional resilience to self-regulate in stable and predictable ways.  

It’s not hard to understand why the reverse is true.  Not getting a serve returned is stressful to children.  Over time, too many serves not returned tells a child a different story – the world is not safe, and I don’t feel protected or valued.  The wiring up of the stress-response pathways become problematic – all leading to dysfunctional self-regulation.

So what does this have to do with reading aloud? 

So, what does all this have to do with reading aloud to your child?  Reading aloud to your child is serve-and-return in action.  Particularly if you are staying in tune with your child’s reactions and responses to the story.  When you are snuggled in with a picture book, pointing to pictures, prompting and asking questions, you are engaging in serve-and-return at its best.  

We are a social species, hard-wired to seek out meaningful connections.  Cuddling with a bedtime story is something most children really look forward to.  By nature, reading aloud requires you to give 100% of your attention to the experience.  Story time should be devoted to just the two of you – no smart phones, TV, or other distractions.  When you are absorbed in the effortless serve-and-return of the reading experience, your child feels, safe, secure, and loved.  And research tells us that a regular reading habit – as little as 15 minutes a day - builds a strong foundation for healthy emotional development and self-regulation.

Here are the BEGIN WITH BOOKS titles our little readers will be receiving in the mail this month. Just think of all those serve-and-return interactions!


 -- Caron Bell, PhD, Early Childhood Development, and volunteer 


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