Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bibliotherapy: Integrating Academics and Social Skills Training

Bibliotherapy: Integrating Academics and Social Skills Training

One frequent concern teachers of children with Emotional or Behavior Disorders express is the lack of time able to allot to affective education (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004). “Classroom time is increasingly crowded by academic demands- particularly reading literacy- to the exclusion of needed social skills instruction (Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001). Bibliotherapy is defined as “sharing books or stories with the intent of helping an individual gain insight into personal problems” (Health, Sheen, Leavy, Young & Money, 2005, p. 564). This insight is attained by the students identifying with a literary character and spending time analyzing the conflicts the character is facing (Forgan, 2002). General behaviors are looked at in hopes that once taught, social skills will improve (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004). The term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916 by Samuel Crothers, who first suggested using books to help people understand their problems (Heath et al, 2005). The purpose of this paper is to give a brief overview of bibliotherapy, describe how bibliotherapy can be used in the classroom, and discuss the future impacts of using bibliotherapy in the field.

Bookclubs are increasingly popular in our society today (Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001). When one reads a book they enjoy, it is natural for them to wish to discuss it with others. Bibliotherapy addresses this natural wish to discuss literature as well as makes room for the teaching of social skills in our classrooms.

Social incompetence can lead to failure cycles in school and in life. Allocating the time to teach these social skills can be exceedingly problematic (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004; Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001). So much focus is on academics and specifically reading, due to high-stakes testing, that teaching other important skills is difficult to fit in. This problem is exacerbated by the lack of coordination of affective education with academic instruction (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004). The coordination is solved simply by using bibliotherapy as group counseling for the whole classroom or small groups (Stringer, Reynolds & Simpson, 2003) and infusing social skills into academic curriculum while focusing on reading (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004; Cartledge & Kiarie, 2001). Research shows that students actually receive more instruction time when social skills instruction is combined into academics rather than taught alone (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004). Students receive more instruction and when taught in a meaningful setting where behaviors occur, instruction may be more likely to transfer to other settings (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004). Research also shows poor reading skills can contribute to poor self esteem (Stringer et al, 2003). It makes sense that educators work on reading skills and emotions together gaining social and academic benefits from the use of bibliotherapy.

Benefits for all students
Teaching bibliotherapy in a group setting helps all students, not just those with special needs. There are not any children who have a problem-free life (Forgan, 2002). Research shows the numbers of children with problems like depression and panic attacks are on the rise (Zambo, 2007; National Research Council, 2000). Bibliotherapy may help prevent these problems as well as draw students out of their shells and help the class bond (Sridhar & Vaughn, 2000). Another benefit all students will gain from bibliotherapy include independent problem solving skills (Forgan, 2002). These are gained from identifying the main character’s problem and trying to think of possible solutions. Beyond social skills, bibliotherapy offers the same academic benefits for all students. Bibliotherapy helps improve reading skills (Heath et al, 2005; Zambo, 2007). Storytelling builds the “capacity of all children to academically succeed” (Craig; Hull; Haggart; & Crowder, 2001). Furthermore, when children discuss what is read, their reading skills improve significantly (Stringer et al, 2003; Routman, 1996). We also know that the more children read, the more their vocabulary increases (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1998; Prater, Johnstun, Dyches & Johnstun, 2006). Finally, reading good literature students can relate to can open doors to appreciation of good literature (Prater et al, 2006). Hopefully, we can show children that reading is fun and an enjoyable pastime.

Bibliotherapy as direct instruction
In a paper on using bibliotherapy with suspended students, Schreur (2006) discusses how suspending students fails to address the cause of their misbehavior. Students need direct teaching to address the cause of their misbehavior (Forgan, 2002). Research shows us directly teaching skills can help those with E/BD help understand their feelings and develop friendships (Theodore, Bray, Kehle & Jensen, 2001; Zambo, 2007). Bibliotherapy is helpful in working with children who have emotional impairments because affective education is being directly taught and “the root cause of behaviors” is being addressed (Schreur, 2006) and furthermore we know that it is effective (Forgan Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004; Gresham, Sugai, & Horner, 2001; McIntosh, Vaughn, & Zaragoza, 1991).

Bibliotherapy as Prevention, Intervention, and Treatment
A positive attribute about bibliotherapy is that it can be used as prevention to problems, an intervention, or as a treatment (McWhirter et al, 2004; Prater et al, 2006). There are many problems for which bibliotherapy would be a wonderful intervention. Sridhar and Vaughn (2000) suggested the use of bibliotherapy to help raise the typically low self esteem of those with Emotional or Behavior Disorders. Heath et al (2005) stated that bibliotherapy can be used to help students understand appropriate behavior, assist with classroom behavior. Bibliotherapy could also be used as a prevention before all these same problems occur (McWhirter et al, 2004; Prater et al, 2006) as well as help students analyze their thoughts, express problems, and choose a solution from a number of options (Forgan, 2002; Prater et al, 2006) and help students recognize problem situations. Finally, bibliotherapy can be used as a treatment. We know that emotional regulation is challenging for all children (Diamond and Hobson, 1998; Zambo, D.M., 2007), but children with E/BD have extreme difficulty regulating how they feel. They are either overly emotional or not emotional enough. Kids with E/BD often display emotions “in the wrong manner, with the wrong intensity, and at the wrong time (Hardman et al; Zambo, 2007).” Difficulty with emotions can be pervasive causing difficulty sharing toys, making friends, and cooperating with adults (Zambo, 2007). Using picture books allows them to see and hear about the ways characters express themselves and students will often model these behaviors.

Bibliotherapy as Collaboration
Bibliotherapy and storytelling in general present a wonderful opportunity for general education teachers to collaborate with special education teachers (Craig et al, 2001). Literature is something that general education teachers are typically experts on and special educators can show them how to turn read-aloud time into bibliotherapy without much effort. One collaborative strategy to share with general educators is to let children hear your thoughts. Talk through problems the characters face in your literary selections so that students can hear the problem-solving process (Craig et al, 2001). Another suggestion mentioned by Craig et al (2001) was to have guests come in and read to the children. Nearly everyone has a book that impacted their life and these are almost always great books to use for bibliotherapy.

Benefits of Bibliotherapy

Bibliotherapy lets students identify with characters in literature (Zambo, 2007). Students then talk more freely about their feelings and discuss them in a constructive way. Bibliotherapy is non-threatening because the problems discussed belong to the characters in the literature, creating a safe distance for discussion (Corr, 2003-2004; Heath et al, 2005; Zambo, 2007). Books offer the reader “access to the inner thoughts, intentions, reasons, and emotions” that surround the behaviors of characters (Cartledge, 2001). Students first identify with the main characters and identify their frustrations and needs (Nicholson, J.L., Pearson, Q.M., 2003; Sridhar and Vaughn, 2000; Heath et al, 2005; Forgan, 2002). Next they experience a catharsis and finally they gain insight into their own problems. Another difficulty that affects children with E/BD is that they often have a hard time reading intemionality from faces. They are “likely to interpret behaviors as negative even when they are not” (National Research Council, 2000; Zambo, 2007). Picture books often help with this because teachers can guide children in observing how the characters feel and what in the picture gives clues on their feelings. As mentioned earlier, it can also create a love of reading (Prater et al, 2006) as well as allowing students to go along with students’ tendency to read a book in search of information (Forgan et al, 2004).

Classroom Perspective
The first step to implementing bibliotherapy in your classroom is to choose an appropriate book. Books chosen must address the needs of the student(s) you’re focusing on and the main character must have similar problems (Heath et al, 2005; Sridhar & Vaughn, 2000). It is also important to choose books where characters make good choices when solving their problems, students should not imitate a bad model (Heath et al, 2005). Books should be brief as often students with E/BD have short attention spans and working with a longer book requires a great deal of concentration (Cartledge, 2001). Once a book is chosen, one must decide the setting in which the bibliotherapy will take place; select if the book will be read by the whole class, a small group, or an individual.

There are four main steps in a bibliotherapy unit. Students should never feel as if they are being taught during any of these steps (Schreur, 2006). The teacher should act as a facilitator to direct questions and elicit student thought (Sridhar & Vaughn, 2006). These steps are “1) pre-reading, 2) guided reading, 3) post-reading discussion, 4) problem-solving/reinforcement activity” (Forgan, 2002, p. 76). Before reading the story selected, a teacher must activate background knowledge. This should be done creatively in a manner that introduces the theme and allows students to compare their experiences with those in the book as well as make predictions (Sridhar & Vaughn, 2000). Following pre-reading is guided reading and this typically involves an adult reading the story aloud to the student(s) (Forgan, 2002). After the story or a portion of it is completed teachers allow students to journal or reflect in some other way before discussion begins. Next, a post-reading discussion of the story. One model that I found very useful in discussing a story was the “I-SOLVE” model developed by J.W. Forgan. The steps include having students: 1) identify the problem, 2) find solutions to the problem, 3) look for obstacles that might get in the way of the possible solutions, 4) look at the solutions again and choose one, 5) very good, try the solution, and 6) evaluate the outcome. This model, while being used for characters, is being imprinted into the memory of the students who will hopefully use the model for insight into their problems. The final necessity of bibliotherapy in a classroom is a reinforcement activity. This should vary according to the interests of students and may involve skits, small group work, artwork, or anything else to reinforce the lesson of the story in an engaging manner (Sridhar & Vaughn, 2000).

Future perspectives

There are several challenges than can get in the way of an effective bibliotherapy unit. These include “lack of sustained training, measurement and research design issues, ineffective training packages, lack of coordination of social skills training with academic instruction, and the possibility that social skills deficits are highly resistant to intervention” (Forgan & Gonzalez-DeHass, 2004, p. 25). In the future these are all areas that need to be addressed specifically the research issues. Currently there is a fair amount of research published involving bibliotherapy being combined with other therapies but I am not aware of any dealing with bibliotherapy alone. Before a teacher implements a new teaching practice in their classroom, they want to know the research supporting it. In the case of bibliotherapy, there is none, which poses a slight drawback. If there is one thing that can be done in the future I would propose a study of bibliotherapy being used in a classroom setting with students who have emotional impairments.

To improve bibliotherapy in the future includes publishing more books. Teachers need to choose books that their students can relate to, that have similar problems as their students, and who solve their problems in appropriate ways. This can often be a challenge to find such a book. Many problems may face have countless books where characters deal with these problems but other problems are not dealt with too frequently in books. We need children’s authors willing to write about a variety of issues in a style that children can relate to and enjoy. It seems that each year, more and more books are coming out on various controversial issues. I can only hope that this trend continues in order for our teachers to use vivid stories to help children identify with characters, experience catharsis, and gain insight into their problems.

Cartledge, G., & Kiarie, M.W. (2001). Learning social skills through literature for children and adolescents. Teaching Exceptional Children, 34, 40-47.
Craig, S., Hull, K., Haggart, A.G., Crowder, E. (2001). Storytelling addressing the literacy needs of diverse learners. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, 46-51.
Forgan, J. W. (2002). Using bibliotherapy to teach problem solving. Intervention in School and Clinic, 38, 75-82.
Forgan, J.W., & Gonzalez-DeHass, A. (2004). How to infuse social skills training into literacy instruction. Teaching Exceptional Children, 36, 24-30.
Heath, M.A., Sheen, D., Leavy, D., Young, E. & Money, K (2005). Biliotherapy: A resource to facilitate emotional healing and growth. School Psychology, 26, 563-580.
Nicholson, J. L & Pearson, Q.M. (2003). Helping children cope with fears: using children’s literature in classroom guidance. Professional School Counseling, 7, 15-19.
Prater, M.A., Johnstun, M.L., Dyches, T.T. & Johnstun, M.R (2006). Using children’s books as bibliotherapy for at-risk students: A guide for teachers. Preventing School Failure, 50, 5-13.
Schreur, G. (2006). Using bibliotherapy with suspended students. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 15, 106-111.
Stringer, S.J., Reynolds, G.P, & Simpson, F.M (2003). Collaboration between classroom teachers and a school counselor through literature circles: Building self-esteem. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 30, 69-76.
Sridhar, D., & Vaughn, S. (2000). Bibliotherapy for all: Enhancing reading comprehension, self-concept, and behavior. Teaching Exceptional Children, 33, 74-82.
Zambo, D. (2007). What can you learn from Bombaloo? Using picture books to help young students with special needs regulate their emotions. Teaching Exceptional Children, 39, 32-39.


Meredith Resnick said...

This is a great look at an effective tool. I am especially excited by its relevance to an inclusion setting. Most striking to me is the fact that bibliotherapy can be used not only as part of intervention, but also as a prevention tool. Win-Win!

I enjoy your blog. You have a lot to contribute! Thanks.

Meredith Resnick


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