An Ounce of Prevention


Which personal qualities enable some young people to ride the rollercoaster that is adolescence and emerge confident in their ability to find their own path?

And how we can provide children and young adults with an education that enhances their own particular strengths?

Attributes and Character traits for the 21st century.

Twenty first century teens face enormous educational, social and global pressures reflected by escalating numbers of young people with mental health issues.

Alexander Stajkovic proposed that Core Confidence, made up of Self efficacy, Resilience, Optimism and Hope, form an inner resource which helps us avoid being crushed by the setbacks we face during our lives.

Martin Seligman suggested that we are better placed to overcome challenging situations if we can eliminate Personalisation, Permanence and Pervasiveness from our set of personal beliefs. Seligman also revisited the term “Positive Psychology”, and identified 24 Signature Strengths, in five broad groups, that we can use or develop to achieve our potential for wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment (including seven key attributes – Self Control, Zest, Social Intelligence, Gratitude, Optimism, Curiosity and Grit, “a perseverance and passion for long-term goals” – can predict academic success).

At Camp Kulin, Western Australia, life skills such leadership, respect, trust, self confidence, self respect, self esteem, emotional regulation, anger management and perseverance are shown to improve personal, behavioural and academic outcomes for their adolescent participants.

And, John Marsden, Australian author and school principal, in saying that “by limiting children’s exposure to danger, to fear, we are limiting their ability to mature, develop resilience and independence”, reinforces recent findings that children need to experience failure and risk.

How do we kindle these qualities in young people; how do we nurture them into self sustaining personal attributes?

Research tells us that we can do this by simply encouraging children to read!

What’s so special about books?

When a child first becomes an independent reader, they proudly, confidently and independently begin to explore new worlds. Inside the covers of books they meet new characters, confront questions and find answers, develop creativity and imagination; and they no longer rely on others for entertainment. They are separating from their parents while simultaneously taking steps towards becoming members of the grown-up world; able to communicate and share stories beyond their own limited experiences. 

As children read, they experience stories in unique ways, they become confident communicators, they become creative problem solvers, and they start to understand, recognise and relate to their emotions. Their brain is learning vicariously, and these new skills, characteristics and attributes accompany developments in cognitive skills (thinking, problem solving, reasoning, remembering and concentration).

As they read, children begin to develop a Theory of Mind – able to consider others’ perspectives and needs – and so they develop empathy and start caring for others. Children are experiencing diversity as they read stories about other people (or animals, or imaginary creatures like fairies, or inanimate objects like pencils) going about their lives, expressing emotions and coping with different problems and situations.

But they also learn that others experience similar feelings to themselves, such as nervousness, fearfulness or anger, and they learn that they can explore these feelings from a safe place within the pages of a book. They learn that sometimes bad things happen, sometimes good people fail and sometimes life isn’t fair, but that these times don’t last forever.

Characters in stories can also act as role models, helping children develop and reflect on their own personal values, how they want to live their lives and their own place in the world. Stories enable them to visualise different opportunities and possibilities. And as they read, children are also confronting fears, taking risks, accepting failure, forming friendships, breaking barriers, challenging stereotypes and exploring alternative worlds, safely within the worlds inside a book.

Along the journey from childhood to adulthood, young adults balance pressures from family, school, friends, social and cultural expectations, with a personal need to explore their potential, develop and express their individual values and styles, test their boundaries and identify their personal goals.

Young adult readers find role models among the authentic characters created by respected Young Adult authors, perhaps in addition to the adults in their lives or perhaps in the absence of trustworthy adults, to assist and guide them during their teen years.

Reading and the Default Mode Network.

The Default Mode Network is a group of connected regions in the brain, which is most associated with task-unrelated thinking and has been described as “The brain running in neutral” activated “precisely when we detach ourselves from what’s going on around us” (Noë, 2017).

The Default Mode Network is responsible for:

The Default Mode Network is most active when daydreaming, during REM sleep and while reading. Disruption in Default Mode Network connectivity has been linked to mental health issues including depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.

The Default Mode Network is responsible for continually storing and applying learned information, enabling us to make sense of the chaotic and disconnected events that we encounter daily. It is active whenever we are thinking about ourselves or others, when we are remembering the past or using our past experiences to plan for the future, when we are interacting in social contexts and finding our place in the world, and when we are exploring our creativity and testing our boundaries.

Default Mode Network is activated when we read because it supports our capacity to simulate hypothetical scenes, spaces and mental states; we must access our memories in order to understand the story we’re reading.

It is the function of the Default Mode Network (DMN), and its relationship to reading and mental health, that presents the most compelling case for more Developmental Bibliotherapy in schools.

Conclusion

It is important to acknowledge that there are many categories falling under the mental illness diagnosis, and within these categories there are different underlying causes. These causes can be classified as biological, psychological and social.

Furthermore, the difficulty of separating developmental issues and physical health issues from mental health issues that require medical intervention (or as Australian comedian Alice Fraser describes it “a disaster thing or a coming-of-age thing”) and uncovering hidden problems in young people who may struggle with language or trust, add to the complexities in the diagnosis and treatment of childhood and adolescent mental health.

However, all evidence indicates that early intervention is the key to minimising the impact of mental illness. Developmental Bibliotherapy increases the likelihood of early intervention by providing language and opening communication with trusted adults, by removing stigmas and shattering stereotypes, by increasing empathy and representing diversity, by reducing fear and isolation, and by representing a wider view of normal.

Learning from the experiences of fictional or real characters enables all of us to stand on their shoulders and thus experience a wider view of ourselves, the world and our place in it, and forces us to ask what type of life and world do we want for ourselves.

The evidence is clear – the most cost-effective way to provide mental health benefits to children and young adults begins with supporting school libraries, employing qualified library staff and timetabling meaningful library programs.