Books entertain, inspire, and educate. But they can even go beyond that. Through a process known as bibliotherapy, books have become useful tools to aid in social and emotional growth for a wide range of people.
Bibliotherapy uses different books to aid with different issues, and thus, there are many ways it can be applied. The basics of how bibliotherapy works stay the same, though. Bibliotherapy is composed of three stages: identification (an individual reads a book and relates to a character or situation in the text), catharsis (that person becomes emotionally involved in the text and experiences an emotional release through discussion), and insight (the reader is more aware of their own situation and has gained some new perspective).
In academic settings, bibliotherapy is known as developmental bibliotherapy and is usually used to address common childhood and adolescent concepts such as puberty, bodily functions, and developmental milestones. However, bibliotherapy can also be adapted to help children understand a variety of subjects including disabilities.
While there is an inherent lack of research on using developmental bibliotherapy to teach children about disabilities, studies have found that bibliotherapeutic instruction can help improve the self-efficacy, feelings, and productivity of children with disabilities. For children without disabilities, bibliotherapy can help create a better understanding of those with disabilities. As a result, a more accepting and inclusive classroom environment can be built.
In order to establish an inclusive classroom, two teachers named Ms. Schild and Ms. Stone took part in a 2014 study that analyzed how students in their multiage classes responded to bibliotherapy. The teachers were motivated to try bibliotherapy after realizing how students without disabilities struggled to interact with and respect those who did.
Ms. Schild’s class of second and third graders started by reading a book called In Looking after Louis. Through their conversation about Louis’s disability and his behavior, it became clear the children viewed “disabled” and “non-disabled” as rigid categories with set characteristics. However, as the study continued, this outlook started to change.
Since the students perceived “disabled” and “non-disabled” so differently, Ms. Schild led a conversation about the meaning of “normal.” Prior to discussion, the class read the books Crow Boy, My Brother Sammy, and Ian’s Walk. After analyzing these works, the students were able to consider the individual differences of the characters in the story, along with differences in how the characters’ disabilities were expressed in each story. This challenged the previous mindset of the class and helped students understand how there are “more fluid boundaries to the definitions of disability and normality.”
By the end of the study, the teachers observed a change in how their students with and without disabilities interacted with one another. Students who were once annoyed by their classmates with disabilities became more understanding and respectful of their needs. A few students with disabilities also went through changes during this study. One student who usually did not participate in class discussions felt more inclined to speak up. Seeing himself represented in a book character made it easier for him to voice his opinions since he could look at the character and say, “That’s like me!”
While this study can be considered a success, it is admittedly difficult to measure the effectiveness of bibliotherapy. Between a lack of substantial research and the fact that interpretations of literature are highly subjective, results can vary greatly. Because of this, there is no way to guarantee bibliotherapy will prove successful for everyone; however, the worse outcome is that no change occurs. With that in mind, this technique is worth studying in more classroom settings.