No Tall Tales: Bedtime Story Bonuses are Big for Kids With Special Needs
Many of our FOCUS pediatric speech therapists were initially drawn to this field in part because we share a love of language. Sure, some of us are self-professed grammar nerds and logophiles, but in working with kids with special needs, we’ve seen that the real beauty of language is the way it facilitates communication and sparks connections. That’s a universal truth of language, but in helping children overcome speech delays, receptive language deficits or phonological disorders, we’ve come to appreciate language on a whole new level.
In stacking the developmental blocks for communication, social interaction and connection, one of the best (and easiest) things any parent can do: Read bedtime stories. This is especially true for kids with special needs, for whom language doesn’t come easily. Frequent storybook sessions help children learn new words, recognize the importance and subtle differences of tone, inflection and pitch, explore complex feelings and confusing interactions in a safe space and better grasp the intricacies of the world around them.
Most children – even if some have shorter attention spans – love bedtime stories. (Although story time can be anytime, bedtime is ideal – especially if you’re child is antsy – because you’re more likely to have a captive audience just before bed, as opposed to morning or mid-day, unless they still nap. Plus, many parents who work find it difficult to nail down a story time routine in the morning rush or simply can’t swing it on their lunch hour.) Making stories-and-snuggles part of the nightly groove works best for most, gives kids something to look forward to and a chance to wind down. And, as most parents of kids with special needs know, having a routine is a lifeline.
Even if your child doesn’t seem to understand the stories, follow along or pay much attention, research shows they still glean advantages from the one-on-one time, routine and mental exercise. Most speech, ABA and occupational therapists would argue children who struggle with expressive and receptive language skills may even need those bedtime stories more than most.
Bedtime Story Benefits for Kids With Special Needs
Roughly 85 percent of children diagnosed with learning difficulties have the biggest problems with reading and related language skills. As PBS Parents notes, this is most often due to a neurodevelopmental condition. Reading books aloud at bedtime helps all children develop word mastery and grammatical understanding – the foundations for learning to read. The earlier you start, the sooner they’ll pick it up (even if it doesn’t happen for your child at the same pace it does his or her peers).
From the perspective of a FOCUS Fort Myers child speech therapist, regular reading sessions can help kids with special needs in more ways than you might simply “talking their ear off” (which we also highly recommend, BTW). That’s because:
- No. 1. Children with conditions like down syndrome, autism spectrum disorder and receptive language disorders tend to be very visual learners. Especially for young kids, an interesting or entertaining story paired with an engaged adult reader and easy-to-follow pictures helps solidify those word and concept meanings more successfully than simple verbal communication. (This is why you’ll often see our occupational therapists and ABA team using “visual schedules” or “social stories” to help walk them through certain interactions, routines or transitions.)
- No. 2. Studies have shown children are exposed to many more words collectively when stories are read to them as opposed to being talked to or with. Language and literacy researchers with the University of California, Santa Cruz concluded picture books are up to three times as likely to include words that aren’t among the few thousand most commonly used in English, compared to the variety they heard in typical parent-child conversations. The experts attributed this to the tendency we all have to “talk with a lazy tongue.” In other words, we frequently use gestures or pronouns, relying on the situational context to fill-in-the-blanks. But some kids with special needs NEED those blanks expressly filled in. Storybooks help flesh it all out.
From the perspective of a FOCUS ABA therapist in Fort Myers, regular bedtime stories may actually have the potential to lessen undesired behaviors long-term. Part of that comes with establishing a comfortable routine that allows everyone enough rest each night (so important!). But it goes further. Research published just last year in the journal Pediatrics showed that children who are read to regularly from birth to age 5 have fewer problems with social skills, attention, hyperactivity, aggression and externalization of problems. This isn’t to suggest bedtime stories are a cure-all, and of course impact vary from child-to-child. Still, there is strong evidence to support the assertion there will be an impact and it will be positive – sometimes markedly so.
Use Bedtime Story Time To Help Explain, Encourage Empathy and Empower
In addition to being a fun thing to do and a chance for you and your child to bond with close physical contact (also important whether your child is sensory-seeking or sensory-averse), bedtime story routines are a chance for you to impart some valuable lessons. Some examples are opportunities to:
- Explain. Many of the kids we treat at FOCUS have thought processes that differ from those of neurotypical kids. They might struggle to understand the mechanics or the chronology or the social contracts “whys” when it comes to things like going to a fair or participating in class or even using the restroom. And as we mentioned earlier, many kids with special needs are visual learners. Bedtime stories give you a chance to pause, explain piece-by-piece the details that might be glossed over or take for granted entirely in the rush of daily life.
- Encourage Empathy. ABA therapists know empathy can be a tough skill for children on the autism spectrum to master. People with autism DO feel the same things we all feel, but very often struggle with natural emotive displays of that. Stories can model some of these scenarios and help your child know what to expect and how to navigate this with greater proficiency.
- Empower. This becomes especially important as children grow older, more aware of certain ways they may differ from their peers. A child who struggles to make friends or feels embarrassed they aren’t just like their friends (and let’s be honest – every kid struggles with these issues to varying degrees at some point or another) can be empowered by reading bedtime stories about other characters their age confronted with anxiety or tough social situations. Storybook characters can colorfully illustrate to your child potential outcomes of certain choices and open the door to discussions on how they would or could handle similar hurdles.
If you’re unsure what kind of books you should be reading or might best capture your child’s attention, ask one of our ABA, speech or occupational therapists. (For example, many young children prefer books like Dr. Suess, where there is a consistent rhyme and rhythm.) We have lots of examples that are popular in our clinic, or you can check out some of these sites for ideas:
Several titles are also great for teaching your typically-developing child more about acceptance and understanding of their sibling, classmate or friend who has certain delays or challenges.
Study says reading aloud to children, more than talking, builds literacy, July 8, 2015, By Susan Frey, EdSource.org
More Blog Entries:
When a Child Doesn’t Respond to Their Name: Speech-Language Pathologist Insights, Jan. 8, 2019, FOCUS Fort Myers Speech Therapists for Kids With Special Needs