Benefits of Reading During Times of Stress

I recently had the privilege of interviewing parent, educator, and writer Kim Jocelyn Dickson. Kim has nearly 30 years of experience in the elementary school classroom, has taught in public and private schools, and currently teaches literature and writing. She is the author of the book, The Invisible Toolbox: The Power of Reading to Your Child from Birth to Adolescence. During the interview, we spent some of the time talking about the power of stories during difficult times. You can watch the video interview below or keep reading to learn about the benefits of reading during times of stress.

Don: Kim, in part 1 of this interview (The Power of Stories During Difficult Times) you explained how shared reading between parent and child is a great way for them both to have an escape. This is especially helpful now, with all the extra stress that children and parents are dealing with. What experiences have you had recently in which reading has played a helpful role in that regard? What are some of the benefits of reading during times of stress?

A mother and daughter find a comforting time reading together and escaping from the stresses of daily life.

Kim: As a matter of fact, I just finished writing about an experience that I had as a teacher. I am teaching fifth grade now, in remote learning; I have been since last spring, and I teach literature and writing. A couple of weeks ago when we Zoomed in, every morning as we do, and had our morning meeting, I had a check-in with my students. I was aware that there were fires happening in the periphery—it wasn’t happening right in my community, but it was happening near enough that I had good friends I was concerned about.

I learned that some of my students were also being impacted by fires. In fact, one of my students had had to evacuate that very morning, and she was Zooming into class with us from a hotel. Many of the students were very anxious about it for themselves and their families and for their friends and each other, and you could sense, you could feel the anxiety in the class. It’s amazing how, even in Zoom, there’s a lot you can tell about what’s going on with your students. You’re apart, but you can still feel it. You really can.

Benefits of Reading During Times of Stress—Finding Sanctuary in Stories

So here we are, in distance learning for one thing. We’re not together. We’re in the middle of this election season with parents being upset and concerned with all that’s going on politically. The virus has impacted our lives. And now on top of this, we’ve got the fires. I’m in southern California, and people are really worried for their lives and their homes.

We’ve got all this going on my class, and that day, what I had planned to do was to continue reading a novel that I’d been reading with them. We were reading The Great Brain, which is an excellent classic that I strongly recommend by John D. Fitzgerald. And it happened to be the chapter where the namesake of the book, Tom—who is the Great Brain—had been unjustly paddled by the new teacher, who was very harsh in his methods and would paddle all the time, and he had decided that they were going to frame this teacher by planting evidence that he was a secret drinker, so it was kind of a shocking chapter and exciting. It takes place in 1890s Utah, so it could not have been further from the reality of what the students were experiencing in their lives at that moment, and I have never been so happy as I was that morning that I am a literature teacher, and that we had the opportunity after sharing our feeling about what was going on in our vicinity to do a deep dive into this chapter because it really took us out of ourselves for a while. Because as I was talking about, when we read, we experience the story as if it’s actually happening to us. So it was just a lovely, comforting escape to be able to fully immerse ourselves in this crazy chapter that was so satisfying and kind of just take a break from what was going on. And I think that’s one of the most powerful things that reading can do for us.

Internal Reading Infrastructure

Don: Yes, I want to talk briefly about your book, The Invisible Toolbox. Now we had talked a little about some aspects of your book during the interview. That name, The Invisible Toolbox may sound a little strange to some parents. Could you explain a little bit why you called it The Invisible Toolbox and how it relates to the benefits of reading during times of stress?

Kim: Sure. I had a little bit of an epiphany I think, many years ago. I used to be a third-grade teacher, and you know third grade is that watershed year, where if students are not reading on grade level, statistically, 75% of those who don’t never will, which is a really concerning statistic. And so, I was teaching in a public school then; it’s an excellent public school, my neighborhood school, the school my son went to. It was wonderful. But there were always a few students who were behind, and it seemed that sometimes the interventions that were offered didn’t necessarily pull them out. And again, that’s a different topic because I’m a firm believer in that 25%, and there are definitely things that we can do.

But what I realized at that time was that what the students who were not able to read at grade level—and again, this takes away students who are dyslexic and with an actual processing concern. There were students who simply did not have that internal infrastructure that I mentioned a few minutes ago, and that’s where the invisible toolbox comes in.

A little girl studies a poster with the alphabet and pictures. One of the benefits of reading together during stressful times - even with young children - are long-lasting academic benefits.

The Invisible Toolbox

It just struck me one day at a parent-teacher conference that every child comes to kindergarten with an invisible toolbox. If their parent has read to them regularly before kindergarten, that invisible toolbox is filled to overflowing with all those literacy skills that we were talking about a few minutes ago—the understanding of the way books work, they’ve been exposed to language and vocabulary that they won’t hear anywhere besides in books, all these things that help them to be successful, all that scaffolding is in place if they’ve been read to.

And my heart has broken for the kids that have not had that because they come to school with these invisible toolboxes that are empty, and school is a struggle for them because the infrastructure that they need to learn and take advantage of what school offers isn’t there. So what they’re needing to do is catch up and have the infrastructure built. It is possible to do that. I think it’s a lot harder later, but it’s doable. So that’s the invisible toolbox.

Don: Yes, The Invisible Toolbox, I highly recommend it. A wonderful book—it’s an easy read, speaking from a dyslexic’s point of view. It’s also available on audio from You can listen to it actually in one sitting. Kim, thank you very much for talking with me today.

Kim: It’s been a pleasure, thank you.

Don: If you missed it last time, see part one of this interview with Kim in The Power of Stories During Difficult Times.

Photo of Kim Jocelyn Dickson, educator and author of The Invisible Toolbox.

Kim Jocelyn Dickson has nearly thirty years of experience in the elementary school classroom, has taught in public and private schools in the east, Midwest, and west coast of the United States, currently teaches literature and writing in an independent school in Southern California, and frequently speaks on reading’s powerful impact on young lives.
Nearly thirty years teaching hundreds of elementary school-aged children has convinced Kim that the simple act of reading aloud from birth has a far-reaching impact that few parents understand and that our recent, nearly universal saturation in technology has further clouded its importance. The Invisible Toolbox aggregates research findings in neuroscience, education, and psychology along with practical anecdotal experience from the classroom and parenting to illustrate that the first years of life are critical in the formation and receptivity of the primary predictor of success in school—language skills—and that infants begin learning immediately at birth, or even before.

Don Winn’s Cardboard Box Adventures picture books are great for shared reading and can help parents establish a strong preliteracy foundation for their children. Check out the CBA Catalog for a full list of award-winning picture books, chapter books, and resources for parents and educators. Visit my Amazon author page for more information.