From the Mailbox: Read-Aloud Disruptions

This is part of a series of articles based on actual questions I have received and my replies to them. Real names will not be used, and I will address my responses to a generic “Mom”; if you are a homeschooling Dad, the advice can usually be applied to you as well. The wording will be altered from the original letters (and often assembled from multiple letters) and personal details will be omitted or disguised in order to protect the privacy of the writers while still maintaining the spirit of the question. If you have a specific homeschooling question that you would like me to address, please write to me at If part of your letter is used in an article, your identity will be concealed.

Dear Carolyn,
I am the HS mother of several children, with only two old enough for school. I really want to improve on reading aloud to my kids. They do okay with picture books, aside from the jockeying for position on Mom’s lap and crying about whether or not they can see the pictures well enough, but chapter books just don’t hold their interest. The kids are fighting, playing (loudly), leaving the room, and otherwise ignoring my attempt to read to them these wonderful books that I so enjoy. I am trying to pick age/gender appropriate books. Help! Do you have any suggestions? I feel like I’ve been waiting so long for them to be “ready” for chapter books. Should I have to discipline them into good behavior for listening to a good book? This seems to defeat the purpose for me–I want them to enjoy it! Do I have to wait for them to be older still? My oldest is very hands on, active, etc., and he tends to lead the behavior of the others (for the worst).

“Discipline,” meaning punishment, is probably not required, but “discipline” — by its definition of training — is definitely in order. This will be a fundamental learning experience for your children: your goal is not merely to read them a book, your goal is teaching your children how to listen and how to show respect.

Your older children can learn to enjoy longer stories, but the youngest ones will not be able to sit still for very long or comprehend the extended plot of a longer story. You may need to do read-aloud time when the youngest ones are napping, just to limit disruptions until the older children begin to understand what behavior you want them to exhibit.

Very few people (adults included) are able to sit absolutely still and listen with strict attention for more than a few minutes. Work with your oldest child’s hands-on needs and allow the children to color, paint, play with clay or Play-Doh, or build with Lego’s while you read to them. As long as they have a quiet activity, they can still hear you reading, and they will probably listen for a longer period of time if their hands are kept busy. The preschoolers might do wood or foam puzzles or lacing cards — I am sure you will come up with several ideas from your stash of toys and art materials. It is also a good idea for each child to have his own activity, to prevent squabbles over “I need that piece” during the story. You might also consider designating certain playthings for story-time only, making them more special and keeping the children from becoming bored with them.

Since your children’s behavior has not met your expectations up to this point, consider starting over by laying some ground rules. Allow each child to pick a quiet activity while you spread a bath towel on the floor for each child to sit on. Leave enough space between the towels so that the children will not be elbow-to-elbow. Explain to them that their towel is their personal space while Mom is reading the story, and they are to remain within its boundaries during story-time. Assure them that today’s story has no pictures (or that you will let each child see the pictures in turn), that each of them will be able to hear well from his space, and that, since each child’s arms and legs must remain within his towel-space, no one will be disturbing anyone else. Limit the interruptions by giving each child a chance to get a drink, go potty, and “get the wiggles out” before they all take their places for story-time.

Start this new routine of “personal space” with a short reading time from a book that the children already enjoy (especially the oldest “ringleader”). If anyone disrupts the story, you may allow one or two warnings on the first day as practice, but close the book at the next infraction. Stop reading and put the book, toys, and towels away for the day. It may take several days for them to adapt to the new routine, but your persistence will pay off, and they will gradually learn that leaving their space means that the reading time comes to an abrupt end for everyone.

Once the children have mastered the lesson of staying within their own spaces to listen, you may want to allow the older ones to change their space from a towel on the floor to a seat at the table, allowing them to do a wider variety of quiet activities during the reading. The older children may even be able to work together on a jigsaw puzzle while you read. However, your toddlers may take longer to understand the “space” limitations, so do not advance the older students too quickly, before the younger children are able to understand the purpose behind the concept.

Bit by bit, your children will learn how to sit quietly, how to listen, and how to respect their siblings. Start with a short reading time, and increase it gradually as a reward to your children for their improved behavior. Minor setbacks are temporary: remember that your children are practicing a new skill. Above all else, praise your children for their accomplishments!

[For further insight, see the articles linked below]
Is This “Acceptable Behavior”?
“Parent” Is a Verb
Respect Must Be Earned
Siblings as Best Friends
Learning to Walk — Seen as a New Lesson
Social Skills — What Should I Teach My Preschooler?

Speak Your Mind