Bibliotherapy: Helping Students, One Book at a Time

We know from personal experience that books are powerful. Who hasn’t become fully immersed in a novel, empathizing with the characters and gaining new insight into our own lives in the process? As teachers, we can harness the power of books to help students deal with behavioral, emotional, and social issues in a practice known as bibliotherapy.


Bibliotherapy is the practice of helping individuals grow and develop through books. Reading, writing, and discussion can provide an opportunity to work through grief, cope with a difficult situation, or just explore developmentally-appropriate topics. The practice dates back to the 1930s in the United States, and has widened to include self-help manuals and even movies.

At its most basic level, bibliotherapy involves selecting reading material that has relevance to the person’s life situation. Often, however, the practice will also involve writing, play, or reflective discussion.

One school of thought maintains that only professionals trained in psychology should practice this type of therapy while others feel that parents, teachers, and librarians can also apply the concept in their practice. The Bibliotherapy Education Project creates a distinction between these two applications:

Clinical Bibliotherapy: used by trained professionals; meant to deal with significant emotional or behavioral issues

Developmental Bibliotherapy: used by teachers, librarians, parents; meant to help children grow and develop

Regardless of the application, using children’s literature can help teachers and students deal with everything from behavior problems to social issues.


Many teachers practice bibliotherapy in some manner, often without giving their practice a formal name. However, effective follow-up activities, thoughtful questions, and focused discussion require that teachers are mindful about their use of books to address individual and group issues.

Bibliotherapy may be used individually, with small groups, or even with an entire class, depending on the need. Teachers may also consider involving parents in the reading and follow-up activities.

As with most teaching strategies, bibliotherapy is a tool to be modified and adapted to a particular context. However, the process always begins with identifying the need of the students and selecting appropriate reading material. Teachers should take care to ensure that the books are appropriate in terms of reading level, interest, and subject matter. It is essential that teachers read the entire text and consider if any subjects addressed might require parental input or consent. It may be helpful to compile a written bibliography or classroom library of titles about common topics for that grade level. Media specialists, librarians, and other grade-level teachers may be useful collaborators!

Once titles have been selected, teachers should plan how and when reading will occur (individual/small group/read aloud) and what activities will help students reflect on the text, gain insight, and apply new understanding to their own situation. This process must be as carefully planned as any academic objective or students may not benefit fully from the experience!

It is important to remember that bibliotherapy is not a cure-all, nor will it reach every student in the same manner. Instead, it is just another tool in a teacher’s box to deal with the varied emotional, behavioral, and social issues of her students.


How To Use Bibliotherapy 

1.   Identify youngster’s needs. This task is done through observation, parent conferences, student writing assignments, and the review of school/facility records.

2.   Match the youngster(s) with appropriate materials.  Find books that deal with divorce, a death in the family, or whatever needs have been identified.  Keep the following in mind:
a:   The book must be at the youngster’s reading ability level.
b.   The text must be at an interest level appropriate to the maturity of the youngster.
c.   The theme of the readings should match the identified needs of the youngster.
d.   The characters should be believable so that the youngster can empathize with their
e.   The plot of the story should be realistic and involve creativity in problem solving.

 3.   Decide on the setting and time for sessions, and how sessions will be introduced to the

4.   Design follow-up activities for the reading (e.g., discussion, paper writing, drawing,

5.   Motivate the youngster with introductory activities (e.g., asking questions to get a discussion going on the topic).

6.   Engage in the reading, viewing, or listening phase.  Ask leading questions and start short discussions throughout the reading.  Periodically, summarize what has occured thus far (to be sure that “the message” does not get lost in the trivial points).

7.   Take a break or allow a few minutes for the youngster to reflect on the material.

8.   Introduce the follow-up activities:
-Retelling of the story
-In depth discussion of the book (e.g., discussing right and wrong, morals, the law,
strong and weak points of the main character, etc.)
-Art activities (e.g., drawing map illustrating story events, creating collage from magazine
photos and headlines to illustrate events in the story, draw pictures of events)
-Creative writing (e.g., resolving the story in a different way, analyzing decisions of characters)
-Drama (e.g., role playing, reconstructing story with puppets made during art activity, enacting a
trial for the characters)

9.  Assist the student in achieving closure through discussion and a listing of
possible-solutions, or some other activity.

cautions1. Avoid topics (e.g., abortion, drug use, crime) which might draw concerns from parents, community, etc. unless approved with the administration or those parties.

2. Be familiar with the book.  Read it and understand it before using it.

Activities and Discussion Questions

1.    Locate various books, stories, and filmstrips/videos  that deal with personal problems.
Decide, if the materials are appropriate for bibliotherapy.  List why or why not.  If
they are appropriate, decide which ages, groups, etc. would be the target population
for these materials.

2.   With the materials you have located, device introductory and follow-up activities.

3.   Give a report to others, complete with a demonstration on the use of bibliotherapy with
your materials.


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