For some libraries, back to school is more like back to the zoo.
If your public library is in walking distance of a middle or high school, chances are you have what’s known as an “afterschool crowd”–a term uttered as often with alarm as it is with affection. While large groups of teens coming to the library is a gift and incredible opportunity, it can often leave library staff feeling out of control and create friction between Young Adult Services staff and staff from other departments, particularly those who value peace and quiet.
While I was working on my Master’s of Library and Information Science, I had the pleasure of working for Elizabeth Lynch, the Teen Services Coordinator at Addison Public Library in Illinois. Every day, 60 to 120 kids troop across the street from Indian Trail Middle School to the library in a wave that calls to mind the Invasion of Normandy. The kids are hungry, chatty, sometimes cranky, and full of pent-up energy. Many come from low-income families and their parents work. The library is a safe place for them to stay until they can be picked up.
How do we provide these teens with education, fun, safety, and positive socialization—and keep them from damaging eardrums, property, or our relationships with other patrons and staff? I’ve drawn on my own experiences and advice from Lynch to offer some ideas.
In this post, we will discuss ways to build relationships and empathy, manage noise levels and energy, and work effectively with staff from other departments in your library. In Part 2, we will discuss behavior and discipline.
When teens like and respect you, they will be more inclined to listen to what you have to say. If teens see you walking up to their table and flinch, it’s time for some relationship-building. Don’t only talk to them when they are doing something wrong. Go out of your way to chat with teens about their day, how much homework they have, their cool clothes or hair, or whatever you can think of. Try to pick up on what they like and remember it so you can ask them about it again. Often, the teens who spend time after school at the library are those who most crave—and need—adult attention. Show them you care and respect them, and they are more likely to show care and respect for you and the library. This is doubly beneficial: the teens will benefit from your relationship, and the Library will benefit from respectful teens.
Remember What It Was Like for You After School
When I was a teen, all I wanted to do when school let out was scarf down as much sugar as I could get my hands on, then collapse in front of the TV. I would lash out at anyone who asked me to do anything that didn’t involve Pepsi and the couch. Expecting teens in the library to sit still and do their homework right after school is a lot to ask, since this is essentially what they’ve been doing for the past seven hours. If they are running, climbing, or eating in places they aren’t allowed to eat, have some empathy as you correct them. Chances are they aren’t doing it to make you crazy.
Acknowledge Teens’ Intelligence and Maturity
Teens are just beginning to exert their independence, and lording over them will make them withdraw from you. They are old enough to know and understand rules. This knowledge should inform you when you talk to them about their behavior. I don’t mean a finger-wagging “You should know better”; I mean discussing why the rules exist in a conversational way. When you talk as though they cannot understand or you expect them to misbehave, you are implying that they are stupid or childish. They may argue with your reasons, but chances are they will see your logic and respond to the fact that you believe in their ability to do better. Explain why a behavior is unacceptable when you correct someone. “Because that’s the rule” is not a good enough reason to ask someone to do something. If you cannot think of a good explanation, it may be time to reconsider the rule.
Offering programs to your afterschool crowd not only means a (somewhat) captive audience for you, but it also gives teens something to focus and expend their energy on. Passive programs, craft supplies, and board games may capture teens’ attention and keep them from acting out. Many teens will be happy to participate in a volunteer project such as cutting out shapes for kids’ crafts or cleaning storytime toys.
Reconfigure Your Space
My first library job was in a small single-story building with a sizable afterschool crowd of children and teens in grades 3-8. Adult patrons commonly complained that it was impossible to get work done in our library from 3 to 6 p.m. Assuming you cannot build a new space, there are some ways you can reconfigure your current space to reduce noise. Try placing shelving units so that they serve as a sound barrier between your teen area and quiet areas. Place computers close to and facing one another so that teens playing on the same server can easily communicate. Put comfy furniture with a teen-friendly look in teen areas, and more adult-looking furniture in places you don’t want teens to hang out.
If you can’t move anything in the library, another option is to open your meeting room to teens after school whenever possible. This can help spread them out, reducing noise and clutter.
Create a Staff Afterschool Team
Inviting staff from all parts of the library to join a team for managing the afterschool crowd will show that you are listening to their concerns and care about their opinions. It will also give you much-needed help during the afterschool rush. At Addison Public Library, it’s “all hands on deck” after school. Staff are assigned to roam the library, and those at public desks are also put on alert. Before school lets out each day, these staff meet briefly so that everyone knows who is on the team that day, and to communicate about recent events at the library or in teens’ lives that will help staff know what to expect from teens. If you don’t have enough time or staff to form a team or hold a meeting, you can at least visit staff at the public service desks to let them know you’re there to help and give them a briefing on the situation that day. Read about the importance of training all staff to work with teens here.
Be An Advocate For Your Teens
Most likely, there are going to be some staff in your library who would be glad if the entire afterschool crowd just disappeared. They may speak disdainfully of or to the teens. They may have opinions of how to handle the teens that you know are not in the teens’ best interests. While you certainly must take other staff and patrons into consideration, don’t lose sight of your job to advocate for teens. Communicate to your supervisors and board how great of an opportunity the afterschool crowd offers the library to reach a population that is often difficult to get into library doors. Let them know what you could offer these teens with adequate staff and funding. Remind library management that teens are just as important and valuable as any other patron. Speak up against anything that would be detrimental to the teens. Educate your coworkers about why teens behave the ways they do, how to communicate with them, and what they need from their library. Learn more about teen advocacy here.
Check back soon for Part 2: Behavior and Discipline for some ideas on how to keep the peace when things aren’t going so smoothly.