The Interactions with Teens content area of the Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff centers on this main idea:
Recognizes the importance of relationships and communication in the development and implementation of quality teen library services, and implements techniques and strategies to support teens individually and in group experiences to develop self-concept, identity, coping mechanisms, and positive interactions with peers and adults.
As I’ve talked with library staff over the past several months I’ve become more and more aware of how important it is to connect this Competency content area to what library staff often label as teen behavior management issues. The reason why these go hand-in-hand is that if library staff build relationships with teens, then the teens will trust that staff and feel respected by them. And, when trust and respect exist a majority of behavioral issues are likely to go out the door.
Consider these two scenarios.
Scenario 1: A group of teens comes to the library every day after school. They spent the whole day in the classroom or school hallways or school cafeteria or maybe the school gym. They haven’t really had much time to hang-out with their friends and simply be teens. Beyond that many of the teens in the group might be hungry since they had school lunch at 10:30 AM and haven’t had anything to eat since.
When the teens walk in the door, no one says “hello” and several library give them a “look.” If staff do say “hello” that word is fraught with lots of what’s unsaid. That might be “Hello, oh no you are here again.” Or, “Hello, you better behave or you are out the door.”
The teens feel there is judgement behind the “hello” and after being cooped up in school all day they don’t have the energy, or desire, to deal with that. All they want is a place to hang-out, maybe have something to eat, talk with their friends, have conversations with adults who care about them, act their age, and maybe do some homework or learn about something they are interested in. However, there is no one in the library who really knows anything about the teens, except that they’ve been “trouble” in the past, and no one is trying to build a relationship that goes beyond questions like, “What do you like to read” or “What homework can I help you with?” As a result the teens are ready to burst and burst they do. Causing what library staff call “behavior management challenges.”
Scenario 2: The same teens come into the library after school but this time around the library staff greets each teen by name, asks them how their football game or band concert was, tells them where they can eat their afterschool snack, and let’s them know that there are some resources waiting in the teen area (or at some spot in the library) so they can continue to work on the project they started earlier in the week. The library staff has spent time getting to know the teens both inside and outside of the library. Some staff go to other out-of-school time organizations and chat with the teens there. Some go to school events and show their support for the teens at those times. All of the staff have regular conversations with the teens about their lives, their interests, their needs, their aspirations, and so on. These library staff have relationships with the teens and guess what, there are no (or few) behavior management challenges.
It’s not necessarily easy to build the types of relationships suggested in scenario 2. However, by investing time and staffing in building those relationships the library moves beyond having to manage teen behavior to creating an environment in which teens and staff have mutual respect and trust. Through that mutual respect and trust teens have the chance to be mentored by adults, connect with adult role models, and are able to develop skills and gain knowledge that is sure to lead them to opportunities for lifelong success.
Next time you hear yourself or a colleague mentioning the need to manage the behavior of teens, take a minute to think about how long-term “behavior management” comes not from rules or training, but from developing relationships. If you do move from a focus on managing behavior to a focus on building relationships, it’s likely that over time you and your colleagues will never have to think about teen “behavior management” again.