This series will explore the lessons that I learned about storytime through my own self-education process–through many hours of research, attending conferences, and my favorite method of learning, hands-on experience.
When I first started working in the children’s department of a public library, I never really considered that I should have figured out some sort of philosophy around “classroom management” or discipline, for storytime, or general library happenings. I was more worried about whether or not my calm and quiet demeanor would be suited to reading stories aloud to young children, or if anyone would be able to tell how horrible my singing voice actually is (okay, it may not be that bad, but it’s definitely not good). Although hands-on experience can be the best instructor, I wish I would have had a firmer grasp on my beliefs around discipline and the ways in which I might approach discipline, specifically in the library setting. I haven’t taken any youth services specific courses in my MLIS program yet, but I don’t imagine that “classroom management” will be covered in depth, or at all. Even when I was studying to be a teacher, classroom management is something that was never explicitly taught.
So now that we’re talking about discipline, I’d like to first start out by saying that I take issue with the notion of discipline, and I don’t necessarily think there’s a place for discipline, in the traditional sense, in the library setting. Discipline implies some sort of punishment, and punishment, in my opinion, is not the most productive approach. Discipline in the punitive sense is just a band-aid, and it’s crucial for us to take a closer look at the overall, holistic approach that we use when interacting with the children we serve, because at the end of the day, those person-to-person interactions really are the crux of our job.
The topic of discipline in libraries doesn’t get a ton of attention, but it’s something that needs to be at the forefront of our minds, especially those of us who are aspiring youth services librarians. I’ve seen adults get frustrated and lose their temper with children. I’ve witnessed seemingly progressive white librarians over-disciplining children of color. We know what is possible when we allow the literal policing of children to take place in our public libraries. The library should be a place where everyone feels welcome, and even if we can’t change our organizational policies, there are ways to ways to make a difference on a departmental level, or even on an individual level.
At one of the libraries I work at, we use an approach that we call positive redirection to redirect behaviors that may cause harm to the children themselves or the children around them. Our space is a little different than what you might imagine a typical children’s department to look like. The center of our department is devoted to play-based activities, like Imagination Playground blocks, a light bright wall, a puppet theatre, and we even have a slide. We allow running (gasp!) in that area, and the kids can get as loud as they’d like, for the most part.
It would be incredibly cruel for us to provide all of the activities I’ve listed, and then turn around and reprimand children for being children. We expect that there will be a great deal of movement and some situations where we’ll have to mediate, but the joy we see on the kids’ faces is totally worth it at the end of the day.
Positive redirection for us means that when we see a group of kids running through the stacks, where running is not permitted, we approach them and say something like “I know it’s fun to run with your friends, but we can’t run on the grey floor because we could get hurt. If you follow me I can show you the red floor, and it’s okay to run there.” Or “we can run on the red floor, but we have to use our walking feet on the grey floor.”
We also get a lot of children who like to climb up the slide, and we don’t allow that for safety reasons. I can’t tell you how many times a day I say “we can go up the stairs and down the slide, but we can’t go up the slide.” In storytime and program settings, there’s a lot of reminding kids to sit on their bottoms so their friends can see. If kids are extra wiggly and seem to have a lot of energy, we’ll play a song and do some dancing with scarves or shakers, and facilitating brief breathing exercises before the next story always help to create a calm atmosphere and refocus their attention. Rather than sticking to my lesson plan, if something is not working, I will always adapt my plans. If the kids aren’t into it, it’s time to move on. In Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community, Alfie Kohn quotes William Glaser on the notion of discipline:
To focus on discipline is to ignore the real problem: We will never be able to get students (or anyone else) to be in good order if, day after day, we try to force them to do what they do not find satisfying.
While Kohn’s book discusses discipline in the classroom setting, his overall philosophy applies to any work we do with children. Before we seek to blame children for “misbehaving,” we must look at our choices regarding our space, our programming, our policies, and the language we use when addressing the children we serve. These choices should be child-centered, and they should be setting children up to succeed, and allowing them to thrive when they visit the library.
Don’t hesitate to look outside of the library for inspiration. There is a lot to gain by reading books on education or parenting to develop your approach to discipline. I recommend books like Kohn’s Beyond Discipline, as well as How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King. Even though I haven’t had a ton of interviews in libraryland, employers have always asked how I might handle various behaviors, so developing a philosophy of your own will help you figure out your beliefs and values when it comes to discipline, and will also help you decide whether or not a particular library setting might be right for you.
Since I just started a second part-time job, it’s been a bit of a challenge to gauge what my new colleagues deem acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior, and when it’s time to step in. I’m not an expert, but I do know that I always carry my patient and kind attitude with me wherever I am, and I hope that’s apparent to the patrons I serve.
What is your approach to discipline in the library?
Stefanie Molinaro is a first year student pursuing her MLIS through Wayne State University’s distance program, with a focus on library services to children. She has been working in libraries for about two years, and currently works as a youth services assistant librarian at a public library in a northwestern suburb of Chicago. Before discovering her passion for library work, Stefanie studied English Language Arts in undergrad and completed some graduate work in the field of education. Stefanie is interested in the intersections between librarianship and social justice work, and some of her career goals include creating consciousness-raising programming for children and teens, and providing library services to incarcerated youth. When she’s not working or studying, she loves to volunteer in her community, hang out with her cat (the one true love of her life), and ponder ways to dismantle white supremacy. You can find her on Twitter at @stefmolinaro, or on her blog at radstorytime.blogspot.com.