by Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski
With budgetary and staffing issues currently facing libraries, children’s programming managers and staff may wonder, “Why begin a new storytime program for children with special needs and their families?” The answer: to provide support for a vastly underserved area of our population. Efforts to provide special needs programming are an important aspect of library service which results in numerous rewards for families, communities and libraries.
During the summer of 2008 when two parents inquired separately about storytimes specifically geared towards children with special needs at the Matthews Branch of the Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County (PLCMC), I saw an opportunity. At the time, this type of programming was not offered at PLCMC so I scheduled a date for August 2008 to respond to the expressed interest. What I learned as a result—if two parents convey an interest in special needs programming, many parents who have not voiced their opinions also have interest in special needs programming. The first program’s response was extremely positive with 38 children and parents present, aware of the program entirely by word-of-mouth through special needs forums or email lists. Parents preferring a storytime for children with special needs may have previously shied away from coming to the library, apprehensive of other parents’ lack of understanding of their child’s behavior. The resounding positive comment we hear from participants about our “Rhythm and Rhyme Storytime for Children with Special Needs and their Families” is that they can relax and enjoy the program because they are not being judged by presenters or parents in attendance.
Here are some tips for those providing storytimes for children with special needs and their families for the first time:
- Request advanced registration for the first program and be the primary contact in order to speak with the parents about their child. I don’t recommend asking specifically about a child’s disability; instead inquire more broadly about a child’s likes and dislikes. While you will not plan the “perfect program” as a result of this communication, you will come away from the conversation with a better understanding of the children and families attending the class.
- Warmly welcome siblings, family members and family caregivers (e.g. therapists) to the event as their involvement helps create a nurturing family atmosphere.
- Decide if you think age restrictions are of value to you. I have not placed age restrictions on our programs due to developmental differences in children that physical age does not reflect. We have positively served children ranging from ages 2-16 at our storytime while for planning purposes focusing on preschool content.
- Seek Library Administration’s support to provide this service. Chances are your immediate or higher level managers will know a family with a child in the target audience. They may be able to network with their contacts to spread news of the program and will understand by speaking with families how little libraries offer specific to this population and how valuable families consider this service.
- There is a benefit to having two presenters for the program. If another staff member is not available, it may be possible to recruit a parent volunteer. We successfully utilize double visuals during the program. For example, we may read a book while showing the flannel story simultaneously or using other props (puppets, laminated visual aids) to offer the children more than one way to experience the book. We also offer opportunities for “hands-on” activities which benefit from another person assisting.
- Collect the participants’ email addresses during each program and offer to send reminders of upcoming events via email. The parents appreciate reminders because their schedules are too busy to seek out the information. I also email two local chapters of the Autism Society and they post the information on their community calendar for each of our monthly programs.
- Following the first or second program, present the parents with at minimum a survey or if possible, schedule time after the program for a limited (less than 10 question) focus group to receive input on how the program is going, what participants would suggest for improvements, etc.
- Accept that you will not please everybody and that is okay. After the first program we had one parent comment that their child responded best to presenters being in the center of the circle with the book while another parent responded to the same survey by asking that presenters be at the front of the room. Focus on manageable requests. For example, we were easily able to respond to suggestions that we have larger than standard crayons available for coloring and stuffed animals or pillows scattered throughout the room during the program.
- Book the event room for an extra ½ hour following the program so that the families may socialize. This may be the first time participants have met each other in person rather than as a “screen name.” Also, for some families this is their only visit to the library so it’s preferable not to have the experience be a rushed one. We offer puppets, coloring sheets and classical music during this time and remain available in the room to interact with the families.
- You may wish to have opening announcements at your program establishing a relaxed atmosphere. My announcements are consistently the same and placed before I review our agenda for the day using our schedule board. I remind the parents that they are free to come and go as they please during the program; that we don’t expect the children to remain seated or quiet; and that we aren’t offering the program to be exclusionary but instead all participants are welcome at all of our events.
- Reach out to community organizations related to special needs. Attending local chapter meetings of the Autism Society and the Down Syndrome Association to make contacts and receive feedback is valuable. The Parent Advocates of the Autism Society of Mecklenburg County have been instrumental in improving our programming–educating us on the creation and inclusion of the schedule board and a better understanding of autism spectrum behaviors exhibited by our participants.
- Visit websites of organizations such as the Autism Society of America (www.autism-society.org), Autism Speaks (www.autismspeaks.org) as well as the National Down Syndrome Society (www.ndss.org) to become familiar with characteristics or behaviors which may be demonstrated by children attending your program.
- When programming to children on the autism spectrum, please remember the saying–“If you have met one person with autism, you have met one person with autism.” Because of the range of spectrum disorder, each child’s behaviors or response will be unique. Please be understanding of these differences.
- Be flexible and accepting of your mistakes realizing that you may need to adjust mid-program to best work with your audience’s needs. Keep your sense of humor at all times to maintain a light and enjoyable program.
Part Two of this blog series will cover some specific facets of the program plan for children with special needs.
Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski is the Children’s Services Manager at Matthews Branch of Public Library of Charlotte & Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.
Below are the links for the other four articles of Tricia Bohanon Twarogowski’s Programming for Children with Special Needs series: