This is not an uncommon situation. I’ve had many conversations with librarians who share similar stories. “I did all this research and developed this awesome new Sensory Storytime program…but no one came. I want to draw new families to the library, but I don’t know how to reach them. What should I do?” My response if often much longer than the inquiring librarians ever intended, but that’s because it’s a multifaceted issue. There are many different things to consider when hosting a program for children with special needs. So, if no one is coming to your Sensory Storytime at your library, here are a few things you can do:
- Cultivate Partnerships: Partner with local organizations to help spread the word. There are many places in your community that serve families with children with special needs, including hospitals, health centers, therapy centers, doctor’s offices, park districts, and museums. Contact your local chapter of state-wide and national disability related organizational groups. Consider hosting a special needs resource fair at your library, like Evanston Public Library did just this month, and invite these organizations to present at your library. Otherwise, ask if you can attend one at a local school or community event. Many organizations are looking for free recreational opportunities to share with families, and Sensory Storytime would be just the kind of program they might be willing to help promote.
- Rebrand: To keep a program fresh and appealing to our communities, sometimes we need to repackage and rebrand it. Maybe the name “Sensory Storytime” is not a draw to families. Consider changing the name to “Special Needs Storytime,” or use more inclusive language like “Storytime for Children of All Abilities.” Maybe your program is being offered on a day of the week or a time of day that doesn’t work for families in your community. Switch it up and change the day and time, but don’t forgot to ask families first what works best for them. Here are also 10 Quick Tips for Marketing to this audience.
- Focus on Inclusion: The reason your library is receiving low attendance–or none at all–could be because a storytime program specifically for children with special needs doesn’t work for your families. It can be hard to attend a program for one child, when there are two or three other younger or older children that don’t fit in the correct age bracket for that program. Consider a more inclusive approach and develop programming that is open to the entire family, including siblings. There are many benefits to having the family attend as a unit, including the fact that it is a lot easier for families to attend together.
- Try a Different Program: You could switch gears and focus on developing a completely different program all together. Perhaps you might want to target a different age group, offering Sensory School-age Programming for older children or Sensory-Friendly Films for the whole family. You might even want to host a Board Game and Pizza Night for Tweens of All Abilities, like Deerfield Public Library did. For whatever reason, a storytime program may not be a draw in your community, but there are many other things you at your library can do to offer programming for this audience.
If you have already tried these tips and still aren’t reaching families, perhaps library programming is not what your community wants. And that’s okay. Many families with children with special needs are over-scheduled with doctor visits, therapies, parent/teacher conferences about IEPs, and play dates. Instead, here are some other things your library might want to consider to expand services to families with children with special needs:
- Focus on Outreach: Instead of trying to invite kids to the library, make trips to the local schools and make visit their classrooms. Bring Sensory Storytime on the road, or even consider asking if their class would be able to do a community outing to visit the library. There is a lot you can do to make these visits meaningful. Here are just a few ideas, including curriculum on life skills teaching manners, as well as some general tips about visiting classrooms.
- Develop Your Collections: Don’t forget about your library materials! You can serve the needs of families with children with special needs by developing your existing collections, or creating new ones. You may want to consider Early Literacy or Sensory Kits, connecting with your local Braille and Talking Book Libraries or ordering more books in braille, offering more hi-lo reading material, or developing your parent/teacher collection to include more books on special needs related topics. Don’t forget about the Schneider Family Book Award, which recognizes books that highlight the disability experience. Just as we work to make our programs and services more inclusive and diverse, we shouldn’t forget that our collections should represent and reflect the diversity in our communities as well.
- Train Staff: Even if your library has the best new program or service, it won’t matter if other library staff members in other departments are not committed to serving families inclusively. This could be a huge deterrent for some families. Disability Awareness Training is necessary for us in libraries to make our libraries more accessible and friendly for everyone. No matter what your library does to welcome children with special needs–whether it is programming, outreach, services, or collections–it’s important that your entire organization is on board with inclusive customer service.
What are your ideas for welcoming families to your Sensory Storytime programs? Feel free to share below!