Guest Blogger

Serving our Youngest Patrons: Two presentations from #PLA2024

For this post, I thought I’d focus on two presentations that use a research-based understanding of early learning to boost learning and build community.

First up: SEL and storytime

The first presentation, Storytimes as Social Spaces: Encouraging Community Cultivation and Social-Emotional Learning, looked at social-emotional learning (SEL) during storytimes to both support children’s development and support the community that makes that development possible.  The session was presented by three researchers, Dr. J. Elizabeth Mills, Dr. Kathleen Campana of Kent State, and Jacqueline Kociubuk of the University of Wisconsin.  Their studies of the Read, Baby, Read initiative at the Free Library of Philadelphia resulted in a deeper understanding of effective strategies for encouraging SEL for young children and their families.

So what is Social-Emotional Learning?  CASEL, one of the go-to entities working in the field of SEL, defines it as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions.”  Children practice SEL through interactions with adults and other children as well as authentic experiences that allow them to explore their own identities.

As you might imagine, the pandemic lockdown highlighted the importance of SEL for families and educators alike.  I see the impacts of this social isolation regularly: for example, in preschool storytime, we need to work just a bit more on self-regulation and separating from adults.  Helping children form strong and secure attachments is an essential way that librarians can help young children thrive.

Giving tips, building community

Happily, librarians are already doing much of this work!  If you’re welcoming children by name to the library, putting out toys to encourage play, or incorporating books with diverse representations in your storytimes, congratulations!  You are fostering social-emotional learning.  In fact, the presenters had slides chock-full of SEL strategies (aligned to CASEL’s framework), many of which I already do.  To be honest, it felt a bit like when I give an aside in storytime to support something that is already going on at home.  Dr. Mills and Campana pointed out strategies that librarians in the room could either begin or continue to implement in the future, but the point was to do so with more intention.

I think this intentionality is what resonated the most with librarians in the room, second only to the idea that supporting the community of families is an essential way that we can support SEL learning outside of library walls.  Many who came up during the question period at the end of the session were in some way reflecting on the practicalities of assisting SEL and encouraging community in our storytime spaces.  As one librarian put it at the end, “I’ve always felt that this is what is at the heart of what we do in storytime.”

Dr. Mills discusses social-emotional learning in babies and toddlers.

Here I’ll pivot to another presentation that centers on intentionality in early learning outcomes in a community.  Reaching Underserved Families with TALK: Text and Learn for Kindergarten centered on an early learning tips-by-text program piloted by the Ypsilanti District Library along with support by LSTA and IMLS funding.

Meeting patrons where they are: their phones.

The presenters were an all-Michigan crew: Jodi Krahnke, Head of Youth Services at Ypsilanti District Library; Lisa Hoenig, director at the same system; and Cathi Lancaster, Youth Services Coordinator at the Library of Michigan.  Together, they described their successful design and implementation of a service in which patrons could sign up for early literacy tips delivered by text twice per week until their child’s fifth birthday.  TALK allows librarians to reach caregivers with bite-sized early learning tips and library updates in hopes of changing adult behaviors that would ultimately influence school readiness district-wide.  It’s even responsive to age: by entering a child’s birthday, caregivers will receive age-appropriate texts as their child grows.

As you might expect, the program was successful in Ypsilanti.  So successful in fact, it’s already been extended to statewide programs in Michigan and Indiana.  The TALK crew is busy: they’ve established partnerships to get the word out, created implementation toolkits, and had their materials evaluated by preschool curriculum experts at High Scope and translated into Spanish.

I’m crossing my fingers that an Ohio program is next, but if you’re interested in doing this sort of thing in your system, a user-friendly interface is already accessible (fees attached) and an open-source option will be on its way (stay tuned!).

Just a few of the many TALK marketing materials featured in the presentation slides.

While these programs might appear very different on their surface, I think they have a lot in common.  Both are practical, no-nonsense ways to boost the development of our youngest patrons at home.  The teams behind these initiatives see these children holistically as people who exist outside library walls and statistical reports in their own unique, social contexts.  Serving and supporting communities is, in this librarian’s opinion, what it’s all about!

(Photos courtesy of A. Mackey)


Alice Mackey (she/her/hers) is a Youth Services Librarian at Delaware County District Library in Ohio.  Though this is her eleventh year in libraries, this was her first PLA experience.  She was excited to sponge up all the ideas she can get her brain on! 


This post addresses ALSC Core Competency VII: Professionalism and Professional Development

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

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