Commitment to Client Group

Top Tips for Working with Kids (When You Don’t Usually Work with Kids)

You never signed up to work with kids, you never expected to work with kids… and yet, here you are, covering the Children’s Department. This is a pretty common scenario, and it can be frustrating for people who worry they’re out of their depth or those who just feel rusty or out of place. Even for people who have had children of their own, suddenly dealing with strangers’ children can be an alarming experience!

The good news is it doesn’t have to be! Here are some tried-and-true tips for working with children that
will help you feel more prepared, more confident, and more versatile within your library.

Photo by Christine Herman
  1. Don’t be afraid to engage with the child directly.
    Even when the parent or other adult is right there holding their hand, it’s OK for you to speak to the child who needs assistance finding a book on their favorite character or wants to know where the train books are. It’s most helpful when you can be at their level. Sometimes this means getting down on one knee, so you can be face to face. This shows they have your attention and that you are listening. There’s no need to press the issue, if they are shy or don’t seem to want to engage, but offering them the chance to speak with an adult outside their usual circle will create an opportunity to build a relationship and to let them build their social skills.
  2. Practice active listening and patience while communicating.
    Connection starts with listening and being connected leads to mutual respect. This is the best thing you can hope for when working with young people! In all communication that takes place between two people, only a small percentage of what you communicate is the words that you say. Much of the message you send comes across in the way that you say it. Always, it’s not as much about what you say, as it is about what they hear.

    Acknowledge what they have to say with a response that repeats back enough to show you are listening. Ask questions that take more than just a one-word response. Don’t rush the conversation or cut them off, even if you feel you grasp what they need. This is good practice in communication at all ages, but it is especially helpful for kids who are still learning communication skills and benefit from your attention and validation.

    Kids are developmentally different from adults. This doesn’t mean you have to “talk down to them.” It does mean you need to understand that they process information differently than adults do. This is where patience can really help out. Be prepared to repeat yourself using different phrasing or an example they might understand. It might take effort to present information in a way that reaches them, but it is worth the work when it leads to understanding.
  3. Use positive phrasing.
    Instead of “Don’t run”, try “We always walk inside the library. It helps us stay safe!” Instead of “You’re being too loud”, try “Please try to use a softer voice.” Instead of “You’ve made a mess, you need to clean up”, try “It looks like you had fun! How can we clean up?”

    Remember that kids (from toddlers, right up to teenagers) don’t have the same brain function as adults. They haven’t yet developed the social skills, coping mechanisms, and sense of boundaries that most adults have. Being negative or using blaming language can trigger negative emotions and responses that are easily avoided by maintaining a positive and understanding approach.
  4. When stopping misbehavior, offer alternatives.
    Our brains often can’t NOT think about something. This is a learned skill that people of all ages struggle with. This is at the root of The Game (a mind game wherein one loses any time one thinks of The Game) and the Pink Elephant Paradox. When we say, “No food near the computers”, it doesn’t help kids realize what they can or should do. They might now know that you don’t want them to eat near the computer, but all they know beyond that is they are hungry. Try adding “Please eat your snack at the table” (or in the lounge, or whatever is appropriate to your location).
  5. When enforcing rules, be clear, firm, fair, and consistent.
    Hold everyone to the same standards. Recognize developmental differences, but don’t expect more from young people than you do from adults. If you look the other way when the knitting club gets loud laughing with each other, you should do the same when a group of kids are playing Roblox together.

    There will always be situations where it seems reasonable to bend a rule slightly, or you are facing a gray area. In these cases, communicate that it’s a special situation or that you are willing to make a special exception. The last thing you want is to set standards that other staff might not expect or be able to follow. As much as possible, the better bet is to lean on the fact that those rules exist for a reason and it’s more fair for everyone when you are consistent at all times.
  6. Don’t initiate physical contact.
    Generally, it’s OK to offer a fist bump or a high five, but the best practice is to allow the child to initiate any physical contact.
  7. Remember that practice makes perfect.
    Confidence is a valuable tool for anyone working with kids. Most kids are surprisingly good at reading adults and at times it seems they can smell desperation like some animals can supposedly smell fear. Some will withdraw if they sense your unease, while others may exploit your discomfort (aka push your buttons). With preparation and practice, you’ll feel more confident in all your interactions. So embrace the chance to work with young people! At the least you’ll be building your own skills, and possibly you’ll be discovering new things about yourself and others!

What tips would YOU Offer to someone who doesn’t normally work with kids?


Today’s guest contributor is Christine Herman. Christine is the Youth Services Department manager at the Main Library of the Stark Library system in Northeast Ohio. She can be reached at cherman@starklibrary.org.


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

This post addresses ALSC Core Competency I: Commitment to Client Group

4 comments

  1. Tess P.

    Thanks for this lovely, insightful, and upbeat post! I especially appreciate the points you make about children’s development and what is reasonable to expect of them. As someone who has spent several decades working with children, I also appreciate the reminder that not everyone is as comfortable and tuned in with kids as I am. I teach children’s services and children’s literature in an MLIS program now and often have students in my classes who haven’t been around kids since they were kids themselves and are (understandably) very wary. I will add this post to my recommended reading list for them now!

    1. Christine H.

      Thanks, Tess! I’m hopeful that we who work with young people regularly can utilize this by sharing where it is needed, so your comment is very uplifting.

  2. Kelli Cozzoli

    Christine,
    This was a very educational post. We often unconsciously jump to the “negative approach” when we are stressed or tired. The affects of such talk sets a tone to the child (possibly indefinitely).

  3. Michele A.

    How exciting, Christine, that your post will be added to a recommended reading list for students in an MLIS program! The points that spoke to me were use positive phrasing and when stopping misbehavior, offer alternatives. These points bring me back to training that I received when working at Canton Montessori School. I personally appreciate these reminders even as one who works with children often.

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