Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's Not You, Just the Nature of the Beast

Working with teens and tweens can be one of the most rewarding jobs available.  It can also be the most frustrating.  I have often found myself facing disappointment at the turnout for Teen Programs at my library and, in frustration, reached out to my fellow YA Librarians to figure out the secret to successful Teen Programming.  The results?  We ALL experienced those feelings of failure and frustration - especially when new to the job.

Here's what I've learned in my 5+ years of working with teens - It's not you, it's them.

More often than not it is not you or your program that is the problem, but the teens themselves.  Young Adults often do NOT have control over their schedules.  Commitments to school, extra curricular activities, clubs, church and other activities take up the majority of time for many Young Adults.  This is especially true for teens before they get a drivers licence when they are dependent on friends or family for transportation.  Visiting the library is not a priority for many parents once their children progress out of storytime and school age activities.  If you want a strong Young Adult program, you and your fellow staff members must train parents to keep their offspring involved in library programs beyond childhood.

How does one do this?
Your Children's Department is probably already set up and running - storytimes, after school activities etc.  Libraries tend to start loosing participation of youth in 4th or 5th grade as they age out of the Children's activities and are not presented with appealing alternatives.  Create a Tween Program to address this situation!  Build on popular Children's activities to funnel active youth into feed from Children's programs all the way to Young Adult.  I have found that the more "exclusive" you are the more popular the program will be (i.e. only Tweens are allowed in Tween Programs and only Teens in Young Adult programs).  This way children can look toward the Tween Programs with anticipation while the Tweens look toward the Young Adult Programs.  While exclusivity is essential to building a Tween/Teen program there should be some opportunity for crossover between tweens & teens.  Create some programs that allow the tweens and teens to interact and form bonds.

What kind of programming works?
This is actually a trick question.  Every library and community is different and a variety of programming should be experimented with to determine what works for your library.  Above all: DO NOT BECOME DISCOURAGED!  If you have only three teens at a program that's okay.  If you have 50, even better! 

The secret to working with youth is understanding that it isn't personal.  This is especially hard for me to remember because I AM personally invested in providing the best programming I can for the teens of my community.  If you host an activity that only has a couple teens talk to them, find out what they like/dislike about the program.  Then try the program again in a few months.  I've found that an activity might work great once and utterly flop the next time - and the opposite as well.  Don't be afraid to try new things and to reach out to teens.