April 2018 | Volume XXXVI. Issue 2 »

Teen Services: A Fresh Perspective

March 26, 2018
Jordan Neal, Champaign Public Library

Every weekday when the bell rings, approximately 100 middle and high school students arrive at the Champaign Public Library. The library is right across the street from the schools and quickly fills up with students, which is a good thing—until it’s not.

A large influx of middle and high school teens can bring a certain level of chaos that is not always appreciated by other library users. This article describes how my library responded to the challenges of hosting teens after school
and how that response facilitated my own transition onto the library’s “Teen Team.” The Teen Team consists of eight staff members who have shown an interest in teen services and who are willing to present programs targeting our teen audience. We are all from the Adult Services department although staff from other departments help when they can and they are welcome. Our library acknowledges that providing service to teens may not be for everyone.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am no expert in Teen Services. I’ve worked in my public library for 15 years but I only started working directly with teens six months ago. I was excited but very apprehensive when I discovered I’d be taking on new teen-related responsibilities. One of my first duties was to be involved in the process of reexamining how we approached middle and high school customers.

Our library recognized that we weren’t going to magically eliminate problematic teen behavior like loud talking and rowdiness. Achieving different outcomes meant proactively addressing the needs of our teens after school. The first step involved the entire library staff developing a strategy for how to work with teens. After receiving training from Topper Steinman, a recognized expert in working with teens and young adults, we devised the Three Rs: Respect, Relate, and Redirection:


  • Be welcoming
  • Be glad to see them
  • Smile
  • Empathize with their need to socialize and burn energy


  • Learn their names
  • Recognize them
  • Show interest
  • Compliment
  • Praise positive behavior
  • Remember how you felt at that age


  • Give choices: Teen Lounge, TeenSpace, café, quiet study, outside
  • Suggest things to do
  • Disarm with humor
  • Ask for their opinion or help

The first two Rs—Respect and Relate—did not come easily to me. My previous work in the library was with adults and my experiences with after-school student groups mainly involved addressing behavioral issues with an exasperated reprimand. I had to reset my way of thinking. Simply changing to a positive attitude and proactively approaching students with a smile significantly improved my interactions and intentions.

The third R—Redirect—involved creating more options for the teens. Each Monday through Thursday we host a Teen Lounge, which includes stations for gaming, crafts, ping pong, and even an air hockey table. The need for the Teen Lounge was greatest during the week because teens come directly to the library after school on those days. Initially, Teen Lounge was only held on Thursdays but due to demand we increased staff and expanded hours so that the lounge is now open Monday through Thursday. We are now considering opening the Teen Lounge on Friday as well. Opening a special place just for teens to relax and have fun helps redirect some of their energy in a way that doesn’t disrupt other library users. If the teens don’t feel like being in the lounge, they can read manga or use computers in the TeenSpace or even work in small groups in one of the library’s study rooms.

Our library’s approach to teens went beyond addressing behavior prohibited by our Rules of Conduct (assault, threats, theft, etc.) to cultivate a safe and respectful atmosphere for all. It incorporated input from multiple departments, open communication, and redefining outcomes when it came to Teen Services. Security staff and the Teen Team worked together to implement our approach. One of our first steps was presenting our newly defined approach to the teens while actively gauging their feedback. In collaboration with the assistant principal from the closest middle school, our security manager and teen librarian presented a pizza/Jeopardy party to inform the teens of expectations in the library. The teens were receptive, asked questions, and reflected acceptance of the library’s guidelines.

The Three Rs strategy has resulted in fewer kids being asked to leave and fewer suspended library privileges, more empathy among staff, and more engaged students. Balancing accountability and behavioral expectations while welcoming and hosting students is not an easy task, especially when you yourself are still learning. The following tips have helped me:

  • No program is perfect. Some will even fail. But with failure comes valuable insight that can be used to provide better programming in the future.
  • Be genuine. It goes a long way. I loved the Teen Team that existed before I joined and my goal was to be just like them. However, I quickly learned that I was unable to effectively duplicate their service. Instead I had to understand my own strengths with teens and learn how to best utilize these strengths.
  • Have an awesome teen librarian and team. My teen librarian is enthusiastic, listens to new ideas, and understands the challenges of daily programming. Our team members support each other and keep discussions informal, yielding a creative, diverse mix of our best efforts. Since we all work directly with students, we help each other stay focused on our daily programming and this collaborative effort has strengthened our camaraderie.
  • Listen to students. Teens love when adults listen to and value their opinions because it doesn’t happen often. If I want to know what videogames to buy, I ask the teens. I also ask them if they enjoyed a certain program and then follow up by asking why or why not. Talking to teens provides me with an informal assessment that is vital to successful programming.

These positive yet pragmatic strategies worked for me. By no means have I spelled out all the details involved with presenting successful programs or developing strategies to engage teens at our library. What I hope to relay is that a combination of communication, resources, and support can facilitate any transition.
I’m fortunate to have library leaders who not only encourage discussion about positive approaches to customers but host the forum for the discussion. Working in Teen Services was something I once considered daunting, if not impossible. However, allowing myself to step beyond the fear of working with this age group has provided a whole new realm of opportunities and experiences for me.

Pro Tips for Creating a Positive Teen Culture at Your Library

It’s 2:30 on a Tuesday and library staff members are starting to fortify themselves. Emergency chocolate comes out. Afternoon coffee is poured. And then you hear the declaration, “Here they come!” before your bustling library is flooded with excitable, energetic teens and tweens looking for a place to hang out after school. Is it a dream come true, a nightmare, or somewhere in between? Confidently and effectively addressing teen behavior, especially in a large group setting, can be a tricky task, and it calls for an all-hands-on-deck approach from library staff in every department.

Fortunately, the Young Adult Services Forum is available as a resource to assist libraries and librarians in supporting positive teen interactions. Our tips here range from simple things you can do today, all the way up to larger initiatives that offer an opportunity for whole-library evaluation of service priorities. These sixteen suggestions were collected from YASF members and teen librarians across Illinois, and are based on the belief that positive teen interactions grow from a place of mutual respect. Keeping respect at the core of our library service is something every library staff member can work to embrace: it models a dynamic our teens understand, and sets a calm and confident tone for rolling with the unexpected.

EVERYONE can start here:

  • Greet your teens regularly. Smile and welcome them to the library. Introduce yourself by name and try to learn their names, too. This helps build relationships and fosters accountability.
  • Balance your positive and corrective interactions. Be sure all your facetime with teens isn’t discipline focused; ask them about their day or the game they’re playing. Being more than just the person who tells them to get their feet off the table creates a more positive, less confrontational environment.
  • Acknowledge and thank teens for positive behavior. It’s all too easy to give troublemakers all the attention. When teens clean up, work hard on studying, or are just generally great, make sure you let them know.
  • “We don’t do that here.” A handy phrase to keep in mind. This is what you can use when teens want to explain away or justify their behavior. It ends the conversation and shows that it is not up for discussion. “That might be true for you, but we don’t do that here.”
  • Acknowledge the sometimes awkward dynamic of enforcing rules. Prefacing minor corrections with “You already know this…” or “I really hate sounding like my mom, but…” can help you
    still seem approachable and less like you’re policing them.
  • Take an “every day is a new day” approach. Let teens start fresh each day. “It’s not you we don’t want to see, it’s your negative behavior.”
  • Check your ego. Hard as it might be, try not to take negative interactions personally. Give teens the benefit of the doubt: Their behavior is not about us, even when it sometimes feels that way.
  • Redirect behavior with alternative options. Tell them what they can do, not what they can’t. “Please use headphones” instead of “No speakers.”


  • Clearly communicate behavior expectations. Let teens know the behavior guidelines and consequences. These should be consistent, requiring staff to be on the same page regarding what behaviors are acceptable and procedures for enforcement (warning, leaving for the day, etc.).
  • Get to know your teens, and build relationships with them. Teens are much more likely to listen, respond, and learn when they feel supported and understood.
  • Give them something to do. The adage “If you feed them, they will come” is dead. Today, it’s “If you engage them, they will come.” Give them opportunities for exploration, something to create, a problem to solve. So many teen behavior issues arise simply because they’re bored.
  • Follow through, both individually and as a team. Don’t make idle threats. If you say that this is someone’s last warning, don’t give another before applying consequences.
  • Keep everyone in the loop. Public staff can all be dealing with the same issue individually, so find ways to keep everyone on the same page. Communicate repeated problems and interactions through a log, regular meetings, at shift changes, etc.


Create policies that apply universally to all patrons, but enforce your rules equitably. A library-wide problem needs a library-wide solution. Don’t make special rules for teens, or reprimand them for behaviors that would be acceptable from other patrons, but be intentional and thoughtful about addressing their behavior issues.

If a rule is always broken, it may be time to reevaluate the rule. Rules that are consistently broken often point to problems with our space or our services, not with our patrons.

Embrace a culture of inclusion/universal acceptance. Teens are patrons too, just like the person who comes in to read the paper every day or the preschooler in storytime. If the entire library and its staff are united in the way they treat teens, the teens will feel comfortable and accountable.

Find more ideas and discussions about working with teens in libraries through the ILA Young Adult Services Forum’s Facebook group (facebook.com/groups/ILAYASF) and Google group (groups.google.com/forum/#!forum/yasf).

Edited and compiled by Lisa Barefield, Wheaton Public Library; Becca Boland, Ela Area Public Library; Heather Booth, Thomas Ford Memorial Library; and Evan Mather, Mount Prospect Public Library

With contributions from Sara Brunkhorst, Indian Trails Public Library District; Emily Fardoux, Lincolnwood Public Library District;  Izabel Gronski, Oak Lawn Public Library; Andrea Johnson, Mount Prospect Public Library District; Elizabeth Lynch, Addison Public Library; Joe Marcantonio, Plainfield Public Library District; Sarah Stumpf, Rockford Public Library; and Tyler Works, Evanston Public Library

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