Whether a teen is well-adjusted – or as well-adjusted as any teen can be – or one dealing with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) – they need an adult they can trust. And they need to find the library a safe, welcoming space. For that to happen, you have to build a relationship with them. This starts with communication. So, how do you open the conversation and build on it? If you are going to be successful at it, you should like the students and have empathy for the emotional stew in they are living in.
Having just completed the manuscript for my upcoming book Classroom Management for School Librarians, I am mindful of the importance of being able to reach teens. Among mammals, the young adolescents push at the boundaries, learning their strengths and how far they can go before being stopped. In our world, there is an underlying disagreement about how grown up they are. Teens want to be treated as adults in the very areas adults think they are not ready. At the same time, adults want teens to take on certain responsibilities that teens feel they shouldn’t have to do because they are still kids. It’s an ongoing challenge.
In the school setting, you rarely get involved in the same sort of push-pull tension that occurs between teens and parents. However, you do have to get past any resistance they may have to you and to school in general. The best way to reach them and create a relationship is to interact with them as adults, while being quietly mindful that there are areas where they are still decidedly kids.
In a post on We Are Teachers, Alexandra Frost explains Four Ways to Show Teens Respect So You Can Earn It from Them.
Treat your students like an old friend you enjoy hanging out with – This is about talking with the students not at them. A brief conversation when they are in the library, or even smiling as you see then enter creates connection. You are letting them know you see them as a person.Do be careful here. You are not their buddy. You are still an adult, but hopefully one they can trust.
Ask something not “basic” – The conversation may be brief, but it shouldn’t be superficial. “How are you doing?” is not a good opening. You are most likely to get a one-word answer. A better question is, “What are you working on?” Or “What is your favorite app? I learn so much from my students.” Once you get to know them better, you can ask about upcoming plans or a movie they have seen.
Be awesome in your field – You are awesome, but you need to share it. If you have found a great website or app, say, “Do you have a minute? I have something to show you?” Follow up with “Let me know what you think of it.” Not only will this keep the conversation going, you get clues as to what the student finds interesting – or not. Give them a book you think they will love. Of course, be there to help and guide as they work on academic or personal explorations. You are a master in the field, and they will appreciate your knowledge as long as you are not treating them as though they know nothing.
Use courtesies you would with a coworker – Show respect and you receive respect. When you interrupt a conversation with a student to help an adult, you are showing the student they are not as valuable. Be mindful. When you are giving a direction, say “Please.” Offer “thank you” when necessary. These are small things, but students notice and it sets up positive expectations for future interactions.
That’s four suggestions, but Frost gives one more, and it’s my favorite.
Show them your mistakes – Let them know you are human and show them how to handle mistakes. When you do that, you are also teaching them that failure is a part of life and wise people learn from it.
In your dealing with teens, you want to be a role model for a caring, trustworthy adult. In showing them the respect they crave, you will make them feel safe and welcome in the library and with you.