Working with At-Risk Teens

Working with an at-risk teen population in your area may mean different things.  You may be interacting with a shelter, the Boys and Girls Club, a school, or some other organization aimed at assisting youth.  Each experience will be different because of the different pressures unique to the teens in your town or city, and will even vary within the city.  I’m not writing a post about How to Do This for Everyone All the Time, because that doesn’t make sense.  But I figured that if I talked a bit about what I’ve been able to do so far in assisting teens, it might make the prospect seem less daunting.

So far, I’ve worked with two different organizations: a local teen shelter and a public school that provides special services to teens who have learning disabilities, mental illness, or who have been expelled from the other schools in the district.

Earlier this spring, we started noticing the same teens coming into the teen center during the day, every day.  They needed to use our guest passes to get on the computer.  We offer these passes to kids and teens who don’t have a card on them and need to do schoolwork, or those whose cards are so completely clogged up with fines and fees from other adults in their lives that they can’t use the computer.  The most outspoken teens, a boy and a girl, said that they used e-school and so did not have i.d.  They also said that they were brother and sister and that their mom wouldn’t sign them up for cards.  One makeout session later, we figured out they were not brother and sister.

Gradually, as we noticed them coming in with the same group of teens and two adults, we realized that they were coming in as a group.  Because we have a limited number of guest cards, it was getting really difficult to get all the teens on the computer.  A colleague finally approached one of the adults, who confirmed that the teens were in a shelter situation with a high turnover rate.  A lot of them had been kicked out of their homes or had run away so there was literally no way for us to get a parental signature on their application, which is the norm.  So we bent the rules.  I worked with circulation to get a set of guest cards that belong to that group supervisor, and that she uses whenever they come to the library.  The teens have lots of fun on our PS4, too.  We also learned that the library is one of the privileges the teens can earn, and only the best-behaved teens get to come.  It’s pretty awesome to think that we are a reward that those teens want.

I may have already mentioned this, but I don’t have the best time putting names with faces.  I was a bit startled when a woman approached the desk in April and thanked me for recommending Ellen Hopkins to her and that the teens in her school library loved those books.  After a little “ummm”ing on my part, I worked out that she was the school librarian for a high school in our district that served teens with intellectual disabilities as well as problem behavior.  She asked for more book recommendations, and also wanted to know if her students could get library cards.  She almost sounded like she thought that because the students were at a special school, they weren’t eligible for cards.  I assured her that as long as they had completed applications, they were welcome to use any library in Kenosha with their cards, plus all of our digital resources, like Zinio and Freegal.

After some coordination, I arranged to make a school visit to distribute cards and talk a little about the public library.  The librarian was concerned because I’m a relatively small, youngish person and the kids could be pretty rough.

Now, everyone’s experience and level of comfort here is going to differ.  My younger brother has BPD and ASD, and would have violent episodes while in high school.  I was completely used to how kids with mental or emotional issues would act and so it didn’t bother me when all of the teens in the class I visited screamed profanities at their teacher, or wrestled, or had to be taken away by aides.  I’d already been there, done that.  But if you haven’t, make sure that you talk with the school you’re considering visiting and get a thorough picture of what is going to happen.  Make everything very structured and brief.

I was walking on clouds when I finished that school visit.  The kids who had applied for cards were ecstatic to get them, and other kids got jealous and demanded applications for themselves!  One teen and I had a discussion about The Giver and I recommended other books he might like.  I told another teen about the Bookmobile stop near his house and how he could check books and movies out from there.  The one thing I heard over and over was, “This is free?  It doesn’t cost me anything?” and I just kept saying, “Yes, it’s free.”

We’re free to everyone.  Isn’t that grand?

A few tips:

  • Treat at-risk teens no differently than you would treat others.  They know if you’re talking down to them.
  • Be willing to make some concessions.  They might not have access to things (like parents!) required by the library to get cards, or waive fines, or what-have-you.  Make it about their experience and not about the rules.
  • Make sure you are firm and consistent in applying library rules.  If they’re in a group home or shelter, the visit to the library helps them learn social skills and how to act in public.  Don’t tolerate restricted behavior because you’re afraid of the teens or you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
  • Establish a good rapport with either the group leader or a teacher at a school.  They will be your go-to person for dealing with minor issues.
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