Library programming has changed A LOT in the past decade. A LOT. We have gone from traditional story time reading with a paste together craft to interactive story times filled with music, movement, open-ended arts and crafts that encourage individual thought and creativity. We have gone from book groups with preformed questions lead by the librarian to programs that tie literature into hands-on, thought provoking activities that engage the inner thinker in each kiddo. We are no longer a community of “shushers” telling patrons to read quietly, but rather we are encouraging conversation and engagement with other children and parents at the library.
The best part of this change in thinking and direction is that it means programming now fits ALL abilities and needs instead of just the needs of children who can sit still and quietly for a story hour. Still, the fear and misconceptions are out there, especially among our parents who have children with special needs. I have extended the invite to Storytime for Littles (our baby/toddler story time) as well as Exploratorium (our school-age, STEAM-based programming) just to catch that hesitation followed by a hasty “Well, my child has autism, so I’m not sure they would sit for it,” or “My child has ADHD and I would hate for them to get too wound up.”
I know that response. That hesitation. I had it when my child was young. I have a son who is autistic. He also has severe ADHD and a sensory processing disorder. Taking him into settings where I had no control over smells, sounds, and tactile experiences was nerve-wracking. It could trigger a meltdown and the judging eyes of other mothers falling on us or upset children who felt we disrupted them. From personal experience I can say, he needed those experiences. Can I say every experience was a success for us? No. What I can say is that every experience gave him a frame of reference for adapting to different social settings (we run at the playground, we walk in the museum). It gave him exposure to new activities and topics, even if it was short-lived on a rough day (seeing new animals at the zoo to talk about versus the pets at home and animals in our neighborhood). The opportunity to practice social skills at different programs was a major driving reason behind many outings. Playing with new friends and meeting new people was not always easy, but he did learn how to greet people without being prompted and practice manners with people other than family which helped as he went off to school where I wasn’t there to guide his social interactions. All of this lead to a huge opportunity that is good for any child: the opportunity to gain pride and confidence in himself in any setting.
So what are some tips and tricks to enjoying story time if your child has special needs?
- Talk to your child about it ahead of time, regardless of their age. If they are too young to understand, you are providing them with new words to build a frame of reference for what story time and the library are. If they are old enough, talking to them about what to expect at the program or what behavior you expect from them helps them feel more prepared going into the situation and sets them up for success.
- Once in story time, let your child explore within reason. Obviously we encourage them to stay with you and do the activities, be it listening to stories or dancing and moving to song, but we are used to “wanderers” who walk around the room, come up and point to the pictures in the books we are reading to the group, help with the felt board stories, and the list goes on. They are still getting a lot out of being in the room, hearing the story and taking in the setting.
- If you want your child to practice sitting during times we have the group sitting to listen to a story but they are struggling to stay still, ask us for a fidget! We have an arsenal of fidgets and weighted toys that will help satisfy your child’s sensory output needs and use their energy while they are still sitting with the group. And trust me, though at first glance they may seem distracted, they are actually more mentally engaged than they would be otherwise, absorbing every detail.
- If it is a rough day and your child is overwhelmed, feel free to step out of the room. Parents frequently are in and out during story time, and this is nothing that disrupts the program. Feel free to come back in once your child feels ready to rejoin the fun and give it another go!
- If it is really overwhelming adjusting to a story time or program, start small. Sit in the program for as long as your child will tolerate. Maybe it is 5 minutes, maybe it is 15. Once they show signs that they are done, leave story time. You can either take a break and come back in after a few minutes when they are ready to give it another go or just come back the next week and try again. Slowly overtime as your child adjusts, the time they will be able to stay in the program will grow. Do this as many times or for as long as necessary! The library staff understands completely and supports you 100%! Often there is a concern that we will be disrupted or find that coming and going rude but the truth is we WANT you to do this if it helps your child. We want you and your child in our program even if it is only for a part of it, even on a rough day! And truth be told, parents and children come and go frequently during programs for lots of reasons so you are not alone!
- If the program has different centers to explore, don’t make your child do every one if he or she doesn’t want to. Let them guide their experience! If they want to make three straw rockets instead of going to the area where they actually launch them and measure them, that is okay with us provided the supplies are there. It is an opportunity to interact with different children who come to that station and use social skills!
- Let the library staff in the room know if you need help! Tell us how we can support you! Whether it is asking us to hand you a cherished object that soothes your child while you are holding them to calm them down, whether it is giving you and your child a special sign if storytime is about to get loud because loud noises upset them and it gives you time to cover their ears, or even if it is helping provide a transition between activities so they aren’t upset when you need them to move to a new center or go home, we are there to support you as well as your child!