Hark! A Noise!: A Guide for Dealing with Disruptive Teens in Your Library

24 Oct

Some time ago I received some requests for a guide to dealing with disruptive teens in the library. After some thought I’ve developed this guide to assist those who want to use effective strategies for dealing with disruptive teens. There will also be a second part with recommendations for dealing with particularly egregious teen behaviour.

1. Set clear, reasonable rules, and be ready to justify them.
By clear rules I mean that rules should be both simply-worded and regularly/fairly applied. A rule that’s rarely enforced is hardly a rule at all, and seems especially unfair if the rule is occasionally (but not consistently) invoked.

Teens may not always remember the rules, so they do sometime need reminders. Not all teens know or remember to follow what may seem like implicit or obvious guidelines to librarians. Young people are not just testing boundaries, but are still in the process of discovering the parameters of general social contracts and conduct, and deciding which of these to follow and which to object to or resist.

Some teens need to understand the reason behind rules before they can so that they can decide the validity of that rule for themselves. While this can be frustrating in the moment, it’s a positive sign of critical thinking. Teens are usually more likely to follow rules if they understand and agree with them, or if they realise that the impetus behind basic rules (e.g. noise level modulation) is based on respect for others in a shared space.

Teens won’t always obey 100%, but most teens will respect community space and others trying to use it.

2. Signpost the rules!
If young people know and can see what the rules are, they will curb one another’s behaviour. It’s much easier for young people to remember the rules – and point them out to friends – if those rules are clearly posted.

3. Carry a sense of humour with you at all times.
Remember those signs I mentioned above? They may be defaced with “hilarious” words like “POO.” (I bet a few of think that’s funny. If my friend/former colleague Toby is reading this, he definitely had a little giggle over it.) It’s easy to feel frustrated – and it’s okay to have moments of anger and discouragement. But it helps to remember that these things are boundary-testing, pranks, and general silliness. If you maintain a sense of humour, it will help you keep your frustration in check (not to mention help you appreciate the teens around you more!).

It’s also useful to remember what you were like when you were a teen. I know that I was definitely told off more than once for rambunctious behaviour!

You don’t need to find someone writing “poo” funny, but it will help if you’re able to smile or laugh at some of the things teens get up to.

4. Be firm.
This one is simple to write but difficult to do: be firm and fair in the way you enforce rules. Speak directly and firmly (but not harshly) to teens who are flagrantly breaking rules. Speaking directly to the individual (or, occasionally, group), works much better than glaring or shushing. It can also start a dialogue about why certain rules are in place (and even whether they should be!).

Getting the firm-but-not-harsh tone down becomes easier with practice.

5. Separate the teen from their behaviour.
No one likes being told that they’re bad. Make it clear that you’re not making a judgement on the teen; you are simply addressing a behaviour that is not suitable for the library setting. Separating the teen from their behaviour takes a lot of sting out of a rebuke and is more likely to garner a positive response. (Thanks to Anne Harding for this phrasing.)

6. Accept occasional personality clashes.
Every now and then there will be a teen who just rubs you the wrong way, or who winds you up. Or they take a dislike to you, and you don’t know what you did wrong. Or sometimes, you dislike each other. Mismatched personalities are just part of being human. It does not make either of you bad people. Sometimes you can resolve these conflicts, and sometimes having a colleague work with that teen instead can help.

7. Team up with a colleague who also likes working with teens (even if they don’t do so on a regular basis).
Having a colleague or manager who will back you up can really save you (not to mention that commiseration makes even the most wretched day a little easier). Sometimes allowing someone with a different approach step in to help deal with disruptive teens can be a huge help. It can also help to put some space between you and a teen with who you have a personality conflict (see above). You can help your colleague when they’re in similarly frustrating situations. Sometimes it’s all just too much and one of you will need a break, or some back-up. I always find that support helps me keep my cool.

8. If a group dynamic is causing problems, deal with individuals.
Sometimes a young person who is polite and friendly on their own will act like a jerk (yep, a jerk!) when they’re in group of friends (usually with the overt or tacit encouragement of said friends). How do you deal with this? If some of the teens come into the library on their own sometimes, talk to them directly and let them know that while you’re happy that they use the service, you’re not so pleased with their behaviour when they’re with friends.

10. Balance “Don’t” signs with “Do” signs.
In This Book is Overdue, author Marilyn Johnson wrote that there were many prohibitive signs in libraries, but not many telling you what you CAN do. I love the idea of balancing “Don’t” signs with “Do” signs, e.g. do study here, do ask staff for help if you’re stuck, do talk to library staff about any concerns or ideas you have, do bring your friends to the library, do request books, do tell us how the teen area can be improved, do ask about getting online at the library, do ask for help with your CV, et cetera. It may sound a little silly, but it does make the library seem more friendly.

Conclusion: The Best Defense is a Good Offense
The better you know the teens in your library and community, the more likely they are to respect you and the library. When you build relationships with local teens and become their advocate, you stop being “The Librarian” and become their librarian. Mutual respect goes a long way. Of course, building these relationships takes time (it’s an ongoing process) and is not without moments of considerable frustration.

Speak to local teens about what they want and need from the service. Perhaps teens want a library space where they can be loud and social while they use your resources. Many libraries have managed to accommodate this with special “louder” teen spaces, and/or allotting certain days and times as “social” or “quiet.” If you have a Teen Advisory Group, they can help formulate a list of ground rules for the teen space.

It helps to remember that a bit of whispering or grumbling about your rule enforcement usually isn’t personal. Teens spend a lot of time being told what to do (in school, at home, in public spaces), and that can be profoundly frustrating and even oppressive experience for young people. Just remember: a little grumbling about rules isn’t necessarily a reaction to you.

Lastly, there’s nothing wrong with feeling nervous about asking teens to respect the rules of the library. In fact, these requests can lead to discussion that will help you get to know the local young people and began to build links with the community. You don’t always have to get it right. Working with the public (teens or otherwise) is a constant learning experience, and the more experience you have, the more varied and effective your techniques become.

Dealing with rules and disruption in shared spaces is always a tricky business. Hopefully the suggestions above will help you improve your interactions with the teens in your library.

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