* I originally wrote this article a little over five years ago, when I was doing an average of 10 preschool storytimes a week and training others in early literacy programming as an early literacy outreach specialist. I have found myself referring back to it after I began rebuilding in-person programming in a post-pandemic reality where none of the kids and few of their caregivers are accustomed to structured group activities, and attention spans have gotten even shorter, so I thought it would be a good time to re-post it.
Ok, so you are well-versed in early literacy skills and practices, and the principles of storytime planning in general; you have an established beginning routine, you've selected some really great books, chosen some fun songs, rhymes, and a great flannel board activity. Things start out okay, but quickly disintegrate. Or maybe you can sense the energy level is all wrong as soon as they come in. So, what do you do when it isn't working?? Here are a few things to try*:
- Extend the beginning routine. If they are extra wiggly that day, add a couple of very familiar songs before you start the first book. I've noticed all kids LOVE to sing the ABC song, and that almost always pulls everyone together so they are engaged as a group.
- Just stop. Hopefully they will realize you are waiting for them to quiet down and will settle down on their own.
- Redirect. Remind them they need listening ears, to sit down, catch a bubble. Establish a signal, such as a clapping pattern or saying like "1, 2, 3, all eyes on me" that they will immediately recognize as a cue to settle down. Remind them of expected storytime behavior. Sometimes I will even repeat all or part of the beginning routine. If it is one or two specific individuals who continue after a general redirection, call them by name and ask them a question about the story. In some cases you may have to call them by name and tell them specifically what you need to them stop doing and what they should be doing instead.
- Move on. Sometimes a particular book just isn't going to work with that group on that day. If you've made a couple of attempts to redirect and they are still not listening, it's okay to just quit in the middle and say something like, "I think we'll save this book for another time" and move on to a more interactive book or activity. If some are engaged and you don't want to cheat them out of the ending, feel free to paraphrase and shorten to get through the book faster. Sometimes I select what I think are going to be great storytime books, and they just fall flat; it happens.
- Just move! Stop and do some type of movement activity to get their wiggles out: scarf or shaker egg song, song or rhyme with lots of gross motor movements, "Shake My Sillies Out", etc. Maybe even two! Then follow that with a quieter activity that ends with them sitting back down, and try another book.
- Sing. Doing very familiar songs really seems to help get them all involved and everyone re-focused and on the same page, things like the ABC's, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, Itsy Bitsy Spider, Wheels On the Bus, etc. Once you have them focused, then try another book.
- Hokey-Pokey Day. A very wise and now retired youth services manager had a great saying, "Sometimes it's just a Hokey-Pokey day." Some days no matter what you do, books just aren't going to work. So do what will work; sing songs, play with instruments, blow bubbles with music, get the parachute out, do the "Hokey-Pokey," then send them on their way. It's okay. I guarantee there will be other days where all they want is stories. It all works out.
- Cut it short. If you've tried everything, and *nothing* works, kids are melting down or climbing the walls, it's okay to end early. Really, it is! There is no point in trying to force something that is just not going to work; it's better to quit before everyone gets too frustrated and try to end on a positive note. Just cheerily say something like, "Well, I think that's enough for today, I'll see you next week!" or "Let's move on to our after-storytime activities". If the kids seem disappointed, I might add something like "maybe we can work on our listening skills and next time we'll be able to do more stories", but not in a scolding way, just a matter-of-fact. I want to keep storytime a positive experience for everyone, as much as possible.
Sometimes things are just out of your control, sometimes kids are new to storytime, sometimes they are just a little young for a full-length storytime. When I get a class of brand new 2 or 3 year olds at the beginning of the school year who have never been to storytime, it's going to take them a little while to learn the routine, so we do more singing, maybe only one book, and end a little earlier. Or I get individual kids who are attending their first in-library storytime and are very wiggly and can't last for the whole thing. I let the teacher/caregiver know that's normal and expected, and they'll be surprised at how quickly they start to pick up the routine after just a few times, so they don't feel like the kids misbehaved. I also tell them even when they are wiggly, distracted, and it seems like they aren't paying attention at all, they are absorbing a lot more than we realize.
Other times, there is just something in the air, a change in routine, missed a nap, having a party or something else special going on that day. The worst time I ever had was when it started snowing the first snowfall of the year just as the kids were coming out to the Storytime Bus. I knew storytime was going to be a lost cause then! Just think about how magical that first snowfall is to a 3 or 4 year old. I gave it a go, tried all of the suggestions above, and NOTHING could keep them engaged, and they were literally climbing the walls! It was absolute and utter chaos. So I said, "Well, this is not working today, so let's just stop now and we will try again next time!" And the next visit they were perfectly fine.
So the bottom line is, trust your instincts, don't feel like you have to force something that isn't working, and don't beat yourself up for a bad day or needing to end early. It likely has nothing to do with you!
*I based this on my experience with preschoolers; obviously expectations should be developmentally appropriate and may be slightly different for toddlers or older kids.
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