Transcript of this Strength In Words episode featuring Suzanne Flint, child development specialist and principal architect of the California State Library's early learning initiative. We sat down with Suzanne to discuss what public libraries are doing to promote library programs for babies, toddlers and families.
Ayelet: I am so thrilled to share this conversation with you all – Suzanne is an absolute powerhouse, and is a wealth of knowledge about early literacy, early learning, infant and toddler education, and parent education. I was so happy to have the chance to sit down and speak with her about the ways libraries are changing – the movement she’s played a big part in is largely based in California, but is part of a national and international trend toward making libraries much more family-friendly and family-centric places, in all senses.
Libraries, in general, are such an amazing resource, and I think undervalued by a lot of people…
Suzanne: Well and also, I will say, you know, in the last 25 years, libraries have also significantly changed. I mean, 25 years ago, your little one would actually not have been welcome in a library… because he’s not yet reading, he would be making noise, and libraries were all about quiet and erudite study.
I was originally trained as a “Child Life Specialist,” which is a very unique subset of social work, and it was originally designed specifically to help children navigate the experience of being hospitalized. But I also have training in child development, and then, because I was in the hospital setting, I also went on to get trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. So I got a lot of training in massage, in hypnosis, in guided imagery, and it really opened up this whole world of… all of us who want to help support children and families, you know, we’re joining in at one very specific moment in time. There’s a whole skill-set about how to do that in a way that’s honoring of that particular child and that particular family when we don’t have the luxury of knowing more about them. Strategies, of how we can be “less should” and less about us saying, “you have to figure out how to use our services” and more about how to join with families.
So, that’s how I started in my profession. It was already fairly eclectic. And then there was a pediatric early literacy program that was started at Boston Children’s Hospital called “Reach Out And Read,” and by this point in my career, I was at Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford. There were two interns there who wanted to start the program, and so I became responsible for starting this pediatric early literacy program. I began to help other clinics around the state grow it, and ended up creating California Reach Out And Read, and, the other thing that I did that was unique, even for the National Reach Out And Read program, was that we began to partner with public libraries to deliver this program – so medical clinics and public libraries. And then I got tapped by the State Librarian at the time to basically say, you know, libraries are already interested in changing the way they serve their communities, and we’re really beginning to appreciate that there are lots of emergent literacy skills that are happening long before little ones are actually reading, and that libraries have a stake in that game, and that we should be a part of that conversation.
So, I shall hasten to say that Early Learning with Families in California – we did not singly and solely get this movement going nationally. There were other programs that had started to happen in public libraries. So, we just sort of began to highlight what was going on around the country to address this age group. And then, the more we worked with libraries in California, the deeper the dive we went. We went beyond, you know, it’s nice to have programs, but what are your spaces like, and have you even considered the fact that families are coming in with strollers, and, hey! You might have to rethink the Dewey Decimal System, because some harried parent bringing in a two-year old is probably never going to have a chance to make it over to the parenting section. Why don’t you move your parenting books into the children’s section? You know, all kinds of things about, you know, if you’re really thinking about servicing this group, what are their needs? Not “what do you think they need?” but, what do they say they need?
So, that kept building, and then, just two years ago, after years and years of working on this, it also became really clear that we needed to change the way that library staff interacted with families. Because, for the most part, they start with that same bias – “oh, I can’t wait to work with kids, don’t particularly want to work with their adult caregivers or parents.” Don’t know how to talk to those adults, kind of am nervous about talking to those adults… So we’ve partnered with the Brazelton Touchpoint System from Harvard, and we are just now finishing a curriculum. We now have 20 library staff around the State of California who are trained to deliver the curriculum, and will be now delivering that training to about 25 more libraries this coming year. And it’s all about being strength-based, it’s all about doing a much better job of listening to families, and being responsive to them – because libraries love to just give you tons of information! – and sometimes, that’s almost worse than not giving you anything. Parents just get overwhelmed. So, in a nutshell, that’s what we’ve been working on and what we’re doing.
Ayelet: I think in so many ways, we as parents and caregivers in this day and age feel so much that we’re caught in this overwhelming nature of information. And if there is a place that we can go to be provided with a free service, a free resource, and information – and, I mean, what is a library other than a house of information?! – with librarians who’ve been trained in some way to work with young children and their families (because, of course, we know that that is the key)!
Suzanne: Yeah! Well, and it’s interesting, because we discovered that in California, public libraries are second only to public parks as the place most frequented by families with young children. And I think it’s partly because we’ve made the spaces more welcoming – not every library, let me hasten to say, but an awful lot of libraries in California are more welcoming. And you’re right – it’s free, there are all these other resources there. We also now have structured spaces, we have toys in libraries for kids, we have programs where they’re going to be noisy and making noise, all of that is, you know, very new, and so I think parents feel like it really is an option to go there. And, most importantly, I think, the opportunity to connect with other parents. Which is even more powerful than whatever books we might have on the shelves.
Ayelet: Absolutely. So, what some of the things that parents and caregivers can expect to find, specifically.
Suzanne: Well, as I say, I wish it was uniform in every single library, so I always have to be careful about what I promise, because I’ve gotten emails from parents who’ve said, “hey! You said every library’s gonna be great, and we just went into a library, and they were really mean to us!” And it’s like, “oh my god.” I can’t promise that everyone is going to be this way. But. I think at the minimum, we have tried to make distinct spaces set aside where it is clear for a little person walking in the door or their adult caregiver, that this is a place for them. Things are down on the floor, there are chairs – a comfy chair – that both a parent and a child could sit in. We have changing tables (hopefully, in both the men and women’s restrooms). We have got, often times, lactation spaces, set aside for moms. There are toys. We have programming that’s focused on them – we have baby lap sits, we have music programs, we have a lot more play going on in libraries, we’re much less attached to the fact that you’ve got to come in and do something with a book. I think most librarians at this point really appreciate that there are all these skills that don’t look anything like reading, but are actually the building blocks to reading. So, that’s been pretty fully embraced.
And, we’ve done things like, Folsom Public Library took all of their picture books, and rather than arranging them by Dewey, they put them in order by categories – so, pirates, princesses, transportation, insects. Once they had done it, they were blown away. Because what it meant was that children and their adult caregivers could find books easier. It also meant that their circulation went way up, because you may have come in for Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” but all the copies were checked out – but since it’s not next to a whole bunch of other books on insects, your other books on insects didn’t circulate! Now when you come in looking for Eric Carle and he’s gone, it’s like, “but hey! Here’s a thing on butterflies!” Or, “here’s another thing on caterpillars!” Or whatever. And then, the other funny thing that happened for staff, is within a week, they knew what parts of their collection they needed to beef up. Every book on transportation was checked out within the first week, and it was like, hey! We need more picture books on trucks and trains and automobiles and airplanes!
Suzanne: Yeah! Yeah! And then, as I say, there’s also the idea of, what about some adult material in the children’s section for parents who’ve got limited time. Many people have let go of the whole issue of bringing food in the library, because if you’ve got little ones, they’ve got to have a snack! You know, they can’t last long without little breaks of food! So all of those kinds of things are going on in the library. I hope – the true test for me about us being truly family-centric and friendly, and the final block, I think, we’re knocking over with this training curriculum, is the attitude of staff. Because an awful lot of library staff went into libraries with no real interest to work with the public. When you think historically about the tradition of librarianship, it was really about the stuff. It was about acquiring the collection, it was about curating the collection, it was about protecting and serving the collection. The public just came in and checked it out and left. You come and go. The real thing that has become clear, I think for libraries to remain relevant… it’s less about being sort of a gatekeeper around stuff, and it’s much more about “how can we become facilitators of individuals’ own self-discovery” wherever they are in their journey of learning: how do we help them become life-long learners, continue to stay curious and interested in the world? It’s more about you as the person coming into the library than it is about how our library works and how you need to know how to navigate it. We want to make that invisible. So, it’s intuitive, or it’s easy, or we’re much more approachable, if, for some reason, it’s not quite straightforward how the place works.
But just really getting families much more comfortable with coming and being there and changing the attitudes of staff to being much more supportive about children and families. It means toddlers are going to have tantrums, and we don’t shame their parents about that happening – and you know, that’s been a big conversation about the fact that a two-year old tantrum-ing is not a reflection of that parent’s parenting style. It’s also not a reflection of a misbehaving two-year old! Developmentally, it’s a child who has no resource left. You know, these are not children who are trying to get on your nerves – which is often times how it was reflected back to us by library stuff. You know, “this kid is just being manipulative, they’ve got their parents wrapped around their fingers, and they’re just, you know, throwing a tantrum to get us all to jump to their thing” and it’s like, actually, that’s not what’s happening. But of course, you can’t, that’s not how you teach people to appreciate that concept. So it’s that balance of walking them along through the developmental process and hopefully helping them be a little more… it just seems like we’ve all gotten more judgmental, and quicker to make assessments of others. I think especially in the United States, I find it quite ironic how we think about and support parents, because I think there’s an awful lot… we say we have family values… we do very little in this country. Once you have your child, it’s sort of like you’re on your own.
Ayelet: Yeah, have fun.
Suzanne: Good luck, have fun.
Ayelet: From the moment it pops out, in fact.
Suzanne: And once you’ve given birth, we could care less, it seems like. Which I find really sad. And I also think that’s the other sort of appreciation – which I also find just very interesting, because a lot of librarians are parents themselves – but being very understanding or tolerant of other parents is also very hard, and I think it’s a reflection of sort of our societal misunderstanding and intolerance of the parenting process. It’s sort of assumed that it comes naturally, and that if you’re a good parent it’s because you were just born to be a good parent. Nobody really talks about how hard it is to parent.
One of the things that I love about the Touchpoints approach to child development – Dr. Barry Brazelton was a pediatrician – and he was really one of the first developmentalists to scientifically show that human development doesn’t happen in this nice, smooth, linear path that (when you take Child Development 101, all those charts, you know that say, “should be walking by 18 months” and on and on and on) and he really codified that there are very specific times when essentially, children will fall apart, right before they make their next big developmental leap. And that when they fall apart, they usually lose a skill they’d acquired. And that can be very disconcerting to parents. And parents tend to go to one of two places – something’s wrong with my kid, or something’s wrong with me as a parent. And that will happen over and over and over throughout the cycle of raising a child. And so, the whole point of Touchpoints is, as a society that surrounds a child and their parents, it’s at those moments when a family is actually most vulnerable. At those moments of crisis when a kid is falling apart, when the parents are uncertain about what’s going on. And what they need is not for us to rush in or fix it or tell us what’s going on, but to support them, so they can keep falling in love with their child. To me, and maybe it’s an oversimplification, but I really do think that we are asked to fall in love over and over and over, because the person that your child is, is changing! Who they were as an infant is not who they’re going to be as a toddler, certainly not who they are going to be as a preschooler, a school-aged, and then an adolescent, and then an adult. You’re having to meet this person anew, you know, constantly! And figure out how to parent this person. And that’s the other thing, I think, you know, lots of parents the second time around think, I’ll be fine (and I hope this doesn’t… I mean, I think, you seem aware of this, but, so I hope I’m not saying anything shocking!) but lots of times, parents will say, “oh, I’ve got it now, I’ve already had one.” And clearly, I do think there are some concerns and stresses that are less so when you’ve had your second child. But hey, unless your second child is a clone of the first, it’s a whole other person!
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Great for parents, caregivers, and those who work with young children!
Ayelet: And then, of course, we’re never the same parents or in the same circumstances as we were the first time!
Suzanne: That’s right! I just feel like we’re incredibly hard on parents. And it’s an incredibly challenging, rewarding job.
Ayelet: And I think you’re right, it’s something that we have to figure out again and again, every day of our lives – if we’re lucky! I wonder, because you mentioned earlier about how so much of what you’re trying to do in these libraries is to create an environment that supports early literacy and early learning for families. And I wondered if you might just specifically talk about what some of those areas are so that families can be more aware of them.
Suzanne: So I will say that I have some mixed feelings about this. Because some of the programs that were originally developed – really well designed – but they’re very didactic. And again, I always feel like we have to walk kind of a fine line between I think laying on a whole bunch more “shoulds” for parents… sometimes, though, when we teach parents, didactically, some of that information, they then feel like they have to turn around and teach their children didactically. And I think that’s the quickest buzzkill for learning out there. Especially when little ones are little. They’re gonna have plenty of years ahead where they’re going to be sat down at tables, given drills and flashcards and all of that.
I really do think the first five years of life are about helping children be curious. Keeping them curious. Keeping them falling in love with learning, and being these great cheerleaders that are asking them questions, asking them open-ended questions, and being fascinated, you know, not worried about correcting your child – it’s not about getting the facts right, as much as it is about encouraging them to talk, and encouraging them that you think the way they think is interesting. Some of that is happening in libraries to a greater or lesser extent, and some of this didactic exercise is still happening, and I think it’s a nice – it can be a nice balance. So, Every Child Ready To Read are story times that are set up with the intention that families will be a part of the story time and while the librarian is going through a traditional story time, they also point out aspects of the story time that are building on literacy. Like, “when we do this, when we have words that rhyme, children get to hear a similar sound that are happening in different words, so they understand that that sound is not tied just to a single word, but that sound can be repeated in lots of different words.” You know, they’ll make other didactic comments as they’re reading aloud. And then I think introducing play into libraries has been exceedingly important, and also, without didactically teaching families or children, it gives families an opportunity for some of those skills to just begin to naturally evolve and grow. Though, it’s interesting, a lot of parents in the U.S. anyway, will say, and I know they say this to preschool teachers all the time, “You shouldn’t just let my kid play all the time. You know, they need to be getting school!” And it’s like, actually, the research says the best thing you could be doing for your kid is let them do a lot of self-directed play. The fact that we are… we still tend to be – libraries – tend to be very print-based still. We are getting beyond that, but we have lots of books, we do a lot of teaching around reading, we do a lot of encouraging of parents to read to their kids even if they themselves are struggling with reading, to talk about the pictures – that that’s a huge part of building literacy. We do all kinds of things about talking about talking to your kids, about what that means, giving tip sheets about here are rhymes that you can sing together in the car, or when you’re doing bath time, or when you’re in the grocery store, you can make your grocery list together, you can point out colors when you’re in the grocery store. Trying to give more concrete tips rather than just placating statements about how it’s important to read to your child every day or it’s important to talk to your child every day.
Ayelet: What can you tell us about the way that music is integrated into programs like Rhyme Time.
Suzanne: Little people just love music! I think, actually, originally it started because they were doing infant and toddler story times, and then, of course, little ones aren’t going to sit still. And it became a really great strategy is when you start losing your audience, you bring them back in by getting them on their feet and having them jump the wiggles out and – I think it sort of started from a performer’s point of view and not losing your audience. But it became really clear how much that rhythm and rhyme is tied to language acquisition, is tied to early reading comprehension. It was really important to begin to incorporate those skills. And the librarians originally who were sort of reluctant to do that felt themselves lacking in their own musicality.
And that’s another conversation we’ve been having in “library land,” because, well, because there are a number of people who go in to become children’s librarians because they’re actually really good performers. And they love performing, and they love sort of being the star, and they do some great programs! And that’s got a place. But I also think it’s really important for librarians who may be not such polished stars to still do the story times, to still incorporate music – because that’s a really important message to parents! – who may not be fantastic performers or incredibly musical, but, by God, she’s doing it in the library, and my kids don’t seem to… they’re not the connoseuirs we expect them to be, so they’re not really distinguishing between the high performance and the, you know, perhaps less polished performance. They’re just loving it all! So it gives some permission to parents. And I think it’s another thing, even when librarians do sort of a very traditional story time, that it’s ok not to do it perfectly, and to mess up, so that parents can see that this isn’t about a flawless interaction. It’s about exploring and being curious about the process. But yeah, music has become a really big part of library story time.
Ayelet: Thanks so much, Suzanne!
Suzanne: You’re most welcome!
Suzanne Flint is a child development specialist with a Masters in Health Education. She has over 30 years of experience working directly with children and families as well as in leadership roles with nonprofit organizations and public agencies, helping families navigate a full array of information and educational needs. During her 18 years at Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, she created one of the nation's first consumer health libraries and started California Reach Out And Read, a statewide pediatric early literacy program, in which she developed unique partnerships between medical clinics and public libraries. She joined the staff of the California State Library in 2005 where she has developed a number of nationally recognized resource tools, professional development trainings, and grant funding opportunities. Currently, she is the principal architect of the State Library's early learning initiative, Early Learning with Families @ the Library (ELF). As a part of this initiative and in collaboration with the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, Ms. Flint has helped to develop a professional development curriculum specifically for library staff based on the Touchpoints model of strengthening family-child relationships. The ultimate goal of the ELF initiative is to support the continued evolution and advancement of library services to young children and families - helping to create services that are developmentally appropriate and family inclusive.