Public Library Programs to Address Stress | First Steps

Early learning offerings by informed staff and programs extended from the height of the pandemic can help all young children thrive.

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Stress is a part of everyday life, but prolonged stress can pose long-term risks for young children. This “toxic” stress, often caused by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), can harm a child’s physical, mental, and emotional development. Risk factors include abuse, neglect, familial incarceration, mental illness, and more.

A helpful infographic from the Harvard Center for the Developing Child offers more information about ACEs and toxic stress.

The COVID-19 lockdown exacerbated stress in many families, causing concern about developmental delays and mental health for “COVID-19 babies.” But many communities have been exposed to toxic stress for decades due to systemic inequities. How can libraries help?

Libraries already do a lot to support families during stressful times with access to resources and engaging activities for children.

In 2020, Brooklyn (NY) Public Library (BPL) early literacy programs coordinator Jessica Ralli surveyed families for potential workshop topics. “They wanted to explore grief, trauma, and learning loss due to remote learning,” Ralli says. In response, BPL offered one workshop on trauma-informed caregiver practices and another on kindergarten readiness. Going forward, Ralli says, “We will continue to offer school-readiness workshops and to take a trauma-informed approach to all we do.”

Other libraries have created ways to support families’ basic needs during stressful postpartum periods. The Grosse Pointe (MI) Public Library uses a delivery service to help new parents, including ones with adopted or foster children, connect with the library. Participants may order library materials for one year. A welcome kit provides information about library resources, free board books, and homemade baby caps. The North Canton (OH) Public Library provides fine-free library cards to new parents.

Story time can help with stress as well. Reading, singing, talking, and playing with a group helps children socialize, identify emotions, and develop empathy. Use these tips to help make story time stress free:

• Clearly state program goals and simple guidelines for conduct, such as: Children may move about, but adults must keep them safe. Step out and regroup if children need a break.

• Select a theme on a social-emotional topic such as being a friend or identifying and expressing emotions.

• Keep your programs short and simple until the experience becomes familiar.

• Select books for younger children in the group whose attention spans may not be as developed.

• Create visuals outlining program activities so participants know what’s next.

• Incorporate stretches, movement, and quiet periods, including mindful breathing or yoga.

What else can libraries do? Pam Hamlin, family literacy specialist at Prince George’s County (MD) Memorial Library System, offers early literacy programming to immigrant families and families dealing with incarceration. Here are more suggestions:

• Create resource lists of social services, particularly early intervention agencies and ones supporting children with disabilities and delays. Make these available at information desks and on your website.

• During programs, offer electronic resources with child development information.

• Keep your parenting collection up to date.

• Connect with networks of childcare and preschool
­directors to share resources for families.

• Consider creating a library presence with books and flyers at your local family shelters, food pantries, clinics, or family courts. The Chicago Public Library brings early literacy–infused story times to low-resource neighborhoods.

With programs like these offered by stress-aware staff, libraries can do their part to help all kids flourish.


Rachel G. Payne (left) is coordinator of early childhood services at Brooklyn Public Library. Linda L. Ernst is a retired children’s librarian after 41 years in the public library field.

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