School Libraries and a Natural Connection with Mental Health

April showers leading into May flowers is something we all have all heard and understood since a young age. AASL has a collaborative working relationship agreement with the national office of Mental Health of America (MHA) and I think April’s School Library Month has a natural connection to May’s Mental Health Awareness Month as well.

With all that young people are dealing with on a daily basis, finding a safe space where they feel seen, respected, and supported is crucial. For many of our students today, the school library is that place. It is a place of connection, comfort, and refuge. It is a place where they can think, create, share, and grow with the support of an educator who interacts with them in a different way from anyone else in the building due to the unique nature of our jobs and our spaces. We are no longer just the place where students go to check out books or study. We are the place students go to be and find themselves.

I love this statement from an early 2020 Knowledge Quest Article: “Our guiding concept as school librarians is the relationship. When children come to the school library, they are stepping into a known world with clear expectations and a welcome vibe. As stewards of the space, we are uniquely poised to appreciate the whole child; we learn their interests, their stories, and their concerns. Walking into the library means going to a place where children know they’ll be seen, but never judged. We understand that any time children choose to be in the library is an important opportunity to build relationships.” So much of what we do comes back to building relationships!

Each day, certified school librarians across the country are striving to make their library spaces more inclusive, more welcoming, and more engaging. Are there activities available for all students? The students who devour books by the handful? The students who would rather challenge their friends to an epic battle? The students who love to create using any materials at their disposal? The students who are always in a group? The students who value their alone time? The only way we know what our students need is to get to know them over time.

We are here each and every day to support our students, especially our library kids. Our library kids are the ones that come back day after day and period after period to just hang out. Our library kids are the ones who always wave or smile when they see us in the hallway. Our library kids sometimes even bring their grown-ups to see us during Open House or conferences!

And, the beauty is that anyone can become a library kid at any moment. 

Here are just a few ways I have heard of school librarians thoughtfully addressing supporting mental well-being in their libraries. (P.S. these tips are not just for students! We and our staff need this support as well.)

  1. Setting up a wellness station. Andrea Trudeau created a Calming Corner in her middle school library. To learn more about what she stocks in this area, check out her Padlet. She inspired me to try something similar, but mine is definitely not as fancy. It includes grab and go seasonally-themed coloring pages, word puzzles, and Sudoku.

2. There are so many ways to create moments of Zen. Steve Tetreault, KQ blogger & New Jersey Middle School Librarian, recently wrote about handling stress both for those we serve and for ourselves. His recommendations are easy to incorporate into your daily or weekly routines. (P.S. I was present for the dance party he mentions in the article. Steve is an excellent DJ, and it was very fun to join in the festive atmosphere. Our special education Life Skills students in my school always have Friday Dance Parties in the afternoon. The students look forward to it all week!)

3. Need something more gentle than a dance party? Consider playing soft music or showing a live cam of animals on a screen during the school day or during work time. Someone told me about, and we have fallen in love with the kitten cam. It’s a good thing the one we watch typically in the library is in California, or I’d have at least 2 more cats by now. I also love the many options there are for ambient, cafe, or instrumental guitar music available on YouTube to play whenever you need a chill vibe.

4. This 2018 post from Ashley Cooksey also provides a helpful list of ideas to try out in your library. We’ve had great luck with puzzles, giant coloring pages, and sticker murals with our students. Over the last few years, we’ve started building up our board and card game collection as well for students to use during lunch or before/after school. SO MANY students are playing chess right now, and UNO is always a fan favorite. It’s wonderful to see students having some down-time and fun with their friends while playing CandyLand or the Giant Connect Four. We also have a Nintendo Switch, and I believe it is magicI! We set it out once or twice a week during lunch and it’s first come first served. I only buy games that students can play cooperatively and that don’t have a story-line that has to be followed. The students that have come together over Mario Kart and Super Smash Brothers are probably students who may not have met or hung out otherwise and/or are students who do not connect with others socially easily.

It’s important to note that some may look at any of the ideas above and just see kids goofing off or not being focused on their studies. And, that’s totally the point! We all need a little break once in a while.

School librarians continue to seek out and develop ways to create environments that go beyond a center for literacy and instruction. You continue to make the impossible possible for students. Thank you for being the person and the place students need. 

P.S. If you have additional ideas not mentioned in this article, please share in the comments below!

Article:  Wittmann, P. & Fisher-Allison, N. Intentionally Creating a Safe Space for All: The School Library as Refuge. Knowledge Quest, 48(3), 40-29.

Author: Courtney Pentland, AASL President 2023-2024

Categories: Presidential Musings


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