February is a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s Black History Month,it’s the time for Phil the GroundHog to predict the length of winter, and it’s when football fans (and fanatics, alike) glue themselves to the TV for the SuperBowl.
**And it happens to be Jewish Disability Awareness Month**
As part of our month-long series dedicated to Jewish Disability Awareness Month, Lisa Friedman, a Jewish Special educator and advocate for inclusion, shares her guiding principals for creating a learning environment that is accessible to all students.
In my role as an Education Director of a synagogue’s Hebrew school, I have the good fortune to be able to use my skills to develop programs that enable students of all abilities to learn and thrive in a religious school setting. As an advocate of inclusion, I help guide my community to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities to participate and find meaning through all aspects of synagogue life. Yet, not all synagogues have a Jewish Special Educator. Not all synagogues have a professional who advocates for inclusion. What can parents of children with disabilities do to ensure that their children are fully included in Hebrew school?
First and foremost, open and supportive communication is essential for a successful Jewish Hebrew school experience for any child, but especially those with special learning needs. Be forthcoming about your child’s strengths and weaknesses. Do not assume that the school will turn you away or will not be able to accommodate your child’s needs. Share your child’s IEP, successful strategies from home and other information that will make it easier for your child to be successful. I am not suggesting that this is a magic bullet. There may be bumps and disappointments along the way. But without the willingness to have the conversations, you will never know what is possible.
Here are some guiding principles to start the conversation:
1. Students with special learning needs and disabilities CAN learn Hebrew.
It is a misconception that students with learning challenges struggle so much in learning to read English that they should not even try to learn Hebrew. While it is true that some children who have difficulty with their primary language will encounter similar struggles when learning a second language, some children have a natural propensity toward language acquisition, regardless of their formal classification. Hebrew, in many situations, is taught traditionally through read & repeat exercises that require children to sit still and wait their turn. Multi-sensory strategies that cater to a wide variety of learning styles can enable all students to learn Hebrew in ways that meet their individual needs.
2. Special Education (or inclusion) DOES NOT hold back the “other” students.
A classroom rich with activities to meet students at their current level of functioning maximizes all students’ potential for success. It is proven that ALL students benefit when children of varying abilities learn together. It is a misnomer that having different expectations for different students within in the same classroom isn’t fair. All students should be working toward progress from their current level of functioning. When this is done successfully, no student is “held back” or exposed to less challenging content than he or she is capable of encountering.
3. Negative behavior can ruin a whole class.
This is a tricky one in Jewish education classrooms. And the honest answer is this: negative behavior can “ruin” a class dynamic if the teacher lets it. When parents serve as partners with teachers, openly discussing behavior challenges and strategies, teachers can gain the necessary skills and understanding to manage student behavior in a way that provides all students with a warm, supportive and meaningful environment.
4. It is reasonable to ask for a bar/bat mitzvah experience that is tailored to your child’s needs.
Individualized bar or bat mitzvas do not take anything away from other students. Rather, such an accommodations demonstrate flexibility and a willingness to embrace a wide variety of needs within a synagogue community. When and if children question why another student “did less” than he/she did, it is up to parents, teachers and clergy to explain to our children how to welcome differences and to be proud of what we each accomplish without comparison to what anyone else may be doing.
Strong relationships are key. Communication is necessary. Myths and misconceptions are perpetuated by a lack of understanding; but when we join in conversation with real-life examples and hands-on experiences, attitudes can change, and inclusion will be possible.