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Five Things Parents Want Religious School Educators to Know

Meredith Polsky

Religious School education is importantAs educators, we focus a lot on our students with special needs and our teachers. But there’s another piece that we need to focus on, too: the “parent piece.” I’d like to take off my educator’s hat now and speak to you as the parent of children with special needs.

As an educator, there were several comments I frequently heard from teachers: If they [parents of children with special needs] really cared about their child’s Jewish education they’d medicate their kids during religious school, too.

Medications can help with certain issues. They don’t make the situation go away, but they can make it more tolerable – “can” being the operative word. Not all meds work for all children. Every medication carries with it a cost, a side effect. Common side effects with stimulant medications are lack of appetite and difficulty sleeping. So parents of a child taking this type of medication face difficult choices – do we choose to medicate our children, so they have an increased ability to focus and control their behavior – or do we choose to have our growing children eat … and sleep? I have the most beautiful pictures of my daughter’s bat mitzvah that are almost too painful to look at. The pictures were taken after a summer on much-needed stimulant medications – she weighed less than 95 lbs then and looks emaciated..… Parents make the best decisions they can for the whole child.

Why don’t they tell us what’s going on? Why don’t they share information with us?

There are many reasons why parents don’t share information. We may be unaware of the details of our child’s behavior – after all, we don’t see our child in a school setting. We may think that with your smaller class sizes and shorter period of instruction, our kids can hold it together okay. We may have some of the same glitches our kids have – and find it difficult to advocate, explain or organize ourselves in such a way as to be able to share information in a helpful way.

But there’s another factor, one that might be hard for many of you – with your love for school and learning situations – to understand. For many of our kids with special needs, school is not a good place to be. It is where they often feel most incompetent…. and a place where they have no friends. Parents spend a lot of time and energy fighting for our kids – trying to make our kids’ school experiences less negative. Many of us just don’t have the energy to expend in working with a supplement school – in addition to our child’s secular school.

Why don’t they teach their children to listen when I talk? After all, listening and waiting their turn to talk is just good manners.

This is a challenge we face at home, too. Some of our kids have an auditory processing issue, which means it takes them much longer to hear and then comprehend oral comments. Other kids have difficulty filtering out extraneous background sounds (the sound of the television in another room, the neighbor’s dog barking outside the window, someone talking on the phone). And, quite frankly, some of us use three paragraphs to explain what can be said in three sentences. Helpful strategies can include 1) getting my child’s attention before I begin to speak; 2) slowing down when I give instructions; 3) asking my child to repeat the instructions back to me; 4) making a list of what the instructions are; and 5) using less words.

Their child doesn’t follow even basic classroom rules – obviously they don’t insist on rules at home.

I once asked my child’s doctor, “How many times do I have to tell my kid something before it sinks in?” My doctor responded, truthfully, “As many times as it takes.” Telling our kids what not to do is rarely as helpful as telling them what to do. “Take your plate over to the sink after dinner” works much better than “don’t leave your dirty dish on the table.” And for really important rules, we’ve learned to post a list on the refrigerator. We’ve told them where the list is, reviewed it with them, and refer to it when there are questions. My kid is only in your classroom for a couple of hours a week and while the rules may seem common-sense to you, s/he often expresses bewilderment when I ask why s/he’s in trouble AGAIN. So, please – 1) make a list of positive behavioral expectations; 2) post it in your classroom; 3) send a copy home to me so I can reinforce what you’re doing; and 4) refer to it often.

I don’t ask much from you parents – all I ask is that you listen to your child practice Hebrew 10 minutes a day. If your child’s religious school education was important to you, you’d realize how necessary practice is. But you can’t even manage to do that, can you?

No, some days I can’t even do that. Between the chaos of secular school homework, trying to help my child deal with anxiety about not being successful/liked/accepted, and juggling the needs of all our family members – sometimes I just don’t have the energy. Besides, it’s really not just “10 minutes.” It’s the time involved to remind my child to 1) find the backpack, 2) locate the correct page in the book, and 3) clear a space to work quietly. Then I have to A) find 10 uninterrupted minutes, B) remember to sign the reading log, and C) remind my child to put the log AND the book back in the backpack. And someone has to remember to take the backpack on the next religious school day. And Hebrew? How am I supposed to listen to their reading when my Hebrew isn’t good enough to tell if they’re reading it correctly or not?

I can tell you this – if our child’s religious school education wasn’t important to us – we wouldn’t have enrolled our child in your school. His/Her attendance would be even more erratic than it is. We wouldn’t be doing the best we can to keep up. But being connected Jewishly is important. We want our child to be accepted as a member of the community, to be able to share in the same milestones that other kids experience. If it wasn’t important, we would have left a long time ago.

And now, my Child’s Teacher, a question for YOU. Can’t you, just once, contact me with some good news about my child? Just once, can’t you notice something positive s/he did – helping a classmate, asking a thoughtful question, holding the door open for someone, picking the trash off the floor? Just once, it would be nice……

Mary F. MeyersonMary F. Meyerson is a Jewish educational consultant (Morah Mary Consulting, LLC) in the greater Washington DC area, with over 20 years’ experience in Jewish and secular education, teaching preschoolers through adults. She has been the Education Director at two religious schools and was the Founding Director/Teacher at a Jewish Co-operative Preschool. She has received the Master Educator award (1998) from the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, and the “Heroes in Our Eyes” Award (2006) from the Howard County (MD) ARC. She was a founding member of RENA (Reconstructionist Educators of North America) and the chair of its first Conference (2005). She and her husband are the parents of two (now-adult) children with special needs. In addition to special needs, her primary areas of expertise are curriculum development, professional development for paraprofessional teachers, and engaging teens in teacher training.

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