When your child has special learning needs–or any kind of physical, emotional, or behavioral challenge that impacts learning–finding a suitable religious education can be a challenge.
For the 85% of us who look towards an afternoon or Sunday Hebrew School, particular challenges may arise. First of all, show us a child for whom 4:00 p.m.–after a full day of a structured secular school environment–is an optimum time for learning, and we’ll show you a dozen more for whom it’s not. At 4:00 p.m., most children exhibit some type of “special learning need.” For those with an actual diagnosis, though, these tips may come in especially handy:
1. Does the Hebrew School or the synagogue have a written statement on their inclusion policies, or a special needs task force or committee? If they do, they have already given this issue a decent amount of thought and you won’t be the first person they’re hearing from about a child with special needs. If they don’t, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t care about inclusion. You may, however, find yourself in the position of “trailblazer” as you help your child navigate the school (and vice versa).
2. What’s the Hebrew School’s track record on including children with special needs? Ask for specifics. If your child has an auditory processing disorder, ask how they have accommodated other kids who struggle in similar ways. How many kids have there been in recent years whose special learning needs were a reason for leaving the program? This will give you a good idea about what extent they expect your child to meet their needs, versus how far they are willing to go to meet your child’s needs.
3. What kinds of supports does the Hebrew School have in place? Some programs employ a learning specialist or a Hebrew resource room teacher. You’ll want to meet with those people personally to learn about their approach to teaching. Some programs will tell you that because their classes are small, they are able to accommodate many different kinds of learners. That might be true, but small class size does not, in and of itself, equal a true understanding of special needs. Sit in a couple of classes and see for yourself. Do the structure of the class and the methods of teaching match your child’s learning needs?
4. Speaking of sitting in on classes–if a school says they don’t allow that (“It causes too much disruption to our students” or “If one parent sits in, every parent will want to” or anything else you might hear) that’s usually a red flag. A school that’s proud of what goes on in their classrooms should want to shout it from the rooftops.
5. Ask about the classes and the general schedule. Find out what a typical class size is, and if they place a limit on how many children can be in a class. Get a sense of what the students do in the classroom. Are they split into groups based on ability? Do they typically learn only as a whole class? Do students get pulled out for support in Hebrew when needed? Is there a system for providing extra support in the classroom? Are there a lot of transitions (classroom to start, sanctuary for prayers, all-purpose room for music, etc.)? Some children thrive on “shaking things up;” others will struggle with constant changes.
6. Who are the teachers? What percentage of them are trained as educators? How long have they been teaching? What’s the level of teacher-turnover at the school? To what extent is the school committed to professional development? What percentage of professional development sessions focus on learning differences among students?Hebrew School teachers who are trained educators are often more likely to understand the nuances of learning differences.
7. What is the synagogue’s approach to the bar and bat mitzvah ceremony? Even though this milestone might feel a long way off right now, finding out about the process could provide a lot of insight. Is every student expected to do roughly the same thing when it comes to the bar or bat mitzvah? Are there options to choose from (such as a shorter service, less emphasis on Hebrew, or other accommodations to meet the needs of different learners)? If there doesn’t seem to be leeway here, it’s unlikely that children with moderate to severe learning differences make it through their Hebrew School program.
8. How do you feel when you walk into the Hebrew School? If it doesn’t feel warm and welcoming to you, it probably won’t feel that way to your child either. When we look at a school’s ability to accommodate diverse learners, attitude is an important starting point. Hebrew Schools and synagogues that espouse a “can do” attitude towards accepting every individual speak volumes about their willingness and ability to create a successful environment for your child.
The path to finding the right religious education for your child won’t always be easy. You might meet people along the way who don’t yet understand how your child’s participation will make their community stronger, and how your child’s individual gifts will create a more vibrant Jewish education for everyone. But you will also meet people who renew your faith, strengthen your resolve, and accompany you on your journey. Good luck!
This post is part of a joint series with Kveller & Matan during February’s Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Through advocacy, education and training opportunities Matan empowers the Jewish community to include children with special needs. For more information, visit their website.