Editors's Note: TheJewishWoman.org has received many letters from concerned parents regarding learning issues with their children. One of the biggest fears is whether or not a child with special learning needs can remain in a Jewish day school. The following article is a typical case-study written by a woman who is the Educational Director of an independent special needs learning program run out of multiple Jewish day schools. We hope the following story and guidance will give hope and determination for parents throughout the States to insist that their children be given the help needed to remain in a Jewish school and to thrive in that environment…

He was unable to stay focusedEvery parent has hopes, aspirations and dreams for his or her child. Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz were no different. Growing up and excelling in a Jewish day school environment, they expected their children to follow in their path. After their youngest son, Avi, entered kindergarten at the local Jewish day school, his teachers noticed that he seemed different from his peers.

He had a short attention span during circle time, had to have directions repeated many times in order to understand and complete projects, did not work independently and had a difficult time remembering the sounds of letters in both English and Hebrew. His behavior was also erratic. He was unable to stay focused on long term goals and simultaneously couldn't sit still for short amounts of time. He had difficulty following classroom rules and with social interactions. Avi found it hard to keep his hands to himself and was constantly touching or becoming physically aggressive with teachers and peers.

Avi's teachers tried the following interventions to help him become a more successful student:

  • He was given a sticker and praise for every five minutes he showed appropriate circle time behavior (listening to the teacher and keeping his hands to himself). When he earned a certain number of stickers, he was rewarded with a prize.
  • He was given a sensory object (like a kush ball) to hold while he needed to attend to verbal stimuli (directions, listening to a story).
  • He was seated at the front of the classroom right in front of the teacher's desk.
  • He had a "secret code" with the teacher; Every time she told him his "engine was running too high," he realized he needed to calm down.
  • Involved projects with many components should be chunked into manageable parts for him.
  • He worked with the resource room teacher to learn the sound/symbol relationship of the alphabet using sand paper letters, alphabet cookies, color coding and physical movement.

At midyear conferences, the teachers presented their concerns to Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz. They discussed in detail the behavioral and academic challenges they observed and interventions they had implemented. They urged the parents to make an appointment with the school's principal and special needs coordinator to take the next step in helping Avi.

As a team, they would try to find the right educational path for AviAt the meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz expressed their desire to have Avi remain in a Jewish day school environment. They were afraid, however, that his learning and behavioral challenges were too great for him to be in a dual curriculum school. Both administrators told the parents that working together as a team they would try to find the right educational path for Avi. Their journey to finding that path was just beginning!

Both school officials recommended that Avi be tested by a psychologist. The information given by psycho-educational testing would help the school know which type of learning environment (small group support for part of the day or self-contained classroom) would be best for Avi and would give them an idea of his learning strengths and weaknesses. They also recommended a vision and hearing test to ascertain that Avi's acuity in those areas was normal. His parents were given the names of psychologists and they lost no time in contacting one for an appointment. Simultaneously, they took Avi for his hearing and vision tests.

During the summer between kindergarten and first grade, Mr. and Mrs. Schwartz met with the school administrators a number of times. At the first meeting, they reviewed the findings of the psycho-educational exam which documented that Avi had a specific learning disability in reading and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The parents were reassured that Avi had an average IQ but was going to need special techniques and strategies in order to be successful in school. At the next meeting, the Schwartz's were presented with a learning plan for Avi. The school offered to put him into an academic self-contained/social inclusion class for first grade. Avi would receive an individualized program geared to teaching the fundamentals of language arts (reading, writing, spelling, and grammar), math and Hebrew reading.

The self-contained class would have a ratio of three children to one masters' level special-education teacher. Avi would join his typical class for lunch, recess, art, music, gym and learning about the Torah portion and Jewish holidays. In addition, the special education teacher would "case manage" Avi while he would be in the mainstream program. She would work with the mainstream teacher to modify any work required of him. The Schwartz's, naturally, wanted the very best for their son. They realized they would have to take a detour from the educational path they had assumed Avi would follow. With some trepidation, they gave permission for Avi to go into the special class.

Avi's first grade experience was highly successful. His self-esteem remained positive as the lessons were structured for success and he was always given work that he could complete independently. Structured and explicit techniques were utilized and reinforced to help Avi learn. For example, a four prong approach was used in reading.

  1. Word families were drilled and stories using word families were read
  2. Sight words were taught and reviewed daily
  3. Daily phonemic awareness drills provided a change of pace
  4. Well-written stories were read to Avi until he learned enough to read independently on his level.

Math manipulatives were part of every math lesson and behavioral techniques were implemented and easily reinforced because of the small size of the class.

The Hebrew alphabet and vowels were slowly introducedMost of Avi's first grade experience was dedicated to the General Studies curriculum but a portion of each day was spent on Judaic Studies. At first, Avi was given a cultural Judaic curriculum which emphasized holidays, mitzvot and prayers. As Avi's English reading skills improved, the Hebrew alphabet and vowels were slowly introduced. As he grew older, textual reading, translating and comprehension were added.

Avi needed to stay in his special class for the next few years. As he showed mastery in a subject, he was slowly mainstreamed into the class with his peers. Throughout the elementary and middle school years, Avi needed some level of support to reinforce strengths and develop compensatory strategies as areas of need arose. His parents became partners with him in this venture, acting as coaches each time Avi needed to learn a new strategy or technique. Many of the strategies listed below were reinforced for years by Avi's parents in both General and Judaic studies until he finally internalized them and could do them independently:

  • color coding the main idea and detail for content area material
  • graphic organizers (a visual presentation of ideas)
  • utilizing a multi-modality approach for studying
  • building vocabulary through color coding root words, prefixes and suffixes
  • flash cards
  • time management (prioritizing, long and short-term time management)
  • visualizing story elements for comprehension
  • use of a tape recorder to listen to difficult passages; Mental energy can then be devoted to comprehension
  • use of color-coded subject folders for organization
  • parent-generated reward coupons for completed work
  • use of timers
  • use of weekly/monthly planners
  • use of "good choice" vs. "bad choice" terminology
  • having "SAD [search and destroy] Sundays" to rid folders and backpack of material no longer needed
  • pre-teaching of difficult concepts before entering the mainstream class.

Although Avi's path was unique and different from his friends he attained the same milestones they did. His participation in his Bar Mitzvah service was a testament to the benefits derived from "Teach a child according to his way," (Mishlei 22:6). Avi's parents also learned a valuable lesson… fair doesn't mean equal. Fair means the individual receives what he/she needs in order to be successful. Once these two lessons were understood, Avi's parents were able to put him on a path where his hopes, aspirations and dreams could come true!