Since I shared on this blog my family’s decision to withdraw our daughter Lucy from the local Jewish day school, I have been inundated with comments, Facebook posts, emails and phone calls. The majority of these have been parents sharing their own stories about why their child could not receive a Jewish education and reliving that heartbreak, whether it was last year or 20 years ago.
There were one or two comments about a Jewish day school getting it right – either because their child benefited from a special needs program within the school, or because the school utilized their resources effectively in order to teach different kinds of learners. Each and every comment gave me something new to think about, and I truly appreciate that.
Two emails stood out above all the others, though, and those were from professionals at two different Jewish day schools (one on the East coast, one in the Midwest). They both wrote, “How can I prevent this from happening at my school?”
Their communities are lucky to have them. Asking that question is the first step. In my effort to answer them, I hope I can shed some light on their question for Jewish day schools nationwide. What I hope you’ll understand when you’ve come to the end is that special education is just really good education.
SEVEN GUIDING PRINCIPLES (That Don’t Cost Anything) FOR JEWISH DAY SCHOOLS:
1. Communicate. Start conversations with parents by acknowledging that you are not going to get everything right every time, but that you are committed to working with the family, listening to their thoughts and having productive and ongoing discussions to figure out together what is best for the child. Parents are not demanding perfection, but they are respectful dialogue in their Jewish educational space.
2. Examine your school’s culture. Don’t get fooled into thinking that one person can make an entire school inclusive. Hiring a learning specialist or a director of educational support or a social worker is fantastic. These are experts I hope every Jewish day school will one day have in their midst. But a family’s experience cannot rest in the hands of these people alone. The notion that every student is valuable, regardless of strengths and weaknesses, must get “buy in” from administrators, teachers and other specialists.
3. Communicate. Until proven otherwise, assume that a parent knows their child best. Do not make assumptions based on what happens in the classroom. Relay to the parents what you are seeing, without diagnosing, and remind them that the goal is to help their child reach their individual potential. Plan out when and how you will communicate next, and write down what steps you have each agreed to in the interim. Be accountable.
4. Focus professional development on differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences. It can no longer be disputed that different people learn in different ways – it is a rare individual who learns equally well in every different modality. Your classrooms will not only become better suited for students with special learning needs, they will become more dynamic, better learning environments for every student.
5. Communicate. Share with your parent body what your faculty will be learning in professional development. Whether your day focuses on positive behavior supports, differentiated instruction, mental health in children, creating a culture of respect, examining the math curriculum with an eye towards multi-modal instruction – whatever the topic might be, share it! Teachers are learners, too, and parents will be thrilled to know that there are “works in progress.” That knowledge can create more open lines of communication between educators and parents, and better accentuate the values of your school.
6. Be creative with your resources. Remember that question on your application forms where parents need to write their profession? Print out that column and make a list of every special education teacher, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist and any other person in a related field. Convene them as a group, or meet with them individually. Let them talk to you about what your school is doing right when it comes to their particular knowledge base, and how the school can improve. Let them help you navigate the process of receiving public supports in private school education. In many cases, these individuals will provide you with some pro-bono support. Have them sit in a classroom and consult with the teacher afterwards. A few small suggestions from a person with a different lens go a long way.
7. Communicate. Understand that parents of children with any type of special learning need, mental health issue or developmental delay are most likely in some degree of turmoil. It is not easy to parent a child with challenges, or one who deviates from what most describe as the “norm.” Understand the role you play as an educator in being that parent’s ally, in giving them room to feel frustrated, upset or overwhelmed. Understand that they will only hear you if they feel heard first. Don’t give up on a parent because they are challenging you, or because you disagree with them. Stick with them through this journey. You, the parent and the child will all reap the benefits.
Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.