In our Matan Institutes we work with Jewish Educators to guide them in including children of all abilities in Jewish education, offering concrete teaching tools for reaching every student and empowering them to make lasting change in their schools and communities. One of the things we discuss at length is the critical need for strong partnerships between parents and the school.
Educators and classroom teachers can often get “stuck” on the various ways that parents challenge them and they typically want specific pointers on how to handle difficult conversations with parents. While eager to help their students, many teachers seem to feel great apprehension around the ways to develop open and supportive communication with parents. It is important to begin by reframing these conversations and helping educators to see another perspective such as Five Things Parents Want Religious School Educators to Know.
Open and supportive communication with parents is essential for a successful Jewish supplemental school experience for any child, especially those with special learning needs.
These are some key points that can help to build the foundation for meaningful, supportive and productive relationships between educators and parents:
It’s all about relationships:
The work that we do in synagogues is relationship based. Building strong, lasting relationships with congregants is at the center of the work of rabbis, cantors, educators and other synagogue professionals. It should also be at the center of the work of our teachers in supplemental schools. Strong relationships are built on trust. Our parents need to trust that we are really here to support their children and that we really want to take this journey with them. All the more so for families of children with special needs, which leads to my second key point.
Parents of children with disabilities often spend many hours of their days in “battle”. They struggle with doctors, insurance agents, therapists, secular school teachers and so on. When they join a faith community, I believe they are seeking a place where they don’t have to fight, where they can be accepted as they are and where their family can come for respite and rejuvenation. It would seem logical that they should be able find this in a synagogue community. The most significant thing that synagogue professionals can say to parents and family members of those with disabilities is, “Yes, we can meet “Jonah’s” needs…now help us understand how to do that.” Or “Yes, of course your family can worship here and be a part of our community; please help us to understand how we can make that possible for you.” I am not suggesting that every request can and will be met with “yes”, but we have to start by opening the door and building the relationship, so that if there are things that are not possible, we can speak about them openly and honestly. When we start with yes, we rely on our trusting relationships to guide us.
Parents of children with disabilities and special learning needs need to grieve:
When parents learn of a child’s disability, they need to grieve; not for the child, but for the idea of what they thought parenting would be. They have to process through the grief of what they may not be able to have, while coming to terms with the new reality of what they can have. This is not easy. But isn’t this the very nature of the work of a religious community? Aren’t we in the business of pastoral care? Too often I think that educators believe that grief counseling is the work of clergy. Too often we compartmentalize our congregant’s needs into “clergy stuff’ and “school stuff”. But when a child with special needs significantly struggles in religious school, parents can be thrown back into the grief cycle, this time wondering if they will have to give up on their idea of bar/bat mitzvah (not to mention Confirmation, Jewish marriage or the many other Jewish life cycle events). When educators focus on a student’s limitations, they put a family back into a stance of defensiveness. Again, I am not suggesting that we don’t ever discuss a child’s limitations, but rather that we do so in the context of supporting relationships that begin with an emphasis on the abilities and what is possible. When we honor the grief process and support families, we develop the trusting and lasting relationships necessary to help children find success in all settings.
Fostering partnerships between parents and the school that are built on trusting relationships will lead us to build communities with open doors; ensuring that our congregations, our schools and our hearts will welcome all.
Lisa Friedman is Matan’s Manager of Social Media and Alumni Networks. She is also an Education Director at a Reform congregation in Central New Jersey where she oversees the synagogue’s and religious school’s inclusive practice.