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What You Don’t Know, CAN Hurt You!

Meredith Polsky

This post is a part of our series, Reflections from the Matan Institutes. We are thrilled to feature Jen Vegh, Religious School & Youth Activities Director, Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY.

child's different needs teaching parentingI saw a posting on social media recently that said “You are not fat. You have fat. You also have fingernails, but you are not fingernails.” One of our discussions in the Matan Institute for Congregational Educators surrounded our language. All too often we hear about “the autistic child” or the “ADHD child”. Instead, with Matan we emphasized how we should say that the child HAS autism or HAS ADHD. A child’s different needs are not who he is, but rather an aspect of how he interacts with the world.

But what do we do when a child does not have diagnosed special needs? What if he hasn’t received services at school or doesn’t have pages and pages of documentation outlining his needs? Or, perhaps more challenging, what if there is documentation but it hasn’t been shared with us, the institution responsible for his Jewish education? How do we prepare ourselves to meet that child’s needs?

I believe the answer lies in asking caring, meaningful, non-threatening questions BEFORE the child joins the learning program. The questions may be asked as part of an intake form, or during an in-person or by phone “get to know you” session. There are several goals to these questions. First, the information will help us to better understand who the child is and how we can support his needs. Second, we demonstrate to our families that we CARE about their child and their family. We see the child as a whole person, not just a student. Finally, we create an open line of communication with the family – we build opportunities to connect. As administrators and educators we then have an obligation to follow up and continue to keep that line of communication open.

Here are some questions which can help to understand the full picture of our children. Parents can pro-actively share this information with their children’s educators and administrators. Educational programs can pro-actively seek this information from families. Both are effective. And while there are many, many possible questions, I have found that understanding the answers to the basic questions below have immensely helped our institution’s ability to meet the individual needs of our children:

  1. When is your child most joyful?
  2. Interests: What sorts of activities does your child like best?
  3. Dislikes: To what sorts of activities does your child respond adversely?
  4. Expected Behaviors: When my child is frustrated/upset, I can tell by…
  5. Does your child have identified learning needs? (this can be an open-ended question or could have a list to choose from)
  6. Does your child receive any support services? How can we best reflect those support services?
  7. Is there anything about your family situation that would help us better understand your child?
  8. What else should we know about your child?

Our families expect us to meet their children’s needs, so it is both our obligation to ask, and the family’s obligation to share, as much information as possible, because the truth is, what we don’t know, CAN hurt us.

Reflections from the Matan InstitutesJen Vegh is the Religious School & Youth Activities Director at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, NY. She’s a graduate of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where she received a master’s degree in Jewish Education. She also holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in Jewish music and one in sociology.

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