Classroom Tweaks That Help Students With Disabilities Benefit Everyone
04/26/2013 - 13:16
Helen Chernikoff

Editor’s Note: In journalism, we always say that three makes a trend, and the next week will see three communities hosting trainings on how better to include people with disabilities in the Jewish world: the Washington, D.C. area (http://www.pjll.org/content/tzedek-tirdof-pursuing-justice-may-2-2013); the Boston suburbs (http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/gisha-conference) and the Delaware Valley, near Philadelphia (http://www.jewishfederations.org/local_includes/downloads/54713.pdf.) Jaime Bassman, who wrote the piece below, is involved in both the Philly-area and the Boston events.

The “why” of including people with disabilities has been so beautifully articulated by others, particularly throughout Jewish Disability Awareness Month in February, when we focus on raising the community’s consciousness around the rights of Jews with disabilities. At that time, we reflect on our moral imperative to teach each child according to their way, to honor and respect all Jews, to not put a stumbling block before the blind.

As an occupational therapist, my specific interest has always been in the “how” of making inclusion work: the small tweaks to the environment, the adaptations to tasks, the tools that allow a person to function and thrive. So when I decided to offer my services within the Jewish community, it seemed like a natural fit to name my venture “Azar,” Hebrew for “help”. There would always be some level of support needed for success – it was just a question of the level of support, and how it could be provided.

Then I read this piece in Kveller (http://www.kveller.com/blog/parenting/why-i-wouldnt-let-my-son-be-labeled-special-needs), which turned this concept entirely on its head. What if the parent is adamantly opposed to providing any types of support for their child at all, even in a secular environment? If ‘sink or swim’ is working for the parent, but not for the child or their teacher, what can we do about it?

We can begin by creating environments that are hospitable for all students. We can empower our directors and teachers to make small tweaks to the ‘little things’ that can benefit everyone in the room.

For instance, I recently pointed out to a religious school director that fluorescent lights (ubiquitous in our 1960’s era synagogues) provide a harsh and distracting glare, as well as a droning buzz. When the shades are opened to let in the natural light, the confluence of the two can make it a challenge to remain focused. Pair this lighting with the screech of too-large or too-small chairs on a floor without carpets, and half the battle for our students’ attention has already been lost.

Teachers can benefit just as much as students when we make small changes to shut out  excess light and sound.

Another teacher insisted that because the children frequently move from their chairs to thefloor and have recess that there is no need for additional movement opportunities. I mentioned that movement during learning can be almost as powerful as movement before learning: A game of “Aleph Bet” twister is likely to be more memorable and fun than reciting from a chart.

It is crucial that we help our religious school teachers understand different learning styles (visual, kinesthetic, auditory) and how to reach all learners. Not an easy task, especially when a parent refuses to provide more background information or acknowledge that their child might need support. But it is something that can benefit all of our students in their ability to engage and learn. Most of all, these techniques create more dynamic and effective ways to teach and reach all learners.

At the end of the day…

“Special education” is smart education.

Jaime Bassman is an occupational therapist outside Philadelphia and the founder of AZAR. She provides training and consultation to families, synagogues and camps so that all children can access Jewish life activities.

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