Family & Education

Children who ‘don’t fit in the box’ deserve better from us

Children with different learning needs should be able to enjoy a rich Jewish education, writes Michael S Cohen


New friends who have never been around our Shabbat table before will be joining us on Friday night. We look forward to opening our home to them, but before they arrive there are numerous questions that need answering.

Do they know where we live? Do they have any dietary requirements? Is there something we need to know about them that we perhaps don’t know? Will there be any sensitive topics of conversation that would be best avoided?

These questions are important to us, as it’s our genuine desire for our visitors to feel comfortable in order to enjoy their Shabbat experience in our home. Putting social experiences aside, we live in a culture where it’s important to be seen to accommodate people’s needs.

But I question whether, as a community, we are doing that, when it comes to our Jewish children who don’t fit “inside the box”.

When I spoke at the London School of Jewish Studies’ annual conference for Jewish studies primary teachers earlier this year, I wasn’t surprised to see how committed they were to catering for all their students. They welcomed new ways of thinking to empower students who need different approaches to access Jewish learning.

I proposed designing lessons on a “bus stop” model. Just as with a bus, people get off at different stops. So lessons can be planned to enable students to get off at stops that are suitable to their cognitive ability and learning style.

The learning process should require every student to come out of their comfort zone, while recognising that we are all at different levels, so content and methods need to be adapted to accommodate the varied needs of our learners.

Next month, around the Seder table, we will discuss the four sons. Every son is given a different response to his question. The traditional way of interpreting this is to help us acknowledge that our children are individuals.

There are schools and organisations such as Kisharon and Gesher, to name but two, who do sterling work in catering for students with more profound learning challenges. LSJS runs modules on inclusion in all their teacher training and education degree programmes and accommodates SEND students on all their courses and programmes.

However, too many of our children in the mainstream classroom who perhaps aren’t as academic as their peers, or who have to cope with dyslexia, ADHD and other “labels”, are being excluded from accessing a rich Jewish education.

My own daughter with dyslexia found the heavy burden of studying Jewish text in Hebrew nothing less than demoralising, resulting in her feeling switched off and uninspired by her Jewish learning.

As parents, having lost the struggle to get the school to see students like our daughter as an opportunity instead of a threat, we compensated by motivating her through more practical Jewish experiences.

It’s time to change this trend. It’s time for all Jewish schools to focus on the bigger picture, defining success for their students in broader terms such as “actively living their Judaism with confidence” or “enjoyment of Jewish learning at their individual level”.

I have spoken with many parents who, though committed to Jewish schooling throughout their children’s schooling, feel let down when their child was forced to leave mainstream Jewish education, as they didn’t meet the school’s academic requirements for post-GCSE.

Some Jewish schools offer a modest selection of less academic tracks, but the options remain limited, forcing these often more creative members of our community to attend non-Jewish colleges that have no Jewish education and fewer opportunities to maintain Jewish friendships.

Including everyone around our Shabbat table is one thing, but as a community we have a long way to go until we can truly hold our heads up high and say that our Jewish education provision is truly inclusive.

Michael Cohen is a Jewish education and community consultant with Educating for Impact and director of MiCoach

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