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Different Kids, Same School

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Emuna Braverman

Parents of children with learning disabilities have their own challenges. Start by accepting your children for who they are and focusing on their very real strengths.

Is your offspring's educational experience a tale of frustration, struggle and criticism? Is it a story of meetings with teachers and trips to the principal's office? Do you cringe when the phone rings, praying it's not your child's teacher? Is your son on the verge of losing his motivation? Does your daughter engage in inappropriate behaviors to attract attention?

Frequently our children are locked into an educational system designed for a particular way of thinking with a very specific structure of learning. And this may be terrific for the majority of the class. But what about the children who are floundering - daydreaming or restless, failing or acting out?

Each person has different intellectual attributes, scholastic abilities and different struggles. Perhaps your son or daughter has a different kind of mind, with skills and strengths that aren't rewarded in the traditional classroom.

Classroom learning requires sustained concentration, a sharp memory, comprehension of visual and audio stimuli, coherent expression of thoughts and ideas, problem solving, creative thinking and tremendous effort. And that's just for starters. None of these are uniformly and evenly distributed skills.

We must demonstrate our acceptance and love for our child at every available moment.

As parents, we need to begin by recognizing the prevalence of learning differences, accepting our children for who they are, focusing on their very real strengths, and understanding that it has NOTHING to do with intelligence, kindness or moral behavior.

We must demonstrate our acceptance and love for our child at every available moment. If they're struggling at school, then they're probably feeling discouraged and downhearted. They may feel inferior and worthless. Running away can sound very tempting. Home must be a place of refuge and understanding with no pressure or exhortations to change.

And we must be clear that this challenge is about our child's mission in the world and not us.

A friend of mine who has a severely handicapped son shared this idea with me. "What really got me past the pain", she suggested, "was to recognize that my son is not in the world to accomplish for me, or to carry out my dreams and wishes. He's just a child who deserves all the joy and happiness I can provide."

Proverbs teaches that we should "educate the child according to his ways" -- his (or her) ways -- not mine, not yours, not his friends, not their teachers. Sensitivity to individuality is the foundation of good teaching and good parenting.

Since there are so many possible types of learning issues, not all get equal attention. But all equally indicate a need.

One of the most widely recognized learning challenges is ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder. Children who are unable to sit still, very easily distracted, restless and jumpy, and have poor impulse control may have ADD. These may be the adults on every community committee making enormous contributions to society, but in a classroom that requires silence and obedience…

Try this simple assignment. The next time you are at a family celebration or function take a good look at the other people sitting at your table during the second or third speech. Most of them will be sitting with their hands folded, looking respectfully at the speaker. Several will be fidgeting slightly. One person at your table, or the table next to you, will drive you to distraction if you watch him for any extended period. He will play with the silverware, fiddle with a pen, shift around in the chair, or simply walk out of the room. That adult was his teacher's nightmare 20 or 30 years ago.

Carefully observe the entire room and chances are you'll find several people with these tendencies. These restless people are very often the ones who contribute the most to our society. He may be the president of his shul, she may be the coordinator of an important communal organization. If you did not grow up with them, you would be shocked at what poor students they were in their youth.

Of course, not all restless children have ADD. Educational testing is a crucial prerequisite. But recognizing the issue at stake and not blaming the child is the only road to progress.

Look at your High School yearbook. In all likelihood, many of those who would have been voted "least likely to succeed" are today outstanding individuals - some in the spiritual realm, some in the business world, and others in their communal activities. They are successful today, not in spite of their difficulty in school, but rather, because of it. The qualities that we cherish in adults -- creativity, boldness, imagination, and boundless energy -- make for very poor students. Although not every restless child becomes a success story, it is helpful to be aware that despite the present difficulty, your child may very well have a reservoir of talent and ability that properly channeled, will produce an outstanding adult.

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