I assume that most people agree with the following premise: No two children are the same, and it is best to employ an individualized approach to both education and parenting. Children differ in their intellect, processing speed, disposition and, of course, ambition. One size does not fit all. Each child is a gem waiting to shine, and our job as educators and parents is to assure that they shine.
We live in a world in which we are blessed with a refined understanding of child development, so the above premise is widely appreciated and embraced. The challenge arises, however, when adults perceive certain behaviors as a choice. It’s one thing to acknowledge the varying cognitive abilities of students; of course, Hashem has blessed us all with different toolboxes, and the difference among students is not so much a matter of choice as it is circumstance. It’s another to consider the behavioral or affective characteristics of our students in the same light. This is a challenge because it is easy to perceive poor behavior or lack of academic effort as symptoms of choices that the child makes. “Moshe is just looking for attention,” or “Sarah is simply lazy.” Such a line of reasoning is quite dangerous. Perhaps the most detrimental outcome of this attitude is that it excuses the teacher or parent from creatively manipulating the environment to support the child, and instead shifts the responsibility to the child to change the situation. The adults who are responsible for these precious children insist that they should just “try harder” or “behave their age.” As if to say, “they chose this path, and they could choose better if they wanted.”
Among the broad spectrum of students that we serve at SINAI Schools are students who have a moderate learning disability or attention deficit but have failed prior to enrolling in our school. They have failed academically. They have behaved poorly. They have disappointed their parents and teachers, and perhaps most importantly (though not as obviously even to those close to them) they have disappointed themselves. The disappointment and frustration often stems from an unfair expectation that the students should simply choose to perform better. When that expectation is not met, parents and teachers are disappointed. Even students grow to be disappointed in themselves, because they have learned to believe that success is 100% in their control. And if they have not reached success, even after much effort, that must mean that they are indeed how others perceive them: stupid, lazy or bad.
Our approach at SINAI Schools is more nuanced. We strongly believe that no child chooses to misbehave or to be lazy. They don’t want to be bad. Rather, children innately want to please their parents and teachers, even if all signs are showing that that is not the case. With this perspective, the bulk of the responsibility for a child’s success gets shifted from the child back to the teachers. Yes, we believe that students have some control over their academic destiny—it is, after all, dependent on their level of engagement and degree of work ethic. However, it is primarily the teachers’ responsibility to manipulate the educational environment in such a way that children can achieve success. Some teachers and parents are hesitant to accept that responsibility out of a fear that it sends a message to the students of lowering the expectations of them. In fact, the opposite happens; when students witness the creativity with which their teachers engage in helping them academically, it empowers them to have confidence in themselves and in their own efforts.
This concept of the teacher embracing the responsibility for student growth is classically represented by the light of the menorah. On the last day of Chanukah, we read about Hashem’s description to Moshe of how to instruct Aharon to light the Menorah. In describing the lighting of the candles, the Torah uses the word “B’ha’alotecha, when you lift up the candles,” an odd choice of words to describe the act of lighting. Rashi famously quotes the Gemara in Shabbos that explains that the word “B’ha’alotecha” teaches us that the kohen was commanded to hold the flame against the wick until the light ascended on its own. Instead of touching the wick quickly and allowing the flame to struggle to survive, the kohen was commanded to keep the original flame close to the wick for a few moments and only to pull away once the new flame was rising strong. Children, too, have the potential to emit beautiful light once their flames have been lit. Our responsibility not only is to provide the spark but to support the rising of that flame until it stands strong on its own—to demonstrate to our students that with our patience and support, both their inner beauty and strength can grow and shine bright.
Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs is the dean of SINAI Schools. SINAI operates eight schools across NJ and the NY metropolitan region, serving children who have a wide range of complex learning or developmental disabilities.
To read this article as it originally appeared in the Jewish Link Click Here