Designing A Sensory Break Path to Fit Your Space

colorful lines and footprints on the floor and wall as a sensory path for students; Removing the Stumbling Block

You may have seen the video that went viral of a young boy walking, stretching, and hopping along a path that a special education teacher designed, painted, and implemented in the elementary school where she works. She labored over the path for more than 80 hours, creating something special for the students in her school. 
small boy leaping from image to image painted on the floor of a school hallway; Removing the Stumbling Block 
A sensory path is meant to help a child use their own bodies and environment to calm themselves down. They use their muscles, breathing, and spatial awareness to make their way through the path and walk away from it reset and refreshed. When teachers know certain students in their class would benefit from movement breaks, they can allow students to leave class (in our space the students would leave with a madrich or madrichah - Hebrew for classroom assistant) and complete the sensory break path. It’s a preventative measure, geared toward improving focus and preventing disruptive behavior before it occurs. In our space we already have students who need breaks throughout the session walking laps around our building. I designed this as a productive alternative.

Resources for Teaching Disability Awareness and Inclusion

There is a distinct lack of resources for teaching disability awareness, accessibility, and inclusion in a Jewish setting.

Curriculum design is one of my areas of expertise. I have experience in developing curriculum for children of all ages, with particular strengths in the areas of teen engagement and experiential education. If you are looking to build or enhance your program, please be in touch.

Create a Sense of Urgency Around Inclusion

How can we change the culture of our community to one where individual members recognize and value inclusion?

I spend a lot of time exploring organizational change. In my work coaching organizations toward increased inclusion, one thing synagogue professionals and lay leaders often ask is some version of this: “How do we change the culture of our community to one where individual members recognize and value inclusion?”  

Organizational culture change is a complex process that demands a clear vision and a focused leadership team committed to create, anchor, and support change over time within the institutional culture. In other words, it is anything but a “quick fix.”

Stop Using Behavior Charts

Stop Using Behavior Charts; Removing the Stumbling Block

In Ditch the Clips (Stop Using Behavior Charts Part 1), I shared how much I dislike traditional classroom behavior charts. I believe they do absolutely nothing to model and support appropriate student behavior.

It’s worth taking a look at the responses to that post:
“I have to disagree that clip systems are 'always' harmful and shaming to students. I use it in my classroom. All students begin the day on green (middle of the chart) and throughout the day, they can clip up or down depending on the choices they make. It is NEVER used to punish “mistakes”.

Shall I follow this teacher into the faculty room for lunch? Let’s say she’s having a particularly tough day. Maybe she cuts off a colleague in the middle of a conversation or snaps at someone trying to hand her something. I go to the chart and move her clip (or expect her to do it) down from green. She won’t feel embarrassed or shamed by this? I don’t buy it. Not a punishment? That’s exactly what it is.

It’s Time to Forgive Yourself and Move Forward

Forgive Yourself and Move Forward; Lisa Friedman, Removing the Stumbling Block

If you read a lot of blogs, particularly those focused on disability inclusion, it may seem like there are a lot of “shoulds”. This is how you should treat people with disabilities, this is how you should speak about people with disabilities, this is how you should teach and include people with disabilities.

Maybe you read these “shoulds” and they spark within you an idea of a possibility and you are inspired to make a change. Or maybe you read them and find yourself feeling guilty. When I write, my goal is to get you thinking. I hope I lead you to think about what is possible

Using Fidgets Appropriately to Promote Inclusion

What's in Your Fidget Box; Removing the Stumbling Block

A fidget is a small object that can be squeezed, pulled, or moved around as a form of self-regulation to help students with focus, attention, calming, and active listening. Fidgets come in all different shapes, sizes, and textures and can all be used to promote movement and tactile input that is critical for student learning.

Research shows that engaging in an activity that uses a sense other than what's required for your primary task can enhance focus and improve performance in children with Attention Deficit Disorder. There is also science around why many people fidget (not just those with attention issues): The Science of Why We Fidget While We Work.

Common Myths About Disability Inclusion [Avoiding Inclusion Pitfalls]

Debunking Myths in Disability Inclusion; Removing the Stumbling Block

Inclusion: the action or state of including or being included within a group or structure

This term (inclusion), when applied to education, is meant to capture an all-encompassing societal ideology. Inclusion is meant to secure opportunities for students with disabilities to learn alongside their non-disabled peers in general education classrooms.

However, interpretations and approaches vary widely. I believe that inclusion is a state of mind, a belief system that guides us to ensure a true sense of belonging. Inclusive education is ensuring that ALL students have equal access to curriculum and meaningful learning experiences.

Nevertheless, there is no blueprint for how to make this happen on a practical level in schools. As a result, each state, district, school, and even teacher may have a slightly different understanding of what an inclusive classroom is, let alone how to create one.

Below are the four most common myths and misconceptions that have become barriers to the widespread implementation of inclusive education

Change is Scary {Why We Must Embrace Change to be Inclusive}

Do you fear change? Do you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of helping your school, organization, or community become more inclusive?

It made a difference for that one; Removing the Stumbling Block

It's not unusual to feel uneasy or intimidated by the magnitude of a significant undertaking. It can be that "inclusion" feels so huge that you do not even know where to begin; so you don't. 

Even knowing that change needs to happen you may not know how to go about delivering it. Where do you start? Whom do you involve? How do you see it through?

What really matters is that you start somewhere. Small steps CAN make a difference.

A favorite story:
Once upon a time, there was an old man who took walks on the beach every morning. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions. 
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied, “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves. When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977)

Helping to move your faith organization toward inclusion may seem like throwing back all the starfish on the beach, but it genuinely is ok to start with the starfish you can reach.  

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Research Supports a Shift in Language Use - Why We Should Stop Using the Phrase Special Needs

Language use is top of mind for me lately.

Changing one’s language is a necessary and significant step in affecting lasting culture change; Removing the Stumbling Block

Maybe this is because it’s the time of year to focus on year-end forms and registration for next year. Maybe it’s because there’s more and more being written about language use as it pertains to gender and sexuality and I find myself thinking about how I believe the Disability Inclusion Movement lags behind by about 5 or so years. Or maybe it’s because I am just a self-professed grammar nerd and think about the nuances of language use on a regular basis. Probably it’s some combination of the three.

Special Needs…Disabilities…What’s the difference?

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Removing the Stumbling Block

Over eighteen years ago my synagogue hired me as the Religious School’s Special Needs Consultant. Within a year that title changed to Special Needs Coordinator. A subtle shift, but one that we believed demonstrated our commitment to the permanence of our program. Today I serve as a full-time Education Director with oversight of our disability inclusion efforts. But if anyone asks me what I do for a living, my reply is typically that I am a Jewish Educator and a Jewish Inclusion Expert.

Why so much focus on the semantics? Isn’t it just a job title after all? Isn’t the work far more important than the label we attach to it?

A number of years ago my congregation’s Outreach Committee hosted a breakfast to explore creating a support group for parents and grandparents of children with disabilities. When I helped to edit the invitation, I chose to write “parents and grandparents of children with disabilities”, believing that it would make our message clear and would help to draw participation from the larger community. However, a member of the planning committee, a mother who’s son is on the autism spectrum, immediately wrote and asked me to change it to “special needs” because “it seems less harsh than the term disability; disability just has a more negative connotation”.

Is that true? Does disability really conjure up negative images? 

Do we really hear disabled and think broken? Maybe that is why we have to celebrate when a young girl with Spina Bifida is on the cover of Parents Magazine:

Or when a boy with Cerebral Palsy and his brother are Sports Illustrated Kids Stars of the Year?

I feel sad that these aren’t just “normal” occurrences in our society yet and work hard to advance the advocacy necessary to change such perceptions.

So I reflect on that parent's belief that “special needs” is much gentler than “disability”, and wonder if gentler is better? Or is it more likely that we are perpetuating the use of an outdated euphemism that serves to harm more than help?

There are many who will advocate the latter, that the euphemisms must go. Here's one from Emily Ladau: 4 Disability Euphemisms That Need to Bite the Dust. And she is not alone. Many disability self-advocates argue that terms like special needs must be eliminated from our discourse to advance true inclusion.

I don’t have all the answers. While I respect the desire of the disability community and use the term disability almost exclusively in my writing and my work, I acknowledge that others disagree and have other preferences. 

Nevertheless, I will say this: The work I am honored to do is most definitely special. Maybe that’s enough.

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Creating Inclusive Teen Experiences

An inclusive teen program benefits everyone.

A teen community is stronger when individuals feel a sense of belonging and their value is celebrated; Removing the Stumbling Block

But building such a program will be challenging if you don't personally embrace a philosophy of inclusion. Unless you truly believe in the value of inclusion across every experience, you are bound to get stuck in notions such as, "Having her there takes something away from the other teens," or, "They shouldn't always have to look out for him." Until teen educators embrace the value of inclusion and recognize that an inclusive community is a stronger community for everyone, such fallacies will persist. 

A true highlight of my work as a Jewish Educator is leading experiences with teens. I have relished each opportunity to teach, guide, mentor, counsel and support this age group for over twenty years. And I am exceptionally proud of the unique model we have built in our congregation. We have created a structure that affords all students, regardless of ability or need, the opportunity to participate fully. Including overnight experiences. And it works.

Synagogues across North America lament a significant decrease in engagement with Jewish life post-bar and bat mitzvah, but when you ensure that any post b’nei mitzvah program is fully inclusive, you maximize opportunities to continue learning, growing and engaging with Jewish life experiences. Further, there is opportunity to socially engineer relationships between teens every step of the way, thereby maximizing their potential for developing strong Jewish friendships. 

Professor Steven M. Cohen of HUC-JIR states, “Jewish educators should have an explicit mission to bestow Jewish friendship networks on children and adults who are increasingly unlikely to find them on their own.”

Inclusive teen experiences are possible. Teens with disabilities are entitled to the same Jewish opportunities that their peers experience.  

Contact me to learn more about how to build an inclusive teen community.

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Celebrating a Life Well Lived - Honoring the Legacy of Rabbi Lynne Landsberg

Celebrating a Life Well Lived - Lynne Landsberg; Removing the Stumbling Block

I haven’t written in a while. 

It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say.

It’s more that I hadn’t quite figured out how to put what I want to say into words.

February was, once again, Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month. It remains, in its tenth year, an opportunity to raise up an issue that matters and spur to action those who might otherwise remain inert. But as the month drew to a close, we lost one of our own. We lost an incredible woman, teacher, friend, and rabbi, one so deeply committed to the inclusion of people with disabilities in our Jewish world and in all aspects of society. On February 26, Rabbi Lynne Landsberg lost a struggle with cancer at the age of 66.

Tools for Inclusion: Progress Reports

Inclusion is who we are, not simply a thing that we do; Removing the Stumbling Block

One of the things that many religious school education directors will agree is a part of the job they like least is progress reports. Why?

1. Producing documents that are meaningful to parents as a way of acknowledging their children’s growth and development can be difficult. Typical reports focus on deficits rather than strengths, and check-offs or even a short narrative can’t always offer a full picture of a student.

Wake Up Call - Inclusion Matters

Wake Up Call - Inclusion Matters; Removing the Stumbling Block

I am fortunate to have had a second opportunity to staff a Birthright trip to Israel. Many will recall that I led for the first time in 2016 as a way to honor a dear friend as well as to understand this meaningful experience firsthand to be better able to guide the young adults I love and teach. I quickly recognized that this was also an opportunity for me to grow both personally and professionally.

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