Engaging Children with Disabilities at a Virtual Passover Seder

table set with children's seder objects such as a wooden seder plate, wooden matzah pieces and more. Includes the words Engaging Children with Disabilities at a Virtual Passover Seder

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Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday and celebrations take place in the home, around the table, typically with many members of extended families joining together. A Passover seder is meant to be a lively, interactive experience that engages participants of every age and ability level. This year, families are seeking to replace their large gatherings with virtual seders. While some Jews have been incorporating virtual aspects for many years, more observant Jews have been granted this opportunity in light of the current Coronavirus crisis.

Managing the Coronavirus Break for Children with Disabilities

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Managing the Coronavirus Break for Children with Disabilities; Removing the Stumbling Block

This is, without a doubt, a most strange and unusual time. This unprecedented break in not just school, but life, is unsettling, stressful, and anxiety-provoking, to say the least.

Educators have been asked to rapidly change the way they offer instruction. Many have quickly and adeptly found ways to pivot to keep students engaged and learning. Most are also weighing the balance between enough and too much in regard to online instruction. This is unfamiliar territory for most, amidst a time of heightened anxiety, and trying to figure out what is right is taking a lot of trial and error.

What’s interesting is that one of the most significant, underlying principles of inclusion is trial and error. A willingness to be flexible, pivot on the fly, and go in an unplanned direction when it produces a meaningful result is the hallmark of good inclusive education. It is a bright spot in an otherwise challenging time to notice so many educators willing and able to do exactly this. I am so hopeful that when this ends (and it will!) educators will remember these skills and bring them back into their classrooms.

I have also found myself thinking a lot about summer vacation. While I am aware that this is definitely not the same, I have been noticing some distinct parallels, especially for families with children who have disabilities and learning issues.

We often 
assume that all families look forward to summer vacation, but sometimes it’s anxiety and not joy that accompanies the dismissal bell on that last day of the school year. Parents of children with a variety of disabilities and learning issues, for example, often notice that their kids thrive on the structure and routine the academic year provides; the prospect of long stretches of unscheduled time can be overwhelming. This brings us to where we are right now.

Here are some fun and engaging ways to make this unscheduled and unusual break more manageable and more enjoyable for children with a variety of disabilities and learning differences:

1. Create a calendar
Develop a calendar of a week at a time to plan out activities such as online school, FaceTime playdates, walks outside, playtime, cooking, etc. The unknown in this situation can be scary, so not trying to go beyond a week can add reassurance. Seeing each week laid out can help children with attention deficits and visual processing issues to cope with what may feel like too much unstructured time. Also, schedule opportunities to focus on longer-term opportunities such as a household building project so children can understand the value of working on large-scale projects one small piece at a time. In addition, given how much is digital and online right now, using a physical calendar can provide a much welcome break. Here are some great options: 
magnetic weekly calendar for children
weekly dry erase schedule with markers

2. Create daily schedules
Hours of unstructured time may create anxiety or overwhelm children with disabilities such as autism or mood disorders. Left to their own devices, many children may spend hours watching television, playing video games, or worse: complaining about how bored they are. Providing children with a daily schedule — and engaging them in some elements of planning — will help them move through this challenging days more smoothly, confidently, and with a sense of purpose.

Here is an example of how to schedule a day to keep kids engaged:

·       8:00 a.m.      Breakfast
·       8:30 a.m.      Online school
·       10:00 a.m.    Break
·       10:15 a.m.     Online school
·       12:00 p.m.    Lunch
·       12:30 p.m.    Outdoor play (if weather permits) or other 
                          physical exercise
·       3:00 p.m.     Hobby or craft time
·       4:30 p.m.     Free time
·       6:00 p.m.     Dinner
·       7:00 p.m.     Family reading time, game night, or movie 

Some important things to keep in mind:
  • Consistency is key. Even though each day’s schedule may vary slightly, maintaining the basic structure — including meal times and other set features — will help children know what to expect.
  • Review the schedule for the next day each night at bedtime. This helps children who struggle with transitions to feel more prepared.
  • Post the schedule in the kitchen or some other readily-accessible place, or let family members carry copies with them. Being able to refer to the schedule throughout the day is both reassuring and empowering for kids who learn visually. Here are some good options for creating visual schedules:
Visual Schedule with multiple sectionsvisual schedule

  • Adapt to your child’s preferences and moods from time to time. Even when children need routines to flourish, take advantage of this time to do things you may have always wanted to do.

3. Read together.
Set a specific time each day for family reading. Everyone can read from their own copy of a book silently, take turns reading out loud, or even listen to a recording of the book together. These techniques will benefit children with dyslexia, auditory processing problems, or other reading-related disabilities. Use chapter breaks as an opportunity to talk about characters, settings, or plot points. As an added bonus to get children excited about finishing a book, plan a party to celebrate making it all the way through. Make your celebration special, and build excitement about it, by baking themed treats or decorating the house.

4. Start a blog.
Many children view using the computer as a reward, so writing on one instead of in a notebook may encourage kids to spend additional time drafting posts about their days. This may be particularly helpful for children who struggle to express their ideas and feelings in writing, such as those with dysgraphia, fine motor challenges, or visual processing issues. Once you have determined a set of topics to help focus your child’s composition, encourage them to write about their ideas or experiences a few times each week. Establish a publishing schedule, and create a blog calendar to help keep track of posts. As an added bonus, children may enjoy tracking the blog’s stats. This creates an opportunity to practice math skills, an added benefit for those with dyscalculia, as hit counts increase over time.

5. Help those in need.
Building empathy in children requires thinking about others. Finding a way to help others during this challenging time will be both rewarding and reassuring.

This is indeed a strange time. Make sure you are listening to your children and caring for their mental health as well as your own. No one, NO ONE, has lived through a pandemic before, and there are going to be ups and downs, and lots of mistakes. It’s ok. Leave room to forgive yourself, you are doing the best you can.

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We Have To Teach So We Can Employ

You are hired; Removing the Stumbling Block

Jewish professionals (educators, rabbis, cantors, youth directors, camp professionals, etc.) feel great pride when “one of their own” goes on to a career in the Jewish world. I know that I am thrilled when “kids” we have raised in our congregation come back to teach in our religious school. And when asked, most Jewish professionals will cite meaningful Jewish experiences such as camp, trips to Israel, or youth group participation as well as specific relationships that they formed with “their” rabbi, educator, or youth director as the reason why they pursued a Jewish professional life.

I continue to feel deep pride that we are, at my synagogue, giving all children and teens the opportunity to have those experiences and build those relationships.

However, we are remiss if we do not take it beyond school. Only 25 percent of people with disabilities are meaningfully employed. This is not due to a lack of desire or capability to work. That individuals who are otherwise capable, qualified, and eager to work are denied opportunity based solely on disability is infuriating.

Thankfully, there are a few gems that are on a mission to change this trend. If you do not know about Bitty & Beau's Coffee or No Limits Cafe, you should. These companies are showing the world how to meaningfully celebrate the skills and talents that everyone can bring into the work force. 

School is important; a critical starting point, and we have to take it beyond grade school. 

Our colleges and graduate programs must teach accessibility and inclusion while being accessible and inclusive. 

Are we then equipped to make Jewish professional life a reality? To truly call ourselves inclusive we must find the way to go beyond accessible and inclusive Jewish education and programming for children to supporting all aspects of Jewish life. 

Does your community offer accessible jobs in the Jewish world?

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A Blogging Effort for Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month - #JDAIMblogs

The true value of this month lies in raising awareness that there is so much more we can and should be doing to include those with disabilities; Removing the Stumbling Block

Today marks the first day of February and the official start of Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance, and Inclusion Month. JDAIM is designed to be a unified initiative to raise disability awareness and support efforts to foster inclusion in Jewish communities worldwide.

Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month logo; Removing the Stumbling Block
The true value of this month lies in raising the awareness that there is so much more we can and should be doing to include those with disabilities in our Jewish communities. 

I will do my best to blog often during the month of February in honor of JDAIM. I hope you will add your voice.

I encourage you to tweet me and tag Removing the Stumbling Block on Facebook so that I can share your content. 

As a Jewish Educator and Inclusion Expert I realize that the vague nature of “join me in blogging” could be overwhelming for some. You are free to blog on anything that relates to disability, accessibility, inclusion, etc. And if writing is “not your thing”, share a photo or artwork or a quote or a video. Honor your own expressive style and do what is most comfortable and most accessible for you. 

Don’t shy away from sharing your voice!

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Do not publish, curate, sell, post, or distribute all or any part of this blog's content without express permission of the author. You are invited, however, to share links to posts on your webpage, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, and other social networking sites. If you are interested in republishing any Removing the Stumbling Block content on your own blog, in a newsletter, or if you wish to use any content in another educational way, please contact me. I am also available to write unique content for your specific network.