Helping Parents Find Their Way

Faith organizations are in the business of supporting the members of our communities through their life's journeys; Removing the Stumbling Block

I've written before about working with parents: Parents as Partners.  I have also had the privilege of presenting a webinar on this topic for The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

I believe it is imperative that we build strong partnerships with the parents of our students. The alternative is to run the risk of perpetuating or contributing to adversarial relationships.

As special educators (and as educators in general) we recognize that our students range along a spectrum of abilities. We work to differentiate instruction and create individual goals to ensure that our students experience success. And typically our expectations are appropriate given each student’s ability. 

And yet, we often fail to recognize that parents fall on their own continuum. At one end are parents who are supportive and committed advocates for their children with disabilities. At the other are parents who may be unaware of their child’s true needs, or who might be frustrated, angry or even belligerent. Everyone else falls somewhere in-between. It is our responsibility to help each parent, as best we can, to move along this spectrum in a positive direction. Just as we do for our students, we must have appropriate expectations to guide our conversations with parents.  Honoring their starting point, acknowledging each step and celebrating significant milestones are central to building relationships and forming strong partnerships.  

Faith organizations are in the business of supporting the members of our communities through their life's journeys.

In the twelve years since our program’s inception there have only be a couple of families who we couldn't truly serve. Early on, one such family came to us with their son. He had Cerebral Palsy, used a wheelchair and was primarily non-verbal, but those weren’t stumbling blocks. Our building is physically accessible and we were able to create an individualized learning program to meet his academic needs. Our teachers are warm, knowledgeable and eager to help every student find success. We were ready to carve a path for their family and figure it out together. But this boy’s mother battled us in the religious school and despite how often we said “yes”, she continued to express her displeasure that what we were doing wasn’t enough. I was frustrated.

It’s taken me a lot of years to realize that, in the end, it just wasn’t about her son and his learning needs. I don’t genuinely believe that she was comfortable enough in her own Judaism to know what she really wanted for her son. And she wasn’t interested in exploring, and thereby realizing, the joy of connecting to a vibrant Jewish community. She was, it seemed to me, doing what she thought was obligatory; seeking to “get” her son a Hebrew School education. But she wasn't ready to find her own place or discover that there really was a place for her family.

Sometimes it doesn't matter (sadly) that you are accessible and inclusive. Sometimes it's all about being ready to take the journey. 

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  1. There are many resources available. MATAN is a great one as is the RAC and a number of other organizations around the country. However as a disability advocate with CP who has been working on these issues for the last 34 years I am troubled by the article's suggestion that these issues can be solved by national organizations. Attitudes in Springfield will not be changed because someone from DC or NY provided resources, the community needs to want to change. Additionaly only the most committed are going to call a national organization for help. We spend so much time fighting that for many fighting the Jewish community fighting the Jewish community is something they would prefer to leave to others. If we really want to be as accessable as you say you are than the work needs to be done before anyone says they need it. Like all other Jews I should be able to get in without having to ask permission or beg for help. How many congregates without disabilities know exactly what they want out of their Judaism? Why do you have different expectations for us than you do for others?

    1. Thanks for your thought-provoking reply, Jason. A few notes:
      1. I work as an Educator at a Reform synagogue in NJ. I was recently invited to offer a webinar for The RAC on the topic of working with parents in Jewish Special Education, which is why I referenced them here.
      2. "If we really want to be as accessible as you say you are than the work needs to be done before anyone says they need it" - yes, that is what we strive to do. That is why we continue to reevaluate and expand, to be sure that our net is as wide as it can be.
      3. "Why do you have different expectations for us than you do for others?" - As for different expectations - not at all. My expectation, as an Educator and synagogue professional, is that the families who come to us will be willing, in some way, to take a Jewish journey. That is vast and varied, just as we are all vast and varied.

      Thanks again for your thoughts. I hope you will share more!

    2. Thank you I appreciate your response.

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