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Earlier is Significantly Better

Earlier is Significantly Better

By: Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs
Dean, SINAI Schools

Yaakov* started Pre-K at his local yeshiva day school when he was 4 years old, following in his older siblings’ footsteps.  His parents were thrilled with the school, where the opportunities for spiritual, academic and social growth were plentiful and their older children had made lots of friends.  But by the time Yaakov reached Kindergarten, his teachers were concerned.  It was not unusual for some children to mature more slowly than others, but Yaakov was also becoming increasingly introverted and rigid.  With each year that passed, the social, emotional and academic gaps between Yaakov and his peers seemed to widen.  In response, each year the school increased the accommodations that he needed, always being honest with his parents about his difficulties.  From the outset, Yaakov’s loving parents had dedicated all of their resources to support him.  Following the advice of the school administration, they had hired a shadow, enrolled Yaakov in after-school social skills groups, driven him to weekly therapy appointments, and worked tirelessly to ensure that he would have the skills necessary not only to navigate the classroom environment, but to succeed in life in general.  Yet despite all of their emotional and financial investment and the school’s best intentions, in the middle of 4th Grade, Yaakov’s school experience began to unravel.  He refused to participate in lessons, displayed aggressive behaviors for the first time, and alienated himself from his peers, teachers, and therapists.  Ultimately, the school administration admitted to Yaakov’s parents that they weren’t equipped to handle his needs, and recommended that they consider a special education placement for him. 

Unfortunately, stories such as Yaakov’s are not rare.  Too often, well-meaning schools hold on to a student for far too long.  As a result, the parents push off accessing an educational setting that is more appropriate for their child, in which he or she can grow and succeed. 

Inertia can be a serious challenge, and particularly when the professionals in a school are warm, welcoming and supportive, there are many parents who choose to maintain their child in a class placement which poses significant and increasing challenges each year.  Often, parents feel that their child can continue to “pull through” so long as the school is willing to keep putting more accommodations in place.  Yet when a child is struggling, schools and parents need to work together to make difficult decisions about whether a regular education setting is the best choice, or if there is a better educational and social placement for that child.  Often it may seem that there is no perfect solution.  There are so many factors that go into the decision: the child’s academic level, his or her social behavior, therapy availability, the cost of tuition, geographical location, and even the stigma associated with special education.  Unfortunately, one critical variable which is often overlooked in this calculation is the potentially negative impact of waiting too long to make a change.

The truth is that for many children who ultimately do need a special education environment, earlier is significantly better.  When a student experiences academic difficulty and failure year after year, we risk the child not only lagging further behind academically, but developing low self-esteem and depressed motivation.  Common sense tells us what research has confirmed: children are more likely to experience success in the classroom when they are excited and positive about the process of learning, an attitude which is easily dammed up by feelings of inadequacy and incompetency. 

Certainly, often it is best for a child with learning difficulties or special needs to remain in a regular education setting.  That being said, it is the responsibility of school administrators to be straightforward when this is not the case.  In my own professional experience, I have found most parents to be sincere and open to hearing the advice of their school administrators and therapists.  They want what is best for their child, and are willing to do all that it takes to facilitate his or her academic, social, and emotional growth. 

Unfortunately, even when they are being honest about a student’s challenges, schools sometimes “sugar-coat” the truth and are less than forthright when making recommendations for additional supports or alternative school placements. Of course, there are times when parents do not recognize their child’s challenges or disagree with the school’s recommendations, but it is the school’s responsibility to provide truthful and supportive advice nevertheless.  Placed in this situation, parents and school administration alike wish that they had a crystal ball to see the future and know with certainty which placement is ideal, but the best that qualified educators and mental health professionals can do is to advise on the basis of their training and experience.

Good physicians have learned how to give difficult assessments and advice to patients in a manner that is both supportive and informative – and educators should be held to the same standard.  It is the duty of teachers and school administrators to be upfront with parents early on, and to work in partnership towards what is best for each child.  Educators are charged with a serious responsibility: to offer unbiased, clear counsel to all parents, to “say it like it is.”  They are the experts.  They are the ones to whom parents look for honest and professional advice.  Over the years I have noticed that many of the schools in our community have increasingly embraced this philosophy, with the result that many more children are getting the services they need at an earlier age, bypassing years of struggle and negative feelings toward school.

Three years after the anguish involved in making the decision to move Yaakov to a school more able to address his needs, his parents couldn’t be more optimistic about his future.  Now in 7th Grade, he is a curious boy who has become more sensitive and compassionate to others.  He has flourished academically and has demonstrated social and emotional growth as well.  As he approaches his Bar Mitzvah with pride, his parents and school are looking forward to his reintegration into a typical yeshiva high school upon graduation.  While Yaakov and his parents worked hard to get to this point, I can’t help wondering what might have happened if they had been advised to find an alternative placement earlier on in elementary school.  Were all of the tears and frustrations necessary?  Did Yaakov need to experience years of failure before unraveling? 

In our school, when faced with tough decisions, we always boil it down to an honest answer to one fundamental question: “Based on our experience, with which approach is the student most likely to succeed?”  The answer is not always simple, popular, or easy—but it always reflects our commitment to put the child’s needs before all else.  And in the end, isn’t that commitment what every child deserves?

*Not his real name


Early Signs of School Related Challenges – What Parents Should Look For:

IMPORTANT NOTE: Parents must consider these variables in the context of general stages of child development and their child’s personal baseline and profile. This list is only intended to promote thoughtful and targeted discussions – not to diagnose or prescribe. 

  • School avoidance
  • Decreased motivation
  • Decreased socialization
  • Disorganization
  • Behavioral challenges
  • Homework is not brought home
  • Inability/refusal to complete homework
  • Increased rigidity
  • Poor grades
  • Slow rate of academic progress
  • Claims that school is “boring”

Actions that Parents Can Take to Gain an Accurate and Comprehensive Profile of Their Child

  • Speak to all teachers and service providers on a regular basis
  • Chart your child’s behavior, noting difficulties and successful strategies, to try to get the broader picture
  • Request and consider all feedback with an open mind
  • State your desire for an honest assessment by the school (despite potential resulting challenges)
  • Brainstorm potential interventions with school personnel
  • Plan for an expert (e.g. therapist, educational consultant) to observe the class
  • Bring an expert or advocate with you to meetings
  • Arrange for relevant professional evaluations (e.g. educational, psychological, speech and language, OT, PT, neurological, etc…) and consider the recommendations they make.