It would be nice if we could custom-design schools for our kids
Institutionalization has its benefits. The institutionalization of education, for example, has ensured that almost everyone in westernized countries is literate. Our own educational institutions ensure a uniformly high standard of religious “competence” within our community.
But there’s also a downside of institutionalization: the obliteration of the individual. Institutions are organized around conformity. The problem is that human beings don’t come in “one-size-fits-all.” And that’s why some parents can’t find the right school for their child.
“Yehuda is a great kid with brains, talent, and a heart of gold. But he has learning problems that make it hard for him to keep up in school. He doesn’t qualify for a special school placement because his disability is fairly mild, but he could definitely use a special class — which our school doesn’t have.
“There is a school nearby that does have such a class and it would be perfect for him, but the school isn’t a good fit for our family. It’s so painful not to be able to properly meet my son’s needs.”
Schools are limited. They can’t meet the learning, emotional, physical, or spiritual needs of every student. While parents can understand this intellectually, they have a much harder time coming to terms with the impact of this reality on their most vulnerable children.
“Rachel is a quiet girl. But we don’t consider this to be a flaw. She has a few friends and she enjoys doing things on her own — sewing, drawing, cooking, playing violin. We receive constant complaints from her high school, though, that she isn’t social enough. We’ve even been advised to send her for counseling!
“Her school is all about the achdus, the annual play, the shabbatons, and all that social stuff, and they notice that Rachel isn’t showing up for these things. They think there’s something wrong with her, whereas my husband and I see her as a beautiful introvert with her own strengths.
“The problem is that they’re starting to make Rachel feel that she isn’t okay the way she is. If there was another school we could send her to, I would. I’m afraid they’re going to destroy my daughter.”
Schools, like all institutions, can place too high a value on conformity. They can sometimes pathologize or marginalize students who are somehow outside the box instead of helping them shine in their own ways.
“The only school that makes any sense for our children to attend — the one that best reflects our hashkafah — is an institution that will crush them. There are no signs of emotional intelligence there — the teachers are harsh, the pressure is crazy, the only thing that matters is grades.
“My oldest two boys, both of them good kids, have ADD. Their energy needs to be channeled and they thrive on praise. What they get in this school is constant criticism and punishment. They used to be happy kids, but not anymore.
“The principal called us in for a meeting and told us that we need to put the kids on medication — something that our doctor said was unnecessary. I don’t know what to do. Should I homeschool them? I don’t even believe in that! Move to another city? Our parnassah is here. I feel trapped and devastated.”
Lemons into Lemonade
Every parent wants to see her children thriving and happy in school — the institution that co-raises children for the first two decades of their lives. When school isn’t a good fit for a particular child, both parents and child suffer. Often, there are no better options than for the child to remain in an ill-fitting school, but parents can help the youngster make it through childhood in one piece.
How? By giving the child the opportunity to shine at home through skill building, positive feedback, affirmation, and confidence-building extracurricular activities. By recognizing and praising the child’s ability to negotiate each school day, the child can become a resilient “survivor” rather than a victim.
A child who learns to make the best of a difficult situation is well-equipped for the inevitable challenges of adult life. In some ways, there’s nothing worse for a child than to have everything always work out easily and perfectly.
Parents can better help their children through difficulty when they understand that, with their support, intense life challenges can bring out the best in their child.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 657)