| Magazine Feature |

New School of Thought

Intrepid educators share today’s most pressing classroom challenges — and how they confront them

The Challenge: Attention Deficit

It’s something Rabbi Yehoshua Levy, executive school consultant at Torah Umesorah, sees time and time again.

“I visit tens of schools a year internationally, and we’re definitely dealing with a new generation,” he says. “Mechanchim all over report that students’ attention spans aren’t what they used to be. Our world doesn’t focus well. The Internet and electronic devices don’t mesh with sustained concentration — yet being a diligent student and becoming a talmid chacham requires long hours of study. That said, most students are learning fine. The percentage of students who have learning difficulties is between ten and twenty percent.”

The lack of focus isn’t a learning difficulty issue per se; rather, it’s a generational challenge.

“Today you can get any information in a second, but young people have to be systematically taught to focus, think more deeply, and work things through,” says Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, rosh yeshivah of Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.

“While once most kids would just pick up the learning, today they need more explanation, more guidance in the thought process, and more private tutorials.

“But once they start to get it, they love it — and their attention spans will grow,” he explains. “As Rav Shlomo Wolbe said, ‘The brain is a muscle. If you exercise it, you can grow your concentration and focus… but today you have to build up the talmidim.’”

Rabbi Levy classifies attention roadblocks as “organic” or “inorganic,” with organic factors referring to things that are intrinsic to the student, outside his or the school’s control, and unlikely to change in the near future, while inorganic factors are environmental. Examples of organic factors include issues like ADHD, general wellbeing, self-perception of abilities, anxiety disorders, or even a problematic home situation. Inorganic, environmental factors include things like lack of sleep, hunger, interactions with other students or a particular teacher, and general success in school. When a student’s shortened attention span is rooted in environmental factors, the teacher can do more.

Of course, Rabbi Levy explains, the social-emotional element is crucial. Strong relationships with their teachers motivate students to learn and this, combined with strategies for effective instruction, can lead to success.



Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter, Pre-1A teacher in Yeshiva Ketana of Long Island in Inwood, New York

With younger children, it’s important to divide classroom time into small chunks — they’re too young to sit still for too long. I schedule my class — every day, every lesson — by five- to ten-minute segments. Okay, parshah can go up to 12 minutes. But basically, I toggle back and forth at a dizzying rate: daven for a few minutes, then a short lesson, followed by circle time. Yes, circle time can be 25 minutes long, but it alternates between songs and stories. There’s also center time, where we break the boys into small groups and they rotate between playing, coloring, group lessons, and hands-on activities. I find that if they can’t see and touch it, it doesn’t speak to them.

Mrs. Chana Luchins, General Studies principal in Rabbi Pesach Raymon Yeshiva in Edison, New Jersey

The old model of education — frontal teaching, with a teacher standing in front of a class giving over information — is a recipe for disaster for most children today. A listen-only mode isn’t effective — kids need to engage at least two senses, and the more active they are, the more they retain. Even adults can concentrate intensely for only 15 minutes at a time, and remember maybe one in ten words they hear.

I recommend the divide and conquer approach, and apply it all around, to class size, subject matter, length of lessons, you name it. I tell my teachers to break classes into small groups, break up lectures by writing on whiteboards, introduce movement or choral responses, and generally keep their students active and participating.

There are lots of small changes teachers can implement that help students stay engaged. Increasing the font and print size of worksheets, putting less text on a page, projecting any worksheet or page of text onto the board, breaking down instructions into clear, numbered steps, and using reminder cue cards that students can keep on their desks or on a ring are all minor adaptations that help wandering minds stay focused.

I remind my teachers that even small changes can have a big impact, and I work with them. One of our teachers was frustrated with a boy in her class who kept calling out and interrupting, and the other students were also starting to get annoyed. We analyzed what was happening, and the teacher realized her slow, patient pace wasn’t the best match for this student, and also that he craved a lot more recognition. She implemented two changes that made a big difference: First, she created a schedule where she gave positive recognition about every ten minutes, and second, she added a weekly activity that was higher-interest and faster-paced, giving him additional opportunity to connect with her class.

Rabbi Moshe Aaron Frank, third grade rebbi and General Studies principal in Yeshiva Ohr Yehuda in Lakewood, New Jersey

I keep the boys engaged constantly. I call on every boy, every day, often more than once. “Finger on the place” is a big deal, because it helps them stay focused. I’ll do a lot of shticky things, like asking them to express opinions on a mishnah by lifting a hand or two feet. We often act things out — when we learned parshas Mikeitz, I’ll assign parts and have them act out Yosef’s reunion with his brothers. When we learned about how the Kohein Gadol ascended to the Beis Hamikdash, I had boys sitting on top of the closet, and later spraying water to imitate the spraying of the blood during the korbanos.

Sometimes you get a kid who just seems out of it. Then it’s a project to get to the bottom of it, and you speak to the parents to see what’s going on — maybe he’s watching things at night, or there’s an issue at home that’s preoccupying him.

Miss Samara Kipnis, learning and behavior specialist at Hillel Torah North Suburban Day School in Skokie, Illinois

I work a lot with students, and they all need to get up and move every 20 minutes, especially those with ADHD.  I’ve instituted what we call brain breaks, fun things like throwing a ball around the room in different patterns. When teaching younger children to read and spell, I have hands-on learning stations with different activities like Etch-a-Sketch, Oobleck, writing words or tracing letters, and using a whiteboard.

I’m also a case manager, helping classroom teachers with their students’ diagnoses, modifications, and accommodations, and I help them learn to navigate the learning differences. Supporting these students while holding them accountable for doing the work is a delicate balance. For example, often kids with ADHD struggle with time management. I suggest to teachers that, in these cases, a timer can be useful, accommodating the students, who need coaching on how long assignments should take, while keeping them on task. And when a student is focused on the wrong thing, I like to say to them, “Your ability to hyperfocus is actually your superpower, so now let’s focus on the assignment at hand!” This helps them learn to channel their energy and attention to what they need to be doing.

Another strategy to refocus inattention is to have students work alongside a parent or teacher. This encourages them to stay on task, and verbal recognition of on-task behavior helps reinforce positivity, which encourages them to continue to improve their focus, both in the present moment and long-term.

And of course, you have to keep learning exciting. When we learned about ancient Egypt, I set up hands-on stations to make clay bricks and write hieroglyphics. Another time we made a “Greatness Wall” bulletin board, where we’d write the name of something positive each student did and come up with a character trait label for it. Then we did the same thing for characters in the novel we were reading. There are so many options, but the bottom line is, you have to keep kids active and participating.

These days, it can feel like we all have ADHD — we’re impulsive and have a hard time focusing. But while some students truly do have ADHD, a neurodiversity, any strategies a teacher would implement to help a student with ADHD in the classroom would be beneficial for all students. Whatever the case may be, it’s vital to form a strong, healthy relationship with the child before impactful learning will take place.


The Challenge: Managing Misbehavior

Today’s kids are more emotionally fragile and sensitive. Life used to be tougher, everything required more work, but now we’re so comfortable, people have a hard time dealing with any discomfort.

“The challenge for rebbeim is that with a big class, it’s hard to fully understand each individual, and many students may resent feeling neglected or misunderstood, but we have to understand kids and make them feel loved — that’s a must,” Rav Berkovits says. “It’s a far cry from the old days when teachers could hit their students and no one objected.”

One method many educators cite is the Nurtured Heart Approach, which social workers Naftoli and Yael Walfish have taught in many yeshivahs and schools. NHA, created by psychologist Howard Glasser, is a relationship-based approach to parenting and teaching that emphasizes giving energy to only positive behaviors, transforming intense behaviors by helping children connect with their inner strength. NHA posits that what children crave most is a connection with parents and teachers, and they’ll do whatever it takes to solicit that attention — including acting up.

“The trick is to refuse to reinforce negative forms of attention-seeking,” explains Mr. Walfish. “That doesn’t mean ignoring rule-breaking or chutzpah. It means restating rules firmly and clearly, without anger or energy, and moving on, or as we call it, resetting.”

Teachers and parents learn to notice and verbalize successes, actively seeking out even the smallest positive acts to reinforce. A child may be throwing a tantrum on the floor, but as soon as he stops, you say, “I noticed how you were able to calm yourself down.” If a bochur has difficulty with Gemara, the rebbi can point out, “I see all the notes you’re taking, even though it isn’t easy for you. You’re clearly working hard at it.”

Another method many educators employ is Love and Logic by Jim Fay and Foster Cline. Mrs. Becky Udman, the preschool director at Torah Day School of Dallas, gives courses on how to implement this method, which shows children empathy and compassion while creating limits and allowing them to make small, affordable mistakes that build resilience. Parents are taught to avoid anger, threats, lectures, and warnings, and replace them with clear limits and consequences.

“Let’s say my son wants Shabbos party,” says Mrs. Udman, “and I tell him, ‘I’ll be giving Shabbos party when we leave for shul to the kinderlach who cleaned the playroom. I’m leaving in 15 minutes.’ “What happens if 15 minutes pass and he still hasn’t cleaned up? Tell him, ‘I’m leaving for shul now. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you Shabbos party, but I’m sure you’ll get it next time.’ Then you give him a big hug.”

The basic premise is to let children experience the consequences of their behavior without being rescued by parents, presuming the stakes are small. This works especially well in school, because the parent doesn’t always have to be the bearer of bad news; if your daughter forgets her homework, the teacher is the one on top of the consequences.

Mrs. Udman also incorporates Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline methodology. It shares many of Love and Logic’s principles with an emphasis on connecting to each child. Conscious Discipline educates teachers and parents about brain states: When under stress, our primitive neural systems, such as fight-or-flight reflexes, kick in. These are based on emotion, but if you can learn to monitor your brain states, you’ll replace knee-jerk reflexes with thought-out, problem-solving reactions from your higher brain centers.

“I advise teachers to avoid control battles at all costs,” Mrs. Udman explains. “Imagine a rebbi who asks his class to take out their Gemaras, and one boy doesn’t comply. Instead of entering into a battle of wills, try saying, ‘It seems like you need more time. Take a few more minutes if you need.’”

Mrs. Udman uses acronyms to help teachers maintain equanimity. One is Q-TIP, Quit Taking It Personally, because a child who’s acting rebellious or doesn’t listen in class may be doing so for reasons that have nothing to do with you. Another acronym, STAR, stands for Stop, Take A deep breath, and Relax. This is a step by step on self-regulation, helping shift parents and teachers from their lower brain centers to higher ones when emotions are running high so they can step back and think about the best way to handle the misbehavior.



Rabbi Alter

Misbehavior is normal — my job as the rebbi is to keep it in control, and how I react to my students’ misbehavior is important. I took an NHA workshop and one of the things you learn is that the time a child is misbehaving isn’t a teachable moment. I don’t do anything then as long as he can’t hurt himself or others. Once he starts to calm down, I acknowledge that he’s calming himself, and then bring him back into the lesson — and later I’ll approach the child and discuss what happened.

With challenging kids, I keep my eyes open for even the very smallest successes to reinforce. Instead of yelling at children to be quiet, I get better results complimenting the children who are sitting quietly. Above all, I keep in mind that interactions must be authentic; I give positive energy to real behaviors only — fake and fluffy doesn’t work.

Sometimes the whole class can be jumpy or sitting at the edge of their seats — I’ve learned there are days when it’s counterproductive to force learning. Take today, my kids just couldn’t settle down, so I didn’t attempt to teach. I just waited while I thought about what to do and they calmed down. It may have wasted class time, but I remained in control of the class. As long as you’re calm, you don’t need to answer kids immediately — sometimes it’s better to let them play so you can take the time to respond with self-control and seichel.

Rabbi Frank

I keep my boys very busy and in motion, so they don’t have a chance to misbehave. They do a lot of jumping — for instance, I’ll tell them to get up and do 25 jumping jacks if I sense they’re getting antsy — but it stays under my control. This makes for a high energy classroom, but we all have a good time together. On the rare occasions that a boy continues to misbehave, I’ll create a private incentive program for him or send him on errands.

Miss Kipnis

Children who aren’t used to getting positive attention may take time to adjust to it. Some children bask in positive recognition, but a few are initially uncomfortable. One even yelled at me, “Don’t say that about me!” I pulled him aside and told him, “I know you’re not comfortable with me telling you things in front of the class. When I want to recognize your greatness, I’ll just stand right in front of your desk.” Eventually he became comfortable with accepting it. Middle school children sense when teachers aren’t sincere, and this boy didn’t buy in so fast — he wanted to be sure I was authentic.

My students are learning how to operate in the world, and when they’re defiant or yelling at the teacher, they’re simultaneously watching to see how the adult reacts under pressure. One day I gave a pop quiz, and a student who was diagnosed with anxiety began to panic and scream at me. I sent her out of the room, but I told her after class, “I’m very sorry people speak to you in the way you spoke to me. That’s not how you should treat another human being.” Her behavior changed completely.

Whenever students disrupt class, I make sure to reset myself first. You give yourself a break, take a glass of water, do what you need to do, and deal with the task at hand later. Kids have huge emotions, and they’re looking to us to learn to master them.

Mrs. Chani Ball, principal of Beth Jacob elementary school in Antwerp, Belgium

I was a smart but sometimes challenging student as a child, and I was told I was chutzpahdig and had bad middos. It took me years to get over it and to feel like a worthy person. From experience, I knew simply punishing misbehavior wouldn’t help. Instead, I learned the NHA approach: State rules firmly and clearly, reset the child without anger, and encourage her to connect to her inner greatness. It’s much more effective.

I remember an incident where three girls were fighting — kicking and hitting. Instead of just separating them and meting out punishments as I might have once done, I brought them to my office and told them, “You crossed a red line, because we don’t use hands and feet to communicate.” I let that sink in for a moment. Then I continued, “I know you’re good, clever girls who made a mistake. Now sit here and work out how you can do things differently next time.”

I left them alone, occasionally listening at the door. Slowly their belligerent tones changed, and after ten minutes, I went back in. They explained how they would do better going forward, and they were speaking respectfully to each other — they’d formed a team. I complimented them on their creative solutions and sent them back to class. No yelling, no quick fix, but this mindset readjustment worked wonders.


Teen Tension

Chinuch today is challenging for students of all ages, but teens bring a whole new level of difficulty to the table. Students who have managed to pull through elementary school sometimes flounder in high school, where the workload and expectations are higher, and the physical and psychological transitions into adulthood amplify emotions. How can educators navigate the minefield of the teen years with warmth, wisdom, and compassion?

Mrs. Shulamith Insel, Menaheles of Shevach High School in Queens, New York

I haven’t changed my formula for success in the 38-plus years I’ve been a teacher and principal, and I can express it in four words: Belief in the child. This doesn’t change even as times change, and over the decades, I’ve seen caterpillars become butterflies.

That said, I’m very aware that the world has changed and there are tremendous nisyonos today — technology, the lack of family cohesiveness — and knowing this, you have to reach each girl and help her connect to Hashem and a positive view of Yiddishkeit. Sometimes this mentality leads me to interventions that might strike people as counterintuitive, like rewarding students whose behavior is less than stellar… yet.

The greatest gift is to see a child not as he is, but as he can be. For example, I had a student whose brother had gone off the derech, and she was struggling. Her grades and taste in clothing and music reached all-time lows. One night, the police showed up at her home because of her brother, and her mother called me very late begging for help with her daughter.

G.O. elections were coming up, and two of the students who seemed the best choice for the job were girls this student had always admired and wanted to be friends with. I called her into my office.

“I feel privileged to be your principal,” I told her. “I know you have leadership qualities, and you have it in you to set an amazing example to the school. You’re going to be a G.O. president with these two girls!”

There was a complete turnaround in her behavior and grades, and I got a call from her mother soon after.

“You saved our family,” she said emotionally. “She wants me to take her shopping for more tzniyusdig clothes. She says she wants to be a role model!”

Another time a high school girl was chastised for being too wild in the lunchroom. I found her sitting in my office with her head down, refusing to speak because she was so embarrassed. Finding no other way to reach her, I sat on the floor next to her, face to face.

“How much do you think I love you?” I asked her. “A little or a lot?” I gestured to indicate a little (fingers almost touching) or a lot (arms open wide).

She opened her arms to show “a lot.”

I continued, “I’m not going to discuss details because I know this won’t happen again. I know you’re better than that! I’ll give you one week to prove to yourself — yourself, not me — how well you can behave.”

Within a week, her behavior turned around. I called her to my office, and she found two place settings with iced cappuccinos, muffins, and fancy napkins.

“This is for you,” I said. “We’re having breakfast together — you earned it!”

Rabbi Daniel Kalish, rosh yeshivah of Mesivta Ateres Shmuel of Waterbury in Durham, Connecticut

Over the years, I’ve changed my approach in two ways. First, while I once focused almost exclusively on talmidim, I’ve recently put more effort into their parents as well, offering shiurim for them and cultivating those relationships. Parents need encouragement, too. Secondly, when a talmid is upset about something, I no longer jump in to cheer him up as I once might have. I prefer to let him get it all out, and get to the root of his emotions. It creates stronger connection, uncovers deeper issues, and leads to longer-term solutions.

Torah is so compelling that people naturally want it — I really believe that. But students who’ve had negative experiences will be turned off. As one of my talmidim once said to me, “You can have the nicest song in the world, but if someone beats you every time you hear it, you won’t want to hear it anymore.”

There’s a Gemara that states that a smile is more important than milk. Teenage boys put in very long hours, and they need nurturing and warmth. Warmth is a crucial quality for a rebbi — a talmid chacham who isn’t warm would be better suited as a maggid shiur or posek. A rebbi’s main job happens during recess, when he can connect with his talmidim personally.

Our yeshivahs value striving and acquiring chochmah, but transmitting chochmah alone isn’t enough. A boy can know a Gemara cold and feel no connection to it. Some yeshivahs worry they’re going to give up creating a gadol if they’re too warm. But the kid who’s going to be a gadol will become one anyway. A yeshivah has to work with every talmid.

I constantly remind myself that we don’t have to make our students great — it’s in them. We just have to bring it out. Water the plant, nurture it, and watch it grow.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 901)

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