Recently I had the good fortune to offer a workshop for educators that I called, “Parents as Partners: Working with Parents in Jewish Special Needs Education”. I was well aware, from the start of the workshop, that the educators assembled wanted pointers on how to handle difficult conversations with parents. They were eager to help their students, but seemed to feel great apprehension around how to potentially develop open and supportive communication with parents.
Open and supportive communication with parents is essential for a successful Jewish supplemental school experience for any child, especially those with special learning needs. However, my goal in this workshop was to encourage a “bigger picture”, more reflective approach to such dialogues, rather than just diving in to the challenging conversations.
Here are the key points that I feel can help to build the foundation for meaningful, supportive and productive relationships with parents:
It’s all about relationships:
All of the work that we do in synagogues is relationship based. Building strong, lasting relationships with congregants is at the center of the work of rabbis, cantors, educators and other synagogue professionals. It should also be at the center of the work of our teachers in supplemental schools. Strong relationships are built on trust. Our parents need to trust that we are really here to support their children and that we really want to take this journey with them. All the more so for families of children with special needs, which leads me to my second key point.
Parents of children with special needs can spend many hours of their days in “battle”. They often struggle with doctors, insurance agents, therapists, secular school teachers and so on. When they join a faith community, what I believe they most want is to find a place where they don’t have to fight, where they can be accepted as they are and where their family can come for respite and rejuvenation. It seems logical that they should be able find this in a synagogue community. The most significant thing that synagogue professionals can say to parents and family members of those with special needs or disabilities is, “Yes, we can meet “Jonah’s” needs…now help me understand how to do that.” Or “Yes, of course your family can worship here and be a part of our community…please help me understand how we can make that possible for you.” I am not suggesting that every request can and will be met with “yes”, but we have to start by opening the door and building the relationship, so that if there are things that are not possible, we can speak about them openly and honestly. When we start with yes, we rely on our trusting relationships to guide us.
Parents of children with special needs need to grieve:
When parents learn of a child’s disability, they need to grieve…not for the child, but for the idea of what they thought parenting would be. They have to process through the grief of what they may not be able to have, while coming to terms with the new reality of what they can have. This is not easy. But isn’t this the very nature of the work of a religious community? Aren’t we in the business of pastoral care? Too often I think that educators believe that grief counseling is the work of clergy. Too often we compartmentalize our congregant’s needs into “clergy stuff’ and “school stuff”. But when a child with special needs significantly struggles in Religious School, parents can be thrown back into the grief cycle, this time wondering if they will have to give up on their idea of bar/bat mitzvah (not to mention Confirmation, Jewish marriage or any other Jewish life cycle events). When educators focus on a student’s limitations, they may inadvertently put a family back into a stance of defensiveness. Again, I am not suggesting that we don’t ever discuss a child’s limitations, but rather that we need to do this in the context of supporting relationships that begin with “yes”. When we honor the grief process and support our families through such challenges, we continue to foster trusting relationships.
Fostering relationships leads us to build community and enables us to open our doors, our congregations, our schools and our hearts so that all will be welcome.