HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Clarifying Special Education Issues and Terminology

TOPICS : Inclusivity

The first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, can be thought of as the first Jewish educators. Moses, most certainly, was a teacher (in fact, he is often referred to as Moshe Rabeinu- Moses Our Teacher), charged with the unimaginable task of explaining the Torah to the nascent Jewish People. Tradition holds that a father must teach his children three things: Torah, how to earn a living, and how to swim. Of course, the commandment “teach them [the 613 mitzvot] to your children” underscores the very rationale for Jewish education.

There is also much rabbinic commentary about the role of teachers. According to the Rambam, if a student does not understand a lesson, the teacher should repeat the lesson until he does. Rabbi Praida is said to have taken Maimonides literally and re-taught a student a single lesson 400 times.

These laws and anecdotes suggest that the core Jewish value of education is, ultimately, the value of education for all children, including those who need special accommodations in order to learn.

Today, teachers continue to be faced with the challenge of educating children whose atypical learning styles and behaviors can be cause for concern. Labels like learning disabled, gifted and ADD/ADHD are often ascribed to students exhibiting these types of behaviors. However, if examined more closely, one may find that the signs and symptoms typically associated with a particular disability may actually be the manifestation of another.

Take for example a student who has difficulty sustaining her/his attention. At first thought, ADHD may be an appropriate label. However, gifted students may also have poor attention due to boredom. A student who already knows the information is bored with having to listen to it again. In the same vein, a student with a learning disability may appear to have difficulty paying attention when really the problem is due to issues in memory function.

Another example is organization. A student may have great difficulty turning in homework assignments or coming to class prepared with a pencil and paper. Sounds like classic ADHD. However, a student with a learning disability could very easily come to school with an incomplete assignment because the work was too difficult. Similarly, a gifted student who finds the need to be organized either unnecessary or uninteresting may exhibit the same behaviors.

In the attached table entitled, “What Is It?” by F.R. Olenchak, Ph.D., he describes other common behaviors and how they can manifest themselves in similar ways for students who are gifted, have ADHD or a learning disability. The information he provides certainly gives one “cause to pause” before labeling a student. It is easy to see how one malady can be readily confused with another. In an effort to follow in the footsteps of our teachers from the past, and continue to fulfill the obligation of making sure that our students understand the lessons we teach, perhaps this chart can be a good first step towards accomplishing that end.

Rebecca Cohen is an Educational Consultant at Tucson Hebrew Academy. Rebecca can be reached at rcohen@thaaz.org.

Special Education in Jewish Community Day Schools

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