Inclusive Synagogues – Promoting Acceptance and Appreciation for all Children

By Dr. Rachel Lissy

In my work as a coach and trainer at Ramapo for Children I partner with hundreds of schools, community organizations, agencies and synagogues to create inclusive environments for the broadest range of children to become successful.

Recently I observed a classroom in a Brooklyn synagogue where “Ethan” a 9 year old boy on the autism spectrum was struggling to fit in with his peers. Ethan squirmed while sitting on the rug often moving uncomfortably close to his classmates. He tried to dominate classroom conversations and gave long sometimes rambling answers when the teacher called on him. His peers seems confused by his behavior and alternated between avoiding him and provoking him by telling him his favorite TV show was for babies. Ethan escalated quickly and would yell and threaten in response. His teacher, intervened by telling his classmates to “be nice” and “leave Ethan alone.” She seemed unclear about how to respond to Ethan or his peers.

Ramapo for Children is an organization committed to improving the quality of life for children like Ethan whose behaviors put them at risk of being marginalized from their schools, communities and families. Inclusion is about fostering integration, within a structured environment, where diversity is valued and respected. We help organizations serving people with all abilities to strengthen their programs on inclusion and effectively build their programs to serve all of their constituents. Inclusion is the philosophy that all people have the right to be involved with their peers in age-appropriate activities throughout their lives and this happens when programs adapt to the individual needs of participants and people with challenging behaviors live, learn, work and play side by side.

The most common response I hear to the challenge of inclusion is; “what about the other young people in my group or class? Won’t they be upset if they don’t get to get special rewards, take breaks or have an adapted schedule?” That’s a very important concern that we need to address if we are going to create inclusive communities. We need to teach children that fair is not the same thing as equal. Fair is everyone getting what they need to be successful, which may not be the same as everyone getting the same thing. As an example, if one of us had a cut, would I need to give a bandaid to everyone in order to be fair? This is a concept you can teach to young people. Everyone has things they are working on. We get what we need to be successful. Create an environment that is compassionate and young people will support each other’s adaptations. If a young person is resistant to this idea it may be because they are concerned about getting what they need. Find out if there’s a behavior or skill that they would like to work on and create a plan for this young person as well. Or, provide adaptations for that young person and perhaps it will allow them to be more successful.

In Ethan’s synagogue in Brooklyn the process looked like this: We began by identifying the unmet needs and lagging skills behind Ethan’s behavior. In particular we focused on the immensely complicated skills that are required for reading social cues and making friends. We decided on a few strategies to help Ethan be more successful. First, we used masking tape to mark off squares on the rug so it would be easier for Ethan to recognize personal boundaries. Next we made plans to develop a non-verbal cue (a “secret signal”) that the teacher could use to remind Ethan to listen to others, share the stage, and not interrupt. Finally we created a “break box” with some point sensory objects and one of Ethan’s favorite comics for Ethan to use when he was feeling angry or over stimulated. In addition we also discussed how to cultivate chesed (kindness) and compassion for Ethan from his classmates. The teacher spoke with her students about how we are all “learning how to make friends.” The class brainstormed words and phrases to use when they got frustrated or annoyed with each other that would help their peers learn how to be better friends.

At Ramapo for Children, our underlying belief is that behavior is communication, and that the behaviors adults consider “difficult” are often the result of student communicating their unmet needs and lagging social and emotional skills. In all synagogues, programs and classrooms, some young people come with unmet needs; for movement, for freedom, for fun and, in some cases, for food. Others come with lagging social or emotional skills. Perhaps they struggled with transitions – in adapting their behavior to two widely different settings. Or they did not know how to calm their voices and slow their bodies down, a frequently observed challenge at Tefillah in synagogues across the city. Successful teachers or program leaders create environments that recognize unmet needs and teach, promote and reinforce social and emotional skills for positive behaviors like coping, self-calming and resilience.

A few weeks later when I returned the scene I observed was much different. Ethan still squirmed on the carpet but he stayed within his designated boundaries. He participated in the conversation but, with reminders, let others talk as well. Posted around the room were examples of behaviors that “good friends” do, like: “good friends … listen,” “good friends … take turns,” “good friends say ‘please stop’ when they don’t like what you’re doing.

In our synagogues, just like in our schools, it is vitally important that we strive for radical inclusion and acceptance of all children, particularly those on the margins. Adults and educators often require a new lens with which to view challenging behaviors and a toolbox of skills and strategies to bring to bear on situations when the behavior of young people is at odds with their own opportunities for success.

For synagogue leaders interested in learning more about disabilities inclusion, UJA-Federation of New York is offering a free, half-day workshop on October 19th called Synagogue Inclusion Sharefest: Welcoming Those with Disabilities. As a community, we’ll have an opportunity to focus intently on the increasing inclusion for people with disabilities in our synagogues, and on strategies for creating a warm and welcoming environment for all. I hope you will join me in building toward a more inclusive world for all children and young adults.

Space is limited. Sign up for Sharefest today.

Dr. Rachel Lissy is the Senior Program Officer at Ramapo for Children.