Positive Reinforcement

I teach a mainstream class in an elementary girls’ school. As could be expected, I encounter several students each year who need extra help, such as remedial instruction or tutors, in order to succeed. I have seen, in many of the cases, that when given the right support, a student can make tremendous strides and actually progress to class level.

My school has a philosophy of downplaying the achievement of such a student, both when recording her marks and when giving a verbal report to her parents. This is because the school fears that praise may cause the parents to stop the intervention prematurely, whether because they may try to cut the cost of the tutor, or because it is tempting to entertain the notion that their child is really more capable than what was believed in the past.

The school is afraid that the positive report will shortchange the student in the long run if it results in the support being terminated. On the other hand, a student who has achieved success through hard work needs and deserves the validation and acknowledgment of a teacher; that is a critical component of her continued efforts. The parents, as well, have invested time and money, and also need recognition and encouragement.

What is the opinion of the esteemed panel?

Positive reinforcement is probably the most basic, fundamental yesod of chinuch. I read this question a number of times, trying to understand it. I cannot fathom how any school would downplay the achievement of any student, let alone a child who has educational handicaps.

For many years, possibly since time immemorial, we have shunted educationally challenged children to the back of the classroom. We hid their problems under the carpet. We were embarrassed by them. We refused to admit we had issues. We buried our heads in the sand, thereby burying our kids also.

Baruch Hashem, over the last number of years, tremendous progress has been made, educationally and psychologically. We have a number of mainstream programs throughout the New York City metro area and across the nation, allowing our children to attend yeshiva while getting special help. P’TACH is a perfect example of a great institution that has brought educational handicaps out of the closet. Many other organizations such as Chush, Cahal, Yess, Ichud, Ohr Beacon, and others have been very successful in reaching children, many of whom would have suffered in the olden days or would otherwise be in public school.

Our job in chinuch will not be complete until each and every child has the opportunity to learn Torah. The greatest vehicle we have in encouraging the children is through positive reinforcement. Parents who have suffered for so many years, searching for help for their children and watching other children excel, are entitled to be told when there is progress!

How dare we hold back the good news? Don’t these parents deserve to hear that their hard work and financial mesiras nefesh has paid dividends? I cannot fathom any other answer to this question. Most parents will realize that the reason for success is the special help, and if there is a parent who insists that the child no longer needs help, it is the job of the hanhalas hayeshiva to insist, in a nice sweet fashion (not by threats and intimidation), that the child must remain in special tutoring or remedial classes. We do have to recognize that the financial outlay can be enormous and very difficult for a family. I, for one, have felt all these years that it is unfair to charge these families for resource help (for local families).

Isn’t it bad enough that these families are suffering with children and their handicaps? Now, we burden them with huge extra tuitions that can put a severe strain on their households. Remedial help in a school should eventually become totally free. Obviously, in today’s economic climate, where schools cannot keep current with payrolls, it would be difficult to add new programs, but none of this should allow a school to withhold nachas from a family.

Reprinted with permission from ArScroll/Mesorah Publications

Rabbi Yaakov Bender was born in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn to a family that has been steeped in Torah learning and education for generations. Rabbi Yaakov Bender feels that his greatest accomplishment in education is his founding of the Rabenstein Special Education Center at the Yeshiva. More than 100 special education and multi-handicapped students from all over the country are served by what is considered to be one of the best special education centers in the United States. Rabbi Bender reaches out to every student to bring out the most in each and every child. Each child, in turn, learns the value of every individual. (bio from covenantfn.org)

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