By Sari Luck Schneider

Q: What does early engagement look like for families and children with special needs?

A: We say, “special needs children” in our country. In the part of Italy famous for its outstanding early childhood programming and family involvement, Reggio Emilia, people say, “special rights children.” I like that. Some children need more support than others as they begin life and the people in Reggio Emilia say they have a right to get special considerations.

Our Torah teaches us that all people are created in God’s image. We want the children and families in our community to see that special spark, that eye-opening individuality that each person brings to the table. So we have an inclusion program at our school.

Our school, unlike most in the New York City area, does not interview children for admission; we let parents see what we have to offer and we ask the families to initiate a dialogue with us if they feel their children might need special support in our school. Fortunately, New York City offers free evaluations and services for children with special needs. Our teachers work closely with the specialists, and we make sure that each child is a valued member of our community. Even so, this is not easy.

The first challenge is that teachers want to be successful. Success doesn’t look the same for every child. A teacher needs to be trained to know how to adjust to each child’s needs. This has to do with actions, attitudes and goals. The teacher has to know how to help each member of the class community see the wonder of each child and appreciate each child’s strengths. The teacher, herself, has to be convinced of that special ‘something’ that each child can offer the group. As the teacher sees that success can look different for each child, the classmates follow suit. Ultimately, the teacher is the curriculum. How a teacher responds to a child sets the example for others to do the same. While having a good resource for guidance is helpful, kindness and wonder are always a good place to start.

The second challenge is to understand that success in the classroom can only happen with the support of the whole community. Children can be confused if their teacher runs a classroom in which everyone plays a valuable role, but they hear from their parents, for example, not to play with certain children. It is important for the early childhood director to emphasize the importance of community to prospective families even before they become part of the school. The early childhood director must be aware of the atmosphere not only in the classrooms, but also in the hallways, especially at drop-off and pick-up times. The director should have at least one parent in each class who can facilitate a constructive outreach if, in fact, one needs to be initiated. With the combined efforts of key parents, teachers, and  directors, there should be enough people committed to keeping everyone supported and informed as they work together to create a meaningful community.

We want our graduates to know:

They can make friends wherever they go.
Everyone has something to offer.
They can all do some things by themselves.
They all need help with something.
They all can help others with something.
They can all work together, learn together, have fun together, and support each other.

This is community.

The most difficult moments are when we feel that a child would do better in a smaller, quieter setting, one that we do not yet offer in our school. Even when a parent agrees that a different, more therapeutic setting would be better for their child, leaving the community is heart wrenching. If there’s any way to constructively include a child, we do.

We have had children graduate knowing that not everyone walks at the same time, is toilet trained at the same time, or speaks clearly at the same time.  Our children learn to comfort each other and themselves. They have the gift of knowing that they are not all judged in the same way. They each only have to be the very best they can.

Sari Luck Schneider has been the Early Childhood Director at Temple Shaaray Tefila. She is the incoming president of the ECE-RJ, and is currently a mentor with JECELI. She is proud to be part of a task force at Shaaray Tefila that has as its primary goal: the facilitation of effective Family Engagement.

Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah, a daily e-mail on a topic of Jewish interest. Sign up now to add 10 minutes of Jewish learning to your life each day!