Archives before June 2020

The Challenge of “I Can’t”: Rethinking Our Assumptions

By Beth Steinberg, co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem
April 15, 2019

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can''re right.” Henry Ford

Counselor and campers

We’ve all heard the refrain, either personally as parents or in our work lives as formal and informal educators: “I don’t want to do that.” or “She won’t be able to do that.” or “He just can’t.” We may apply this to a participant, student or loved one who doesn’t seem willing to try or to whom we feel is not making a “real” effort to do what we have asked of them.

Whether this perception is the individual’s or our own, the “I can’t, s/he can’t” position stands as a  non-starter. Too often, this expression of inability to accomplish a task presents itself as a behavioral challenge because “I can’t,” leads a potential participant to stand on the sidelines, seemingly bored or to create trouble by behaving in a challenging fashion. However the refusal takes shape, it results in increased stress for both participant and staff.

It’s a nasty cycle, right? And it all started by a simple negative statement, creating what we at Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem call a “negative-energy-loop.” (Learn more here)

Just the other day, a Shutaf staffer was navigating this situation with a teen participant during a training for our summer camp. The Junior Counselor training, which involves personal development, leadership, and learning how to work with kids and a team of counselors and to accept criticism, can be challenging. One of the teens, whose go-to response when presented with something new is, “I don’t want to,” or “I can’t do that,” reacted as anticipated. The staffer, in turn, responded, “He won’t be able to work at camp.”

The staffer brought this to the attention of our Program Director, Marci Tirschwell, who said “If that’s what you say, that’s what will be”, knowing full well that the staffer wanted this participant to succeed in camp. All the staffer needed was some assistance and encouragement in order to think it through differently.

Marci spent some time observing the participant, the staff and the rest of the group during an evening of activities noting that while the participant struggles to take in new information auditorily, the teen is great with visual information, usually waiting to see what the rest of the group does before feeling brave enough to try it out on his own. In the process, the teen often discovers, “I can!”

Marci wondered how to initiate what we at Shutaf term a “mindset shift.” How could she get the staff to believe in the participant’s abilities and help the teen modify his own self-assumptions? She began by reviewing her findings with the staff, sharing her thoughts about the participant’s abilities to be a great Junior Counselor. She slowly unpacked the default reaction of refusal, pointing out what the teen knows and can do as well as his individual learning style. She drew a Venn diagram, or multiple overlapping closed circles, to illustrate the participant, the staff and the intent of the training program.

The staff took the lesson forward using the diagram as a tool for understanding how to reach each participant. When our staff began to recognize that each participant exhibits their own learning style, they approached the situation differently. Their focus became, “I believe in you.”, “You can do this”, and “How can I help you find success?.” This is an approach that has always informed the way we work with every Shutaf participant, with and without disabilities. The participant’s peer group also helped show by example how to work past individual worries by sharing words of encouragement and showing by example how they could each be willing to try something new and find success.

We can all apply this lesson. So often, an individual may say “I can’t,” because that’s what people have always told them. We can begin to make a positive shift - for ourselves and for others - when we look differently at our assumptions about all people and their abilities, with a mindset shift that transforms “problems” into new opportunities for everyone involved. Thus we can see new challenges not as insurmountable, but as new opportunities for everyone involved.

Beth Steinberg is the co-founder of Shutaf Inclusion Programs in Jerusalem, offering year-round, informal-education activities for children, teens and young adults with disabilities. At Shutaf day camps and evening programs, participants of all abilities and all cultural backgrounds are welcomed and included. Beth accepted the 2017 Sylvan Adams Nefesh B'Nefesh Bonei Zion Prize in the community-nonprofit category for creating and building Shutaf with co-founder Miriam Avraham. Beth teaches and writes about disability issues and the parenting experience, and is also the artistic director of Theater in the Rough, creating new kinds of theatrical experiences in Jerusalem.


Creating a Joyful and Respectful School Community

By Me’ir Sherer, Director of Congregational Learning, Temple Emunah, Lexington, MA
April 15, 2019

I love my job and I love my religious school! I love my students and my teachers! No matter whatTeacher greeting students as they enter the classroom. I am feeling on any given day of school, when teachers and students arrive, I receive them with a welcome and a smile. In Pirkei Avot (1:15) Shammai says: Receive [greet] every person with a “sever panim yafot,” pleasant countenance, a smile. This advice is a mantra for me, and I think that my attitude has been key to breeding a positive learning culture throughout the school.

I believe the way I welcome and treat people trickles down to the way teachers welcome and treat their students and the way students welcome and treat one another. We have one rule in my school. Respect! Everyone must work to respect one another. Janusz Korczak writes about respect for the child, “Children … have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect.”

How do we show this respect?  For starters, I know the name of every child in my school, and I see the happy look on a child’s face when I greet him or her by his/her name. The Israeli poet Zelda writes about the importance of names in her poem, “Each of us has a name.” Everyone in Israel knows Zelda and this poem. I think of it often.

Use of space is also a way to show respect. My office, for one, is open to all, and I have arranged it so that my desk faces the wall and not those entering. There is a sofa in my office and a table with toys and kinetic sand. There are action figures of Israeli leaders on the shelves and there are all kinds of tchotchkes conveying messages of what I care about. They help me connect with others and others to connect with me.

When folks think of my office, they don’t think of a scary place. They think of a place where they can go to unwind, to talk and be heard, to connect. A place where they matter!

There is a lot of joy and positive energy in my school. I believe this is another key component to our success. We believe in “shtick” and dressing in costume. This has become a hallmark of our school. There is a love for everything Jewish. Each day is exciting with surprises around every corner. There is no yelling. And, there is a place for everyone.

Of course, there are certainly the times when a serious conversation about behavior needs to take place. But these generally aren’t difficult conversations because they are rooted in the strong relationships we have built.


Visual Schedules: A Vital Ingredient of the Learning Setting

By Mia Hyman, Gateways Behavioral Specialist
April 10, 2019

My mom always jokes that she spends her life checking items off her schedule, so her final request is that she would like the word “LIFE” emblazoned on her tombstone, complete with a large checkmark beside it! 

My mom’s dark humor aside, there is something extremely satisfying about checking a responsibility or task off your to-do list. Likewise, it is also very comforting to know what is coming next. Helping our students to feel comfortable and satisfied while they learn is vital to the educational process. As I’ve coached countless teachers over the years, there is a simple way to generate these positive feelings among students: Visual schedules. This strategy provides the chance for students to feel a sense of accomplishment, and, further, by framing the classroom setting in predictability, visual schedules help build independence and serve as an extremely helpful transition tool.  Visual Schedule

For students (and for all of us), knowing what is coming next helps to ease anxiety.  A visual schedule lets students know what they can look forward to, and, more importantly, provides a heads-up about those subjects they may not enjoy as much. On the positive side, a visual schedule also makes clear that those less enjoyable moments do have a set endpoint. When a classroom setting is predictable, both students and teachers can remain on the same page and clearly see that a structured group plan is in place. 

A few tips to make visual schedules as useful as possible:

  • First, and most obvious, a visual schedule must actually be visible to all students in the classroom.
  • Second, the visual schedule should be used actively as part of the classroom routine, meaning that teachers and students refer to it throughout the class. I often encourage teachers to check off what gets completed (or, even better, to have one of the students check the items off each time). Further, teachers can even create a mini-schedule within the block that is coming up next.  For example, the teacher might write “math” on the main visual schedule, and then place on the board the 3–5 tasks that will be completed during that math block, such as:
    • Independent math workbook session, page 3–4 (8 minutes)
    • Lesson on board – fractions (10 minutes)
    • Partner work – fractions (10 minutes)
    • Math game (10 minutes)
    • Clean-up (2 minutes)

As always, the more predictability, the better. Then, once the math lesson is complete, referring to the large visual schedule to transition to the next activity will, again, allow for predictability and ease in transitioning to the next lesson. 

Visual schedules also help build independence. Who hasn’t heard a student say, “What’s coming next?” or “What are we doing after that?” When students ask this type of question, rather than responding to the student with the answer, prompt them to look at the board and find the answer themselves. In most cases, those constant “what are we doing next?” questions decrease in frequency as students come to know where they can find the schedule information on their own. 

I am always amazed to see how a visual schedule, when used to its full potential, can be a powerful preventative strategy for challenging behavior. With a reduction in unpredictability often comes a lowering of anxiety among those students who are most prone to be anxious. In turn, as their anxiety wanes, so, too, does their tendency to engage in unexpected behaviors.  

In my experience, most teachers do post a visual schedule, but unless it becomes fully integrated as an educational tool, its potential impact will lie dormant. So, my simple advice is: Do not let your visual schedule sit on the wall. Challenge yourself to use it daily and rely on it to help you create a setting that will be structured, comfortable and successful for your students.  


How to Help Kids Cope with Anxiety

By Kara Baskin, written for
April 10, 2019

(Photo: nattrass/iStock)Dr. Donna Pincus is the director of research for the Child and Adolescent Fear and Anxiety Treatment Program at the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders at Boston University. She’s also the author of “Growing Up Brave: Expert Strategies for Helping Your Child Overcome Fear, Stress, and Anxiety.” She recently spokeat The Rashi School as part of the Gateways Community Mental Health and Wellness program, and she spoke to JewishBoston about strategies to help kids grapple with fear and anxiety, too.

If you’re a parent dealing with an on-edge kid, read on.

Be attuned to physical clues. Anxiety often manifests physically: Your child might complain of a stomachache, sleepiness, lack of appetite or shortness of breath. Often, these complaints send parents to their primary care physician. If your doctor can’t find a physical problem, remember that the issue might be mental instead.

Interference and avoidance are good reasons to see a professional. Is fear intruding on your child’s daily life? Are they avoiding school, social events, sports or group activities because they feel afraid? Or maybe your child is white-knuckling through school or a sleepover but needs a safety object to get through the event. If it’s affecting their enjoyment of normal activities, seek help.

Donna Pincus (Courtesy photo)

Some anxiety is developmentally normal. That said, everyone gets anxious sometimes. “Anxiety problems run a predictable course in all parts of the world,” Pincus says, beginning at around age 3. Young children often fear the dark or strangers. Often, these fears are protective. As kids get older, fears become more abstract: monsters under the bed or social fears, such as being left out at lunch or getting stung by a bee at camp. “Usually, those fears don’t interfere with a child’s ability to actually go to camp, though,” she says. Don’t “over-pathologize” the anxiety, she warns, which sends a message to kids that uncomfortable feelings have to be avoided at all costs. Anxiety is a natural human emotion. But if the fear is dictating an avoidant behavior, interfering with their daily routine and causing distress, it’s time to get help.

Anxiety isn’t forever. “Just because you feel anxious at 3 doesn’t mean you’ll be anxious at 13,” Pincus says. “With appropriate intervention and modifying your parenting, you can shape your children’s environment and model how to deal with stress. This has a big impact on kids’ ability to handle fear.” On that note…

Anxiety runs in families. Tough but true. “There is a genetic component,” says Pincus. “However, you don’t inherit an anxiety disorder. Just because mom had separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean that your child will, too. Instead, you inherit a vulnerability, a combination of genes that leaves us vulnerable to negative emotions. We see it across generations.” If you have anxiety issues, make sure to get help so that you don’t instill fear in your children, who look to you as an example. “Remember, kids watch us and model us all the time,” Pincus says.

It’s also common for nervous parents to overprotect. Resist the urge. “It may be innate to want to protect your child at all costs,” she says. But ultimately your child will learn far more, and become more resilient, through natural disappointments.

Growing up Brave by Donna Pincus, Ph.D

Ask pointed questions. It’s tempting to work yourself up into a frenzy when your child exhibits anxiety symptoms, especially if you’re predisposed yourself. Take a deep breath and ask questions instead. She advises breaking the questions into thinking, feeling and actions. Ask your child, “When you worry, what are you thinking? What are you feeling? What do you do?”

Normalize the fear. Let’s say a child has separation anxiety and hates being dropped at school or play dates. Thanks to your proper questioning, you now know what they’re thinking and feeling. Maybe they’re afraid that you won’t come back because you could be late and in a car crash. In situations when a fear is irrational, Pincus advises parents to “ask kids to be detectives. Ask: ‘What would be another reason I’m late, besides a car crash?'” Remind them that just because a thought pops into their head, it doesn’t mean it’s true. “Walk them through scenarios: Maybe you were in traffic. Maybe you were picking up dinner,” she advises.

Build a bravery ladder. Adults might call this exposure therapy, but Pincus prefers the ladder term for kids. Separate scary situations into manageable, incremental steps to build a sense of accomplishment. Let’s say your child is terrified of separation. They have a birthday sleepover coming up, and instead of dreaming of manicures and cheesy movies, they’re terrified.

“This is where parents are essential,” Pincus says. “Provide and create opportunities for [positive] things to happen.” Start small, with 10 or so steps, spread out week by week. Leave them alone while you run to the store. Another step could be a sleepover at a familiar place, maybe with a grandparent. With each step, implement “labeled praise”: Tell your child specifically how proud you are of their achievement. Record the triumph with stickers or a chart. Implement rewards of your child’s choosing, if you like. They needn’t be tangible or super fancy; it could be as simple as a pizza night. Often, Pincus’s patients tell her that just being able to complete a small milestone is reward enough.

For more information, visit the Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. “No one is turned away for financial reasons,” Pincus says. To search providers,


This article originally appeared on


Managing Transitions: Strategies for Enhanced Learning Environments

By Dana Keil, Director, Room on the Bench: A Project of Luria Academy of Brooklyn
April 9, 2019

Students who present challenging behaviors can struggle when they have little structure. Often, these moments occur during transitions from one place or activity to another, such as entering from recess, shifting from tefillah to reading, or leaving the classroom for a special activity. To some students, this lack of structure can feel hectic, and as a result, they may exhibit unwanted or even dangerous behaviors to fill the void, such as shouting, Children playing outsiderunning, aggression towards peers or climbing on furniture. Teachers from preschool through high school become frustrated when these transitions become overwhelming, and lament about how much class time is wasted with seemingly simple tasks like putting Tanachim back on the shelf or filing away math packets. 

Based on an article from the Council of Exceptional Children, here are some tips and tools for teachers and support personnel to add structure to transition times:

1.       Prepare Yourself

Before educators can help students, they need to visualize for themselves how they envision the transition. Ask yourself questions like, “What are my expectations?” (For example, “I want the green group to go from the rug to their desks within two minutes.”) and “What should the transition look like?” (Should students walk? May they talk? Where should they sit?) Having answers to these questions will better help teachers to communicate expectations. 

Additionally, educators need to decide, “What’s the shtick?” In other words, “How do students know when the transition starts or stops?” For instance, a teacher saying, “If you can hear my voice clap once…”, dinging a bell, or turning off the lights can all be used to communicate that a transition is starting, while using a specific intonation to say, “Good afternoon!” can be a cue for students that the transition is over and the next lesson is beginning. If a specific student needs his or her own cue, communicating with a post-it note, PECS (picture exchange communication system), or “secret” signal can be effective.

2.       Be Transparent about Routines

Once educators have a clear idea of what the transition should look like, they should teach these expectations to students explicitly. Educators should not assume that students will walk instead of run, unless they communicate that expectation. When educators teach correct examples and show what incorrect examples look like, they create bounds for student behavior to function within. They are communicating verbally and with their body language what is acceptable, and what is not. While this may run the risk of seeming patronizing to older students, teachers should not avoid this critical step and can instead look for ways to make it more fun or humorous. (Picture a rabbi dragging his feet with exaggeration while slowly putting the Talmud on the wrong shelf, for example.)

Once the behavior is taught explicitly and modeled, students need multiple opportunities to practice. Students should go through the transition in simulated situations  two or three times, while the educator monitors and provides feedback. And after winter break, when students seem to forget all their routines, transitions can be re-taught as needed.

3.       Build in Pre-corrections

Teachers can provide additional support to solidify student skills with a quick reminder of expected behavior before transitions. This reminder can be withdrawn as needed. Educators should anticipate the challenges of specific students, such as students with Autism, ADHD or anxiety. One way to preempt this difficulty is by providing a two-minute warning and standing near these students to guide them with extra support as their peers model the transition.

4.       Reinforce the Positive

When students are transitioning effectively, tell them! Incentives for appropriate behavior show students that they are in line with your expectations. Not all positive reinforcement needs to be physical, and specific praise can be more powerful than tangible rewards. At the same time, teachers should either ignore or quickly redirect incorrect behavior.

5.       Provide Active Supervision

Monitoring students involves scanning, moving and interacting with students as needed to keep the transition on track. It’s important to avoid performing other tasks or conversing with other adults during these key moments.

A final tip: If students are transitioning from a previous activity and don’t seem ready to enter your teaching space, it’s okay to close your door and tell students they can enter one by one when their body language demonstrates they are ready. They will set examples for one another, and most should be able to transition smoothly. If there are one or two who cannot, a private conversation can take place in the hallway.