by Rebecca Redner, Gateways Learning Specialist
Planning a Passover Seder in the midst of social distancing can seem like a depressing exercise. Many of us are envisioning dining room tables empty of our usual guests and mourning the time we aren’t able to spend with friends and extended families. However, this year’s unique circumstances may present families of children with disabilities with an opportunity to create a personalized Seder that truly works for them.
During most Seders, parents of children with disabilities may struggle to balance the needs of their child with the expectations of a large and lengthy family Seder. But during this year’s Seder, which will most likely be spent with immediate relatives, parents can create an inclusive experience built around the needs of their children and their family.
Here are some tips for creating a family Seder that will be meaningful and engaging for all participants, from pre-readers, to individuals with learning differences to those unfamiliar with Hebrew language and Jewish traditions.
- Create a schedule for your Seder and keep it visible throughout the evening. Schedules make special events predictable. When children know what to expect during a special event, it reduces their anxiety and helps them to participate. Checking items off the schedule as the evening progresses also presents multiple opportunities to praise your child for their participation. Be sure to build in a few short breaks or movement activities to help everyone stay engaged throughout the evening.
- Use pictures to illustrate directions, bring the Passover story to life, and even to illuminate the meaning of each prayer. Special educators often use clear, engaging images or picture symbols that have a consistent “look and feel” to each other in order to facilitate communication and help pre-readers understand text. Many children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, think visually and are drawn to symbols and pictures. These visuals can hold their attention and interest much better than text alone.
- Provide opportunities for your children to be helpers and leaders by assigning them jobs. Think about what your children will be able to do successfully: perhaps they can lead a prayer, tell a part of the Passover story, pass around the plate of karpas, or simply uncover the matzah. Giving children these important roles will help them to feel ownership of the Seder.
- Engage all of the senses through songs, visuals, food, dance, or even small toys representing parts of the Passover story. The Passover Seder is meant to be a multi-sensory experience, which is perfect for children with disabilities. So be sure to look up from your Haggadot and truly bring the Seder to life!
- Provide step-by-step directions to break down more complex tasks. Rather than giving directions in a single set of directives, (such as, “Take a vegetable off of the plate and dip it in salt water, and then say the blessing before you eat it”) offer a single direction, wait for the child to complete it, and then give the next. By helping children to succeed in following each step of the Seder, we can to build their sense of accomplishment and, in turn, their engagement in the ritual.
- Give kids an “out,” an appropriate way to ask for a break or refuse to eat a food they don’t like. Provide them with scheduled breaks or a certain number of break tickets they can use at any point during the Seder. Give them a script for asking for a break or politely refusing a food they don’t want to eat, and practice these conversations beforehand. When children have appropriate ways of communicating that they want a break or don’t want to eat a food, they will be less likely to resort to acting out in order to be heard.
We hope these tools help everyone to feel comfortable and confident at your Seder table this year.
The Gateways Haggadah includes visuals, explanations and tools to include people of all ages, abilities and levels of Jewish knowledge in your Seder.