Dear Dr. Weisbord,
Our youngest son is in elementary school and not doing well. He has a slight learning disability and is perhaps a little awkward. He is teased by the other children, to the point that he doesn’t want to go to school. We have a huge fight every morning to get him out the door, with lots of yelling and tears. He also refuses to go to shul on Shabbos, because the same kids torment him there.
The school is giving us a hard time. They are very critical, and make me feel inadequate as a parent. Their latest suggestion is to sign him up for a social skills class.
I have a laid back approach to parenting, which worked fine with our several older children. (There is a big age gap between them and this son.) I know my son is smart. He just has to be taught in the right way, and the teacher does not seem to have the time or energy to devote to him. Instead, the school believes in pulling him out of class frequently for various interventions.
I am fed up with my child being teased and being treated as though he is somehow weird. I am so upset that I have even thought of taking him out of school altogether and home schooling him. However, I am working full time, and besides, I think he needs to be with other children.
We live in the County near a good public school. A friend of mine, who is more modern than we are, has a son who goes there and is doing fine. I would like to enroll my son in this school, where he would hopefully get the education he needs and not be picked on.
My husband does not agree with me. He says that our other children managed to get through school, and this youngest one will, too. He is afraid to sever the connection with the day school. I say this child hates school and is suffering terribly.
The situation is becoming intolerable. What can we do to make our child – and ourselves – happy?
Dear Distraught Mom,
One of the most painful things for parents is seeing a child suffer. It’s so upsetting, in fact, that it becomes difficult for us, as parents, to take a step back and assess the situation with some objectivity. With your son enduring constant teasing and feeling so beleaguered, it’s no wonder you went from Option A (helping your child) to Option Z (placing him in public school) in a single step. Your description of the situation leads me to think we are dealing with several challenges; the bullying is one of these and may be an effect of the others.
Let’s look at your son’s circumstances generally and then return to the bullying issue: You mention that he has “a slight learning disability” and is “not doing well.” How are you and the school approaching this learning issue? While we certainly want to see him – and every child – “taught in the right way,” do we know what that right way is for him? He may need more specific instruction than the classroom teacher is trained to offer; he may need the services of a special educator, someone with the expertise to ascertain his specific learning challenges and help him acquire the skills to succeed academically.
You seem opposed to the interventions the school is offering. It sounds like the first step to helping your son is to define his learning disability and formulate a plan that helps him in specific, concrete ways that can be assessed and evaluated. A good plan will include methods of implementation (and that might mean some time working out of the classroom, as well as classroom instruction) and clear guidelines for evaluating the efficacy of the plan. This approach would also include an assessment of what you term his “awkwardness.” Does he need some occupational therapy (OT)? Could he, in fact, gain some self-esteem and sense of competence from a social skills group? Does your school have a learning center and/or a partnership with SHEMESH? (Full disclosure: I am connected with SHEMESH.) That could be a good place to start the evaluation process, with possible referrals to an IEP.
While the children who are teasing him are totally responsible for their behavior (more on that soon), as his parents, you and your husband can help him stop being a natural target. He and you can benefit from realizing that the smartest person in the world can have a learning disability that holds him back from reaching his potential, in terms of his academics as well as his social and emotional functioning.
I have a sense that this child is not quite the same as his older siblings – and why would he be? Yet you, as his parents, may be using the same approach that worked with your other children. He may need something a bit more structured compared with the successful “laid back” parenting of your earlier years.
Next, let’s look at your interaction with the school: All we know is that “the school is giving [you] a hard time.” I don’t know how you’ve dealt with the school until now, but here are a few suggestions: Decide who is the person to approach about your son’s situation. Make an appointment, preferably one that both parents can attend – even if it means taking off from work – and present the circumstances as dispassionately as possible. This means you certainly can acknowledge how upset and concerned you are, while at the same time demonstrating your willingness to discuss the topic calmly and with the goal of taking action together with the school, rather than placing blame. Keep in mind that, very often, teachers and administrators are not aware that bullying is occurring, so leave the proverbial hatchet at home. Ask about the school’s policies on bullying in general and also about what specific steps they will take to protect your son. Make it clear that you view this challenge as a partnership and that you as the parents are prepared to take an active role.
There is a broad spectrum of knowledge and expertise in our schools when it comes to the subject of bullying, ranging from not recognizing bullying or understanding its devastating effects to having a high level of experience and expertise dealing with it and knowing how to handle it. In some schools, bullying can continue for several years, while in others, the principal takes action immediately, and the bully and his tactics are stopped within hours of the report. Your task is to report it, with specific examples, and then to devise a plan to stop it. Be prepared to check in regularly to ensure that the plan is being implemented and is working.
Now let’s shift to your interaction with your son. It is vital for him to know that you are here to help him and are working on changing his circumstances. Right now, all he knows is that you are sending him into the jungle to be tortured every day. Assure him that you also want to help him deal with the teasing, even while you are working to stop it. Let him describe what happens; listen empathically, and be sure to keep your cool. If you explode, he may not share with you in the future. Keep in mind that someone being bullied feels powerless. You can teach him survival skills, starting with asking him what he thinks he could say or do next time someone teases him. If he gives an answer that you know will never work, simply ask him what he thinks will be the result. Let him work his way to some ideas.
These approaches – dealing with your son’s learning disabilities, speaking constructively with the individual in the school who can be most helpful, helping your child move past his target/victim status – can work, although not overnight. At the same time, they have a good chance, taken together, to put your son on the road to a healthier, more successful footing in school and in life. If these different avenues don’t lead to concrete improvements, then you can look at other options. Your first job is to protect your child – his physical, emotional and spiritual health, and safety. If you must consider changing his school, first see about sending him to another Jewish day school. Placing him in a public school setting presents its own challenges and certainly should be done only after a full discussion with your Rav. You want to make sure that any move you make protects and builds his life for the better, in all its dimensions.
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