By Susan N. Schriber Orloff
The early learning experience can have long-term impact on the young child. Because this is often the first time the child has been away from home without a parent, finding the right experience is crucial.
Because of the many levels of observance within our Jewish family, finding a learning situation that fits developmentally and spiritually can be a challenge. Reasons for a specific choice can include geography, social concerns (this is where my friends take their children), religious observance, cost and physical appearance.
While those issues are important, the list should also include the experience of the teachers; school certifications; school philosophy; classroom size; number of classes per age group (are there smaller classes for children who might need modifications to the general program); ongoing continuing education for teachers; frame of reference for age- and class-specific curricula; structure of the school (level of classroom structure and flexibility, use of experiential education); classroom facilities; extracurricular experiences (teaching or use of Hebrew in the classroom); outside consultants (occupational therapist; speech therapist, nutritionist, psychologist); and accommodations and modifications for the child with early learning needs.
Understanding your personal religious comfort zone is essential in choosing a faith-based school. Having your child come home and tell you that the teacher said something you don’t do as a family can make for uncomfortable situations.
These issues are more important for a child with special learning needs. An occupational therapist often is engaged to help a parent make the essential, multifaceted decisions to find the place that fits the child and the parents.
Evaluating the home philosophy is as important as evaluating the child, and it might be helpful, particularly for a special needs toddler, for the registered occupational therapist (OTR) to visit the school with the parents before they enroll the child.
For children without identified concerns, a “just to be safe” occupational therapy developmental screening might be helpful. Still, the therapist often is brought into the preschool situation after problems arise.
Such was the case with “Bailey,” a 3-year-old whose parents contacted me after three months in preschool. By the second month, he had adjusted to being in school full time, but “about two weeks ago he started to regress into not listening to his teacher when she asks him to do something, general disruptive behavior, self-control issues and at times outbursts.”
Bailey scored high on his developmental and cognitive assessments. He gets bored easily at home, and his parents change to a new activity or give him something more challenging, like a puzzle above his age group.
“If he is focused on something he wants to do, he will sit for hours doing it, so the school has ruled out ADHD as his behavioral problem, but they would still like to have him assessed by a professional for suggestions of ways to handle his moments of stressful behavior,” the parents said. “Sadly, we don’t have all these problems at home, so we are just as unsure how to help them.”
We can see that Bailey has trained his parents to circumvent issues before they arise, but this process is not practical in a classroom of eight to 10 young children with a teacher and a teacher’s aide.
A common trigger word is “regressed,” often associated with severe developmental concerns but used by parents as a code word for a question they do not necessarily want answered. The OTR must note a parent’s language, often an indicator of hidden concerns. The OTR also can serve as a developmental translator between family and teacher.
Changes in behavior are common in young children, and to jump to conclusions about meanings can be emotionally stressful and unnecessary.
Although most preschools, secular and religious, are governed by laws that require periodic testing, parents may want to a more detailed profile of ta child’s current abilities. Evaluating gross and fine motor adaptive skills, language and adaptive play (but not speech therapy), and personal social skills can be helpful in putting your child in the right classroom with the right teacher using the right learning approach.
Equipping parents and teachers with an attentive ear and an evaluative eye can be valuable in creating a positive early learning process. Finding the preschool that has the right parent-child-G-d combination takes time and research. Be patient — Harvard is still years away.
Susan N. Schriber Orloff is the author of “Learning Re-enabled,” a guide for parents, teachers and therapists, and of WIN, the Handwriting on the Wall 12-hour program to penmanship. She is the CEO and executive director of Children’s Special Service and can be reached at www.childrens-services.com or through YourTherapySource.com.