Interview with Rabbi Zev Horowitz, M.S. Sp. Ed., SBL
Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom
1. Can you explain the differences in approaches and expectations when disciplining individuals with Down syndrome, versus typical individuals?
We should have the same demands and expectations of our children with special needs as of our other children, only the approach should be different than with our typical children.
Individuals with Down syndrome frequently have trouble communicating and have a tendency to become easily frustrated, often leading to stubbornness. To prevent these behaviors, a schedule and routine should be created and explained. When changes crop up, one should take a few moments to explain the situation and what the new expectations are, so that the child will feel comfortable and behave appropriately.
Several years ago, Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom welcomed two new students at the start of the school year. The first student, Dudi, would randomly sit down on the floor and refuse to budge. No amount of coaxing could get him to comply. We realized that Dudi cannot express himself with language and cannot verbalize his needs. His body language was telling us that he was confused and afraid. He needed to know what was happening and what was going to happen. We devised a plan outlining his daily schedule in detail, every step of the way, of every day. Once he realized that nothing unexpected will jump out at him, Dudi calmed down. His Rabbeim, teachers and therapists are constantly cueing him in on what’s coming and he is totally comfortable. We realize that his ‘sedentary outbursts’ were really a message that he had a fear of the unknown.
Last year, one day, Dudi sat down on the floor just when he needed to go down to his bus. We investigated what might be behind the return of these behaviors and sure enough, we learned that Dudi’s parents were away for a few days. Dudi was worried about coming home to an empty house. We put Dudi on the phone with both his parents, who reassured him that that somebody he knew and loved very much was waiting for him at home. Dudi stood up and that was the last we’ve seen of his plopping down.
Any changes at home need to be shared with the school in case they influence
the student’s behavior. When informed, we can then understand the behavior changes.
The second student, Shaya, engaged in extreme inappropriate behaviors. The staff and students were mortified! I sat into the classroom where Shaya was placed and observed him for a full week. I realized that Shaya couldn’t handle any negative reaction whatsoever, to anything he said or did. By phrasing our requests to him in strictly positive language, Shaya responded beautifully. Anything negative, caused him to resort back to his inappropriate behavior. By studying and dissecting exactly what ticked him off and what made him thrive, we were able to bring about a complete turnaround. Within a week, Shaya was a new child.
Parents often ask me, why is it that in school my son is so well-behaved and at home he is not? The answer is ‘Structure, routine and consistency’. In yeshiva, we have structure and routine at all times. All our students know the exact schedule and what is expected of them at all times, as opposed to home life, which is a non-structured environment. The second point is consistency. Our staff is trained to act and react to negative behavior with consistency in implementing the methods they were taught. Sometimes both parents aren’t on the same page when setting rules and expectations and how to react to their child’s inappropriate behavior. Our boys are very fine-tuned at figuring this out and use it to their advantage.
2. How do you define discipline from your perspective?
Training our children to follow rules and behave appropriately by using first, and foremost, positive reinforcement. Using a consequence, such as taking away a privilege, time-out or ignoring, should only be used as a last option.
3. How important is the partnership between school and home in disciplining individuals with Down syndrome?
It is crucial to work hand in hand with the parents in order to achieve our goals and expectations. There are so many behaviors that can be addressed in school, which can help at home, as long as we work together. This also applies to when we teach certain behaviors in school, we count on the parents to partner with us in implementing these behaviors at home as well.
Case in point: We have a student who used to play with and light matches at home. As often as the parents told him how dangerous it is, it never resonated with the boy. The parents contacted me and we were able to create many visual lessons and role play this issue. We also had the fire department come down to explain the dangers of playing with fire, in which everything became concrete and visual.
Regarding bedtime, showers, leining kriyas shema and every home structure, we were able to discuss it in class, explain and create charts which motivated the child. When the chart was brought in the next week we provided a positive reaction to help continue this behavior change.
Many behaviors that need to be addressed at home, for example tzniyus, toilet training, appropriate cell phone use, behavior in shul, seudas, simchos – can be addressed and successfully transmitted if there is constant communication and cooperation between home and school.
Our boys love participating in simchos and taking center stage. We had students who, while attending weddings, would grab the chussen first for a dance even before the father. In order to address this issue we created a huge circle on the yeshiva classroom floor with charts and outlines, with many inner and outer circles. We then explained who belongs in which circle. We basically created a visual dance floor and taught our students the ranks of dancers according to the sketches on the floor.
Another example comes to mind: We have a yeshiva parent who needed to visit her ailing mother in the hospital, but her son, our student, was terrified of using the elevator. This child had a real phobia of elevators. But there was nobody at home to stay with him when his mother went to the hospital to visit and it was crucial that he overcome his phobia. We were able to explore and practice with the child, using the elevator in our yeshiva building. We held his hands as we went up and down. By now he is a pro and even likes to manage the elevator on his own. Ultimately, we achieved the goal.
Sidebar: Our mission at Yeshiva Bonim Lamokom is for all our students to become independent, productive and contributing members of a community to their fullest ability. Our program is designed to support the students in achieving these goals. In addition to providing them with a full comprehensive academic, social, behavioral, pre-vocation and vocational curriculum, we need to work hand in hand with the home and address many functions and life skills issues.
4. How should society at large respond to our children when they act up inappropriately in public?
Klal Yisroel are rachmonim bnei rachmonim – an instinctual reaction when seeing a child with special needs misbehaving, is to accommodate and provide him with anything and everything possible to calm him. My wish is that society should realize that by doing so it’s creating a reverse situation and causing more harm than good. So much work, effort and heart are invested so that our children should behave appropriately in public. In addition, when a parent or a caregiver is disciplining or setting boundaries please don’t question them or tell them, ‘it’s fine, let them have more ….or give more…. After all, they have special needs’. Understand the parent; it’s what we want and demand from all our children – to behave appropriately in all settings.
5. How should parents respond when their child with Down syndrome acts up, both in public and in private?
Inasmuch as I strongly believe in setting rules for children with special needs, and being consistent, when in public it’s very important to react in a natural way. It is not the place to enforce or discipline when a negative behavior is exhibited unless safety is a concern. As much as we want our children to behave accordingly we also have to choose our battles.