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January 22, 2017 / 24 Tevet, 5777

Posts Tagged ‘Rifka Schonfeld’

Dealing With The Explosive Child

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

“Tatty, this isn’t the way we usually go home.”

“I know Mendy. I just thought we’d go a different way this time.”

“But Ta, this isn’t the right way!”

“It’s okay Mendy. This way might even be faster.”


“Mendy, it’s okay to go a different way once in a while.”


Kaboom! That’s what we experience when there is an explosion. And that’s exactly what we feel like when we are dealing with an “explosive” child. For those of you who don’t understand what I’m talking about, consider yourselves blessed. But those who know exactly what it means for a child to “explode” for no apparent reason understand what a tremendous challenge this is. It’s like living inside a simmering volcano. As one frustrated mother put it, “We are in a perpetual state of crisis.”

First of all, how do we define “explosive” children? After all, most children will throw a temper tantrum or “act out” once in a while. Hasn’t everyone experienced the irrational youngster screaming for no reason in shul or at the supermarket? Chances are that you, as the adult, were cringing with embarrassment. You couldn’t wait to get home.

Now consider the “explosive” child who acts this way on a consistent basis. Explosive children are easily frustrated, demanding and inflexible. When things don’t go their way, they react with violence and rage. Their siblings are afraid of them. Their parents are terrified of setting off the next outburst. They have an impossible time holding on to friends. And, like Mendy, they can erupt in tantrums, kicking, screaming, sudden outbursts, verbal and physical aggression, in response to relatively benign situations.

It makes a parent feel both helpless and angry at the same time – helpless at the thought of having no control whatsoever over the situation and angry that their child insists on behaving irrationally and well beyond acceptable modes of behavior.

So, what’s a parent to do? First of all, we must understand that this is nobody’s fault. And just as you’re not in control of what’s going on, neither is your child. Children are explosive because of a variety of reasons having to do with their brain chemistry, their inability to absorb levels of frustration and their inability to react in a certain manner. Living with an explosive child is not a pleasant situation, to be sure. But if we try to understand what makes this happen, we can begin to work on minimizing the eruptions and helping the child behave more like a normal kid.

Dr. Ross W. Greene PhD wrote the classic parenting guide to dealing with explosive children. He offers a new approach to understanding and parenting easily frustrated and chronically inflexible children like Mendy. His work is important for parents of explosive children who want to help their child. But it’s also filled with good ideas for parents of any child who is sometimes stubborn, unyielding and prone to frustration.

Dr. Greene understands the pain of parents who are actually fearful that an explosion will erupt at any moment. “Mental health professionals,” he says, “have bestowed myriad diagnoses on these children. However, a simple label doesn’t begin to explain the upheaval, turmoil and trauma that these outbursts cause.”

Imagine that you were planning a pleasant outing with your family. You were going to have a picnic in the park, but when you woke up that morning it was raining and you just couldn’t go. Your children would be disappointed, to be sure, but they would probably eventually adapt to the situation and agree on a different activity.

The explosive child can’t do that. He lacks the skills needed to process the information and handle the disappointment. Instead, he breaks into a tantrum and begins to scream. It’s not making him happy. He just doesn’t know what else to do.

Of course, most of us would become frustrated ourselves when dealing with this behavior. We start reasoning with the child, but that doesn’t work. Then we raise our voice, we set down rules, we threaten and sometimes we even engage in a shouting match with the child. All of these methods are self-destructive. They simply don’t work.

Dr. Greene suggests a refreshingly different approach. He lays down two important rules. One — think clearly. Two — stay calm. Sounds easy, right? But when you’re caught in the middle of an explosion that’s out of control, especially when you’re in public, it’s not easy at all. In fact, it’s one of the hardest things that we, as parents, can do.

Now here’s what we shouldn’t do. One — never turn the explosive situation into a power struggle.

Consider the story of Mendy and his father. It could have gone something like this:

“Tatty, this isn’t the way we usually go home.”

“I know, Mendy. I just thought we’d go a different way this time.”

“But Ta, this isn’t the right way!”

“It’s okay Mendy. This way might even be faster.”

“We can’t go this way! It’s not the same! I don’t know this way!”

“Mendy, I’m the driver, and what I say goes. This is the way we’re going home and I don’t want to hear any more about it!”


“Mendy, I command you to stop this right now! I’m counting to three and if you don’t stop screaming, you will be severely punished! 1… 2… 3…! Mendy, stop it right now!!”

Clearly, this method of controlling Mendy’s behavior is going nowhere fast. If anything, it’s just escalating the tension and making an impossible situation even worse.

Now let’s consider the other option that many parents use. And that’s no-no number two — never give in to all of the explosive child’s unreasonable expectations. Back to Mendy —

“We can’t go this way Ta! It’s not the right way!”

“Okay, Mendy, calm down. See? I’m making a U-turn right now and getting us back on the other road. We’ll go the regular way, just like you want to.”

Giving in to Mendy might relieve the tension for a short while. It may even avoid a really ugly temper tantrum. But it won’t solve a thing. It’s only a matter of time until some other situation comes up, one which may be impossible to give in to, and you’ll be back at square one in no time.

So what’s the proper way to deal with this type of behavior? First we have to understand what’s causing it. If we can recognize that Mendy can’t respond properly to the cognitive demands being made, we can try to “walk him through” the situation and help him formulate a better response. It’s like his brain is “locked” and he can’t think things through logically. So we’re going to have to unlock his brain and do the thinking for him.

Here’s what I mean. Let’s say Sureleh wants an ice cream, but there aren’t any left in the freezer. The scenario might go something like this:

“I want my ice cream NOW! I want to have it! I have to have it!”

“Okay, Sureleh. You want your ice cream. I understand that. Why? What’s up?”

“I’m very hungry!!”

“I see. You’re hungry and you want ice cream. But you can’t have any because the freezer is empty. And that’s making you angry. I think I know what we can do. Maybe we can call the store and see if they’re open late tonight. Or maybe we can eat a different snack instead of ice cream. Do you have any other ideas, Sureleh?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Just call the store already before it’s too late.”

Notice how Sureleh’s mother empathized with her daughter and “walked her through” the thinking process. She validated Sureleh’s disappointment by verbalizing it. Then she offered alternatives to eating the ice cream. This technique works well for kids like Sureleh because they don’t have the emotional maturity to come up with these alternatives themselves. Yet, when a parent offers the solutions, it calms them down considerably to the point where the explosion is very often completely avoided.

Sureleh’s mother’s solution might sound simplistic, but it isn’t. It also may sound easy to adapt, but believe me when I tell you that it is not. Once the explosion is well under way, these children are already out of control and kicking and screaming. Parents feel a little silly repeating the child’s request and offering solutions like some kind of a robot while this emotional outburst is going on. It doesn’t matter. If we persevere by putting in the effort and continuing to follow this plan, in the end chances are good that the explosions will decrease dramatically. The goal is for him or her to eventually be able to process the solutions s/he needs to handle difficult situations all by himself.

I’ve seen explosive children benefit greatly from this type of intervention and I’m a tremendous advocate of Dr. Greene’s approach. Using this technique can bring wonderful results. What’s really nice about it is that it’s not uniquely effective with explosive children. I’ve seen successful results when it’s utilized with any child who decides to throw a tantrum or become generally irrational and uncooperative. I welcome any parent who wants help in using this technique to contact me. I’d be happy to explain it in detail.

Living with an explosive child is frightening, frustrating and overwhelming. But when we stop and think that the child is pretty unhappy, and probably plenty scared, about what’s happening to him, we see things differently. If we understand the issues involved and deal with them correctly in a consistent manner, half the battle is won. Now back to our friend Mendy —

“Ta, we can’t go this way! It’s not the same! I don’t know this way!”

“Okay Mendy. You want to go the other way. I understand that. You don’t know how to go this way and I can see that it’s making you angry. I think I know what we can do. We can continue to go this way, because it’s faster, and you can see how it gets us home on the GPS system. Or you can call Uncle Moish on the cell phone and ask him if he knows how to get home this way. That way you won’t be so angry. Do you want me to set up the GPS for you now? Or do you have any other ideas?”

“Oh never mind. Let’s just get home already!”

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

Rifka Schonfeld

The Tyranny Of OCD

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

With Pesach behind us, what better time to take a closer look at the annual burst of intensity that propelled us, in the weeks and days leading to the yom tov, into a frenzy of cleaning?

That sustained embrace of scrupulous cleaning offers insight into a subject that has lately received a great deal of attention in psycho-educational literature. The topic, OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder, might be understood by comparing it with that exhausting endeavor from which many of us are just starting to recover.

OCD is an anxiety disorder that strikes both children and adults. It is a form of “brainlock,” where distressing thoughts pop up in a person’s mind and refuse to be banished. The anxiety they generate compel the person to perform certain rituals meticulously, again and again, until they are done “right.”

OCD is often manifested by a preoccupation with arranging things in a very particular way; excessive cleaning or checking things ad infinitum; irrational fear of germs and contamination; asking the same question repeatedly when the answer is known; touching things a certain number of times; counting before executing the simplest action and many other rituals.

How does OCD differ from a normal drive for cleanliness and order in one’s life? To hark back to Pesach-cleaning, to insist on moving the stove and refrigerator to search for elusive crumbs would not qualify as “compulsive,” or “obsessive.” A once a year endeavor, this effort is inspired by an uplifting sense of purpose. But imagine a housewife who, in a quest for absolute spotlessness to allay OCD anxiety, is driven to similar exhausting measures every single day?

Such is the terrible burden of OCD, whose rituals are usually hated and dreaded by the sufferer due to their utter meaninglessness and consuming nature, yet impossible to set aside.

The disorder is far more disabling than people realize and consumes untold hours and outputs of energy. Unlike ordinary worries and obligations OCD obsessions and compulsions do not go away even when the demanding rituals are faithfully carried out.

In fact, these actions tend to increasingly dominate a person’s life. They take inordinate amounts of time, may interfere with a person’s daily schedule and cause significant distress.

Observing a person engaged in the rituals of OCD behavior would be enough for most people to regard him as unstable. OCD sufferers know this – fearful of being shunned as crazy, people suffering from OCD go to great lengths to hide their symptoms.

In children especially, the fear of being ridiculed or regarded as weird exacts a terrible price in self-esteem and the need to maintain secrecy.

Because OCD compulsions and obsessions gradually increase and encroach further on a person’s daily routine, life for the victim can become unbearable.

The rituals of repeatedly washing off invisible dirt, for example, or counting a certain number of times before entering or leaving a room, or tying one’s shoes six or eight times until they feel “right,’ begins to get more involved and consume even greater amounts of time.

Psychologists explain that trying to suppress the compulsions and obsessive thinking by sheer will power doesn’t work. It produces so much anxiety that the person surrenders to the urge or becomes haunted by other obsessions.

OCD Behavior In Children And Adolescents

Recognizing the symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder may be challenging, as the symptoms can easily be misinterpreted as willful disregard, oppositional behavior or immaturity.

Often, a parent or teacher only sees the result of the symptom such as hours in the bathroom; extended dallying in the bedroom; inability to finish assignments or tantrums when the child cannot do something his or her way and is overwhelmed with anxiety.

If left untreated, peer relationships, functioning in school and with family all may suffer, cautions Dr. Edna Foa, author of Stop Obsessing!

OCD is usually not outgrown. If left untreated, it follows its victims into adulthood, as the following excerpt from a personal memoir illustrates.

The Monster And Me

In, The Monster And Me, Rena Galloway remembers starting to line up her toys when she was five. At eight she was lining up her shoes several times a day, as well as the books in her school bag and the items in the medicine closet. At nine, after her parents divorced, her compulsions spread to the pantry. She lined up cans of food in alphabetical order, with all the labels facing in one direction.

“What are you doing in the pantry so late?” my mother called from her bedroom, making my hand jerk in fear.

“Just looking for something for lunch,” I managed.

“At this hour? But I made your lunch already, you saw me make it.”

“I know. I just wondered if there were any raisins left. I’m in the mood for raisins.”

“Enough of this nonsense! Go straight to bed!”

She thought I was being impudent. I was exhausted and longed to go to sleep.. I couldn’t allow myself to go to bed until I had completed arranging the pantry shelves. If I didn’t, I’d lie awake for hours, fearful of something bad happening to my family. I waited in bed for a half hour until I was certain she was sleeping and then crept into the pantry and finished arranging the cans. Only then did I finally go to sleep. This happened three or four nights a week over many months.

OCD At Home

Symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder at home are often more intrusive than school. Life for the child and family can become stressful and all family members may feel powerless to change rigid patterns of behavior.

At home, children with OCD may display a combination of the symptoms listed below.

Repeated obsessive thoughts. Unlike ordinary worries, these obsessions (such as fear of becoming fatally ill) are not generally realistic. Often the child may deny these behaviors or be embarrassed by them.

Repeated actions to prevent a feared consequence – such as repeating certain words, tapping objects or counting to certain numbers to ward off danger to oneself or to a family member.

Consuming obsessions and compulsions. The child or adolescent is continually preoccupied with these fears (for example, he avoids nearly all contact with objects due to fear of contamination or washes hands for hours).

Extreme distress if others interrupt a ritual. Children may have extended tantrums if a parent insists that the ritual be discontinued.

Difficulty explaining unusual behavior. Children with OCD may not be able to explain what their worries are or why they feel compelled to repeat their behaviors.

Attempts to hide obsessions or compulsions. Children and adolescents are often ashamed of their worries or strange habits and will make great efforts to keep their thoughts or rituals a secret.

Concern that they are “crazy” because of their thoughts. Children with OCD may recognize that they think differently than others their age. Consequently, these children have low self-esteem.

At School

The differences in behaviors seen at home and school can be significant. At school, students may be successful in suppressing symptoms, while they may be unable to at home. Families often seek treatment once symptoms affect school performance.

At school, a child with OCD may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:

Difficulty concentrating, which may affect his ability to follow directions, complete assignments and pay attention. Concentration can be derailed by repetitive thoughts that come of their own volition. Finishing work in the appropriate time can be difficult and starting schoolwork can be difficult, too.

Perfectionism. A child with OCD may have impossibly high standards of perfection; may spend most of his time erasing and starting over. The child may be almost paralyzed by the inability to tolerate his results that are less than perfect.

Social isolation or withdrawal from interactions with peers due to bizarre habits

Low self-esteem manifesting in social and academic activities

Problem behaviors, such as arguments, resulting from misunderstandings, teasing regarding the child’s behavior, or because the child often cannot let go of an argument.

What Causes OCD?

OCD was long assumed to be purely psychological, the mind’s reaction to overly strict parents or abnormal emphasis on cleanliness. Scientists now believe it is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain.

“OCD tends to occur in families, meaning there is a genetic component. However, scientists believe that it takes a stressful event for the condition to activate, and exposure to various scenes or stories can aggravate it, said Dr. Swedo, in Science News.

OCD is the mind’s way of trying to impose control in one’s life when events feel out of control, she said.

Research has shown that OCD is triggered by the way the mind handles messages about fear and doubt.

Cognitive Behavioral Treatment – What’s Involved?

CBT is recommended for children and adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder. In CBT, a young person is helped to identify obsessive thoughts and compulsions and what triggers them.

With younger patients, personifying the obsessions (for example, “Germy” to describe the fear of germs) allows children to “fight back” against the thoughts or behaviors that create barriers between themselves and peers or family members.

CBT focuses on changing behaviors by “exposure” and “response prevention.” “Exposure” works by having the patient, under the therapist’s guidance, confront the obsession without resorting to the ritual that is meant to allay anxiety. The patient refrains as long as possible from surrendering to the compulsive urge, weathering the panic and anxiety the delay causes.

For example a ten-year old girl named Miriam could not fall asleep at night without calling out “Good night, Mommy!” two, four, six or eight times. Sometimes, she would have to add, “Sleep well!” an equal number of times. If her mother refused to respond, she couldn’t fall asleep.

Miraim’s therapist helped her break these compulsions first by getting her to talk and even joke about them. They rehearsed the nighttime calls and talked about what would happen if she kept them down to first four, then two a night, and then one.

Slowly, Miriam was able to practice “response prevention,” reducing the calls without feeling unbearable anxiety.

One night she fell asleep without a single extra “Good night, Mommy!”

Individual psychotherapy may be useful for young people with OCD, particularly when they have ongoing stressors in their lives that make symptoms worse. Children with obsessive-compulsive disorder often carry a sense of failure, as if the illness was their fault. In many cases, they know that their disturbing thoughts and rituals are generated by their own mind which can increase their self-blame and shame. Individual psychotherapy can help young people become aware of and address these feelings.

Parent guidance sessions can help parents manage their child’s illness, identify effective parenting skills, and learn how to function better as a family despite the disorder. Family therapy may be beneficial when issues are affecting the family as a whole.

“OCD is like a greedy tyrant,” says Dr. Taussig. “The more you surrender to it, the more it takes over your life. But once you expose the obsessions for what they are, you drain them of power.” She has posted a plaque on one of the walls of her office that encapsulates her approach to this daunting anxiety disorder:

Know your enemy

For once he’s known

He’s nothing but a humbug

A tyrant dethroned.

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net

Rifka Schonfeld

How To Combat Classroom Bullying

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

Two months into the school year, Shonnie’s enthusiasm for school inexplicably took a nose dive. Her morning routines seemed to take her forever. The 7 year-old reacted to her mother’s exasperation by turning sulky and tearful. With increasing frequency she missed the bus and needed to be driven to school.

When Shonnie began feigning illness in order to stay home, her baffled parents contacted the teacher. Shonnie’s teacher confirmed that their daughter’s zest for learning had waned and she was not finishing class assignments. Once a top student, she had now been grouped with a lower-level reading group.

Her parents met with the school psychologist who had several sessions with Shonnie. Gradually, the mystery unraveled. It turned out that a girl from an older class was consistently harassing Shonnie on the school bus. The girl would tease her, call her names and block her from getting off the bus at her stop. She threatened to “teach her a lesson” if Shonnie “tattled.”

A timid child by nature, Shonnie’s “escape tactic” was to avoid the school bus, and eventually, school itself. She was too afraid of retaliation to divulge the true source of her trouble.

Unlike many cases of school-related bullying where the perpetrator succeeds in drawing in other children to continue the harassment, Shonnie’s “tormentor” was acting alone. As soon as this girl’s abusive behavior was exposed and she was disciplined, the bullying ended and Shonnie’s life returned to normal.

“I felt as if we’d awakened from a bad dream,” her mother said. “Now I understand how important it is to teach quiet children better communication skills and the importance of trusting adults.”

Unfortunately, for many victims of bullying, the matter is not so simple.

Bullying Leaves Scars

School bullying involves the psychological, emotional, social or physical harassment of one student by another. It takes the form of name-calling, taunts, slandering, shunning and physical abuse. Victims of bullying can suffer lowered self-esteem, physical health difficulties, anxiety disorders and/or depression.

Bullying can lead to excessive shyness, social isolation or a social phobia. Children who are victims of bullying may become school “avoiders” and later, drop-outs.

Which children are most likely to be the victims of a bully? Experts point to children who are perceived as different; shy, sensitive children; those with poor social skills and children who are learning disabled and stand out as scholastically below par.

Sometimes parents may not know their child is being bullied. Some children, like Shonnie, are intimidated into secrecy. They may also keep quiet because they feel ashamed that they have allowed this to happen. They may fear their parents will either criticize them or will intervene in a way that will make everything worse.

Be Alert For Telltale Signs

If you suspect your child might be the victim of bullying, look for general signs of school distress – falling grades, physical complaints on school days, and lack of interest in school work or after-school activities.

More specific signs would be unexplained injuries or torn clothes, missing belongings or money, or repeated requests for money. [Bullies often coerce children into giving them money or other valuables.] If someone is taking your child’s lunch, he or she may come home hungry even though he took an adequate lunch to school.

You need to know how to get your child talking about his concerns. It is best to broach the subject at a calm neutral time. Ask general questions about whether something is bothering your child. Get as detailed a narrative as possible. Avoid interrupting or judging. Try to stay calm and do not make outraged statements while your child is telling his tale.

Avoid offering premature solutions. You may not get the entire story on the first telling. Be patient and bring up the topic again later. Finally, if you feel that something is going on and suspect that your child is withholding information, call his or her teacher.

No one needs to put up with a bully’s outrageous behavior.

How Parents Can Help

How can you help your child deal with the bullying? First, teach him to avoid being an easy target. A bully often surrounds himself with a group of peers. He consciously picks weaker, more vulnerable victims and repeatedly bothers the same people. He tends to do his bullying when authorities are not around.

In dealing with a bully, teach your child that posture, voice and eye contact are important. These telegraph messages about whether you are vulnerable.

Act brave. Sometimes wearing the mask of courage is enough to stop a bully. If you walk by as though you’re not afraid and hold your head high, a bully may be less likely to give you trouble.

Ignore. Simply ignoring a bully’s threats and walking away robs the bully of his or her fun. Bullies want a big reaction to their teasing and meanness. Acting as if you don’t notice and don’t care might weaken the incentive and bring the harassment to an end.

Stand up for others. If you stick up for others when they are picked on you are sending a message that bullying won’t be tolerated. Then when you stand up for yourself, the bully knows you mean it.

Be a buddy. Bullies are often cowards, afraid to stand alone. Two friends facing a bully is often all it takes to force a bully to back down. Make a plan with friends to walk shoulder to shoulder on the way to school or recess or lunch or wherever you think you might meet the bully.

Tell an adult. If you are being bullied, it’s very important to tell an adult. Teachers, principals and parents can all help to stop bullying.

Don’t bully back. Don’t hit, kick, or push back to deal with someone bullying you or your friends. Fighting back just satisfies a bully and sets the stage for further skirmishes. It’s best to stay close to others, stay safe, and get help from an adult.

Teachers Hold The Key

How can teachers and educators work to eliminate bullying?

The first imperative is to stop looking the other way, experts say. As long as we ignore dysfunctional behavior, we are giving it the green light to continue.

The second step is to recognize that adults must take charge to stop it. Kids can’t do it on their own. They often don’t talk about it with adults because they’re ashamed, embarrassed, or they’re afraid adults will only make it worse. But deep down, they want to talk about it. They need to know that every adult at school will listen to them and help if they report a problem with bullying.

Here are some practical steps teachers can take to address the problem of bullying in their classroom:

Talk about it. Have class discussions about tolerance and respect for others, as well as the fallout everyone suffers when bullying is permitted. In the words of one expert, “Kids need to know that it’s cool to stand up for other kids.” Standing up for others takes courage, but when the values of a school or community support this ethic, it goes a very long way toward reducing bullying in a school.

Students need to realize that they hold a lot of power collectively. When the peers say bullying is out, IT IS OUT. When a peer group says bullying is OK either by condoning it or doing nothing, they risk becoming a target themselves, exposing their friends to harassment and lowering the Torah values we hold dear.

Look for it and confront it when you witness it — every time. Too often we minimize and normalize bullying by saying things like “kids will be kids,” or “sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Don’t allow these sayings to cover up malicious harassment. Make it clear that if anyone’s having a problem, they can talk with you – then make sure you follow through.

Teach bystanders how to safely intervene. Most students are not chronic targets or chronic bullies. They’re bystanders. And as we all know, what students typically do when they witness bullying is stand around and watch. Yet most students agree they don’t like to see it happen, and that they often feel guilty or ashamed for not stepping in and helping out.

What Happens To Bullies?

Some children adopt bullying behavior to help mask their own feelings of inadequacy. They may be learning disabled or for various reasons failing scholastically or socially, and are desperate to win respect from their peers. A bully may lack good adult role models. If he sees parents bullying him or each other, he may consider this proper behavior.

Some children fall in with a peer group that uses bullying. They may learn undesirable conduct from these friends. In some cases, the behavior improves when the child is separated from that peer group, and makes new friends.

In the end, most bullies wind up on the losing end. If they continue acting mean and hurtful, sooner or later they find themselves with very few friends left – usually other kids who are just like them. The power they wanted slips away fast. School authorities marginalize them. Other kids move on and leave bullies behind, dismissing them as troublemaking losers.

Bullies can change if they absorb the fact that their behavior is not only wrong but destructive to themselves, and if they are willing to learn to use their power in positive ways.

In the case of class bullies who act aggressively to compensate for learning or social disabilities, personalized coaching by teachers and parents often yield dramatic results both academically and emotionally. Aggressive and obnoxious behavior may gradually be replaced by decent and even-keeled social conduct.

In addition to the enormous influence teachers and parents can exert, other children who make a habit of treating others fairly, and with respect, set a very important tone in the class.

Of course, some bullies never learn. But others respond to social skills training, remediation, “tough love” and positive role-modeling. Gradually they turn into cooperative and likable kids who grow up to become responsible, ethical and productive members of the community.

An acclaimed educator and education consultant, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at rifkaschonfeld@verizon.net.

Rifka Schonfeld

how r u? i am gr8. ttyl ;) Teaching Our Children Writing Skills

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

The abbreviated language of text messaging has entered our everyday lives. While texting is an excellent, quick way to communicate with our friends and family, it is a symptom of a greater issue facing today’s students: declining writing skills.

In June 2008, The Atlantic published an article about a college professor’s disillusionment with modern students’ inabilities to write clear sentences and essays. Many people are required to pass straightforward English courses to advance in their careers, including police officers and health-care workers. Without rudimentary writing skills, students are unable to write the papers necessary to complete these basic courses.

Perhaps this weakening in writing skills is a result of our fast-paced lifestyles. We check our email on the go, use our bluetooth headsets in the car, and do our shopping on the Internet. Generally, as a culture, Americans are accustomed to instant gratification. This idea extends to how students think about writing as well. They expect to sit down and write everything perfectly on the first try.

Quite the opposite is true. In fact, as early as 1987, The New York Times printed an article about writing as a process – one that requires revision and coaching to facilitate success. With correct strategies, however, students can improve and master writing techniques.

Tips For Parents And Students


The first step in creating quality writing is often called “prewriting.” Prewriting consists of brainstorming, creating lists and webs, or simply freewriting. In the English Journal, a prominent magazine published by the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), Raymond Rodrigues, a professor at New Mexico State University, gives more options for prewriting techniques. He notes, “Other activities, viewing a film, taking a field trip, listening to a guest speaker, or conducting a survey can serve equally [as] well to provide ideas.” Rodrigues explains that this prewriting process allows students to sort through the chaos and tension that generally precedes writing.

Other educators, such as Dan and Dawn Kirby, authors of the book Inside Out: Strategies for Teaching Writing, point out that “the quantity of details on the [prewriting] list predicts the quality of the writing.” In essence, the more time students put in before they actually sit down to write the piece will foretell the quality of the final draft.


Professional writers often talk about their inspiration for their novel or play. Similarly, looking at examples or excerpts of the kinds of texts students are expected to compose will give students a feel for language, tone, and voice. With the excerpts in mind, students can begin to get a sense of what their own piece is expected to be.

Intuitively, we understand this in other aspects of our children’s lives. When we teach them to tie their own shoes, we don’t simply tell them how to do it. Rather, we show them how we do it with our own shoelaces and on their shoes as well. The same goes for writing: writers need to know what the final product should look like.

Rituals and Routines

Writing, like most academic endeavors, requires an environment in which students create habitual practices to facilitate writing. These routines, though different for various people, allow the writing process to become manageable and controllable. Some routines might include always creating an outline or setting aside the same time of the day for writing.

John Grisham elucidated his formula for success. When he was just beginning to write he explained that he had, “these little rituals that were silly and brutal but very important.” Those rituals included setting an alarm clock for the same time everyday. Additionally, his goal was to write one page a day. While some days, one page would take him 10 minutes; on other days, he would need several hours for one page. Through utilizing these simple routines, he continues to write many best-selling novels.


A great way to continue to improve writing skills is through personal journals. Because most children and teenagers are looking for ways to express themselves, the journal is a great resource. The National Council for the Teachers of English points out that in addition to providing a much-needed private vent of emotions, writing in a journal allows students to establish “fluency” in their writing. With no one reading their writing, students can feel free to play with language in ways that they might have feared exploring if they were submitting the writing for a grade.

In fact, Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, in his book Writing Without Teachers, writes, “The most effective way to improve your writing is to do freewriting exercises daily In your natural way of producing words there is a sound, a texture, a rhythm – a voice – which is the main source of power in your writing.” Journaling allows students to explore their voice and develop into unique, individual writers.

Tips For Teachers

Constraints and Freedoms

There is a fine line between too much teacher involvement and not enough teacher involvement in writing. The logic is that if teachers are too active in students’ writing, the writing becomes the teachers’ rather than the students’. On the other hand, if teachers simply tell their students to write about whatever they want, many students might feel lost without a clearly defined topic. Therefore, it is the teachers’ responsibility to give guidance without forcing their own opinions or views on their students.

Teaching Grammar in Context

While maintaining correct grammar and spelling in student writing is important, occasionally, focusing solely on the mechanics of writing will dull students’ enthusiasm for writing. Constance Weaver, in her book, Teaching Grammar in Context, discusses research that shows us that teaching grammar in isolation does not improve students’ writing. Instead, she advocates for “incidental lessons wherein grammatical terms are used casually in the course of discussing literature and students’ writing.”

Thus, as a teacher and researcher, Weaver has proven that teaching grammar out of a workbook is not as effective as working from the novel the students are reading or the papers they are writing.


Along with all of the strategies that a student can do on their own, teachers who act as effective coaches as opposed to advice-givers can be key elements of successful writing. Donald Graves, a modern philosophy and Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stated, “Students cannot be taught what they need to know, but they can be coached.” In other words, in order for teachers to help students succeed, they do not need to tell students what they can fix. Rather, good coaches listen to what the student is trying to say and ask questions to explore possibilities with the writer.


School schedules that provide enough time to create writing workshops in which the students work individually on their writing are all the more successful when teachers conference with their students.

Ralph Fletcher, in his book, What a Writer Needs, explains that students who have conferences with their teachers are much more likely to have successful writing experiences. Teachers who have the time and ability to set up writing workshops in which they conference with students individually or in groups will provide students with a sense of power and control. In order to be successful, in these conferences, teachers must build on strengths, value originality and diversity, and look at the big picture.


A wonderful way to provide students with a sense of ownership and pride over their writing is to encourage them to compile their work in a literary magazine. As Dan and Dawn Kirby state in their writing guide, “Writing becomes real when it has an audience.” Students learn to make their writing more effective when they see the effect it has on others.

Another alternative to the literary magazine is a verbal form of publication or a “read aloud” in which students share their work in a celebratory setting. This allows students to learn what their classmates think of their work in a constructive manner.

Final Thoughts

While there is no quick fix for improving writing skills, these are several easy steps that we can implement to give our children the chance to succeed. Understanding the new abbreviated language of technology is wonderful and efficient. However, we must try to employ this new technology in ways that facilitate effective writing: use your Blackberry to scribble your thoughts about the situation in Israel, set a timer on your phone that reminds you when your “writing time” begins, and utilize the notepad on your iPhone to begin a journal. Of course, writing is a process and like all processes it requires time and effort. But, with a little old-fashioned elbow grease, we can all be successful writers.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to thirty years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and Yeshivos. In addition to her diversified teaching career she offers teacher training and educational consulting services, and evaluations. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

Rifka Schonfeld

The Balanced Literacy Debate

Wednesday, April 29th, 2009

There is a startling connection between illiteracy and crime. One journalist in The New York Times noted that, “60 percent of the state and federal prison population of 440,000 cannot read above the sixth grade level.” In other words, more than half of all criminals would be considered illiterate by modern standards. In order to improve reading rates and reduce crime, organizations such as the Book ‘Em Foundation utilize police officers to read to school age children. The logic is that if children learn to read, they will be more likely to attain future success.

So how are educators working to meet this goal? In 2001, President George W. Bush enacted “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB), a national educational act that focuses on standards, testing, and teacher accountability in schools. NCLB spurred multiple reforms in municipalities across the United States.

Among the cities that modified their reading curriculum was New York. In 2003, Mayor Michael Bloomberg implemented a “Balanced Literacy” program, a system formulated by Columbia University education specialists. From the start the Balanced Literacy program generated controversy, sparked by strong advocates and resolute detractors.

What is Balanced Literacy?

Before we can define Balanced Literacy, we need to understand the two opposing fields of reading theory: phonics and whole language.

Phonics: Benefits and Drawbacks

Students who learn how to read based on the phonics system enunciate different sounds or phonemes in a language. In English, for instance, “f” and “ph” are the same phoneme: “f.” Once the students learn the different phonemes, they then put them together in order to read whole words. Through sounding out the different phonemes, the phonics system allows students to read words that they have never encountered before. On the other hand, the phonics system requires students to learn multiple phonemes before enabling them to read many words on their own. Sometimes this longer period of learning before the gratification of reading frustrates students, making them believe that reading is all about memorization and learning by rote.

Whole Language: Benefits and Drawbacks

As opposed to learning different sounds in order to piece together full words, the whole language system believes in immediately attracting children to reading by giving them an early grasp of printed language through a “sight” vocabulary of memorized words and phrases. These memorized words give students a sense of accomplishment when they open simple books and are able to read whole sentences. One drawback of the whole language system, however, is that students are not provided with the skills to decode new words that they encounter. Unlike phonics learners, whole language learners continue to need experienced readers to teach them new words.

Balanced Literacy

The Balanced Literacy program is based heavily on the whole language approach. Robert Kolker, in New York magazine, explained that Balanced Literacy “operates on the presumption that breaking down words distracts kids, even discourages them, from growing up to become devoted readers. Instead, students in a Balanced Literacy program get their pick of books almost right away – real books, not the Dick and Jane readers, with narratives that are meant to speak to what kids relate to, whether it’s dogs or baseball or friendship or baby sisters.” This approach, therefore, rejects textbooks and traditional grammar drills – and instead stocks classroom with age-appropriate books.

NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein justified his support for the Balanced Literacy program by revealing that the only reason he did well in school and became a federal prosecutor was because an elementary school gave him a book about baseball. When he read that book and enjoyed it, it inspired him to continue to read and succeed in school. With that in mind, he implemented the Balanced Literacy program in nearly all of New York City’s 743 elementary schools.

Balanced Literacy and Controversy

One obvious benefit of Balanced Literacy is students’ immediate love of reading. In contrast, many argue that in the long run Balanced Literacy is not the most effective way to teach students to read.

Balanced Literacy and Social Class

Detractors of the Balanced Literacy program point out that the system has no set curriculum and operates on a teacher-by-teacher basis. In May 2004, in the EnglishJournal, Greg Hamilton from Columbia University points out that the program only works when there is a multitude of in-service support for teachers. In schools where there are lead teachers, principals who monitor teachers’ progress, and consistent training, the Balanced Literacy program has been succeeding.

The problem is that in the most underprivileged schools where the reading levels are the lowest, there is less financial backing for in-service training. This in turn translates into a situation in which the low reading levels are getting lower, while the neighborhoods with already high reading levels are rising. Additionally, in the wealthier neighborhoods, parents are able to provide their children with extra tutoring hours in order to reinforce phonic reading. Alternatively, in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, the students are unable to pay for extra tutoring and following a predominantly whole language approach means that they then lack the basic phonic skills for the future.

Balanced Literacy and Writing

Another argument against the Balanced Literacy program is the impact it could potentially have on writing skills. Most Balanced Literacy teachers create writing workshops in the classroom. Writing workshops consist of students writing individually, sharing their work with their peers, and conferencing with teachers. There are advantages to the writing workshop method, many being similar to the whole language approach. Through the relaxed and pleasurable environment, students might fall in love with writing, prompting them to write and read more on their own. This is, of course, the intent of Balanced Literacy programs.

The pitfall is that when students learn primarily through reading books rather than textbooks and workbooks, they might not pick up the correct mechanics of the English language, such as grammar and spelling. The hope is, as New York magazine states, that they will learn these ideas through “osmosis.” But, unfortunately, research has shown that many students fail to pick up these conventions through casual reading. When coupled with students’ increased time on the Internet and their phones, this dearth of grammatical drilling might lead to an acute lack of knowledge of conventional English.

Balanced Literacy and Hebrew

Almost all Hebrew language classes are based on the phonics system. As Julie Baumler, a writer on Middle East Culture, points out, there are rare exceptions to rules in Hebrew. Additionally, the Hebrew language isabjad, or consists solely of consonants. The vowels are represented by the nekudot. These two elements simplify the reading process and allow students to learn just a few rules in order to pick up even the most complex book and sound out the words. Obviously phonics does not encourage comprehension, which, in turn, might make students believe that reading is boring or tedious.

If our yeshivot were to incorporate the Balanced Literacy approach to Hebrew instruction, students might feel more passionate about studying Hebrew. However, inevitably their ease in reading and their pronunciation would falter. Perhaps there is a way to unite the two systems in a more equalized program.

Recent Changes to Balanced Literacy Programs

In August 2008, The New York Times reported that 10 New York City public schools were changing their curriculum from Balanced Literacy programs to the Core Knowledge system. It noted, “The Core Knowledge curriculum is heavily focused on content, vocabulary skills and nonfiction books.” It is also focused heavily on phonics. This move is a clear shift away from the writing workshop and whole language method of immersion in interesting, exciting books. With 10 schools participating in the pilot program, the city will have a chance to see which approach is more effective.

So What Can We Do?

The question remains: Are the enjoyment and enthusiasm for reading that are sparked by the whole language system preferable, or are the skills and proficiency that are promoted by the phonics program favorable? That question has yet to be answered; perhaps a mix of the two approaches is the golden mean. Regardless, we as parents and educators must understand that providing our children with the ability to read is fundamentally a gift for a better future.

Rifka Schonfeld founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program SOS (Strategies for Optimum Success), servicing all grade levels in both secular and Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to 30 years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivas. In addition to her diversified teaching career, she offers teacher training and educational consulting services. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training, and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

Rifka Schonfeld

The Paradox Of The ‘Little Professor’

Friday, April 17th, 2009

(*Name has been changed)

Seven-year-old Naomi* has her teacher stumped. Her reading level is far above second-grade level and her precocious vocabulary often leaves her teacher astounded. She surpasses her peers in almost all language art subjects. Full of zest to learn, she takes an active part in class discussions and is focused and alert in her studies.

A dream student? Not quite. Her teacher has noticed baffling inconsistencies in Naomi’s scholastic performance. She struggles quite a bit with math, and her handwriting skills are extremely poor – barely above kindergarten level. She dislikes the small motor tasks of cutting, coloring, pasting and sewing.

Of equal concern is Naomi’s difficulty in communicating with her peers. Although she is well behaved and articulate in class discussions, on the playground she will frequently barge in on other children’s play or conversations. She tends to say things that grate on other children’s nerves. She is surprisingly clumsy, often bumping into people and objects.

Who is this child with such a contradictory profile? She couldn’t possibly have a learning disability, could she? Wouldn’t that indicate a “difficulty with reading”?

The Invisible Disability

Students with learning disabilities usually suffer from neurological deficits that interfere with their ability to grasp certain subjects at grade level. Most often, those subjects involve reading and manifest in short attention spans and difficulty in focusing.

Dyslexia or attention deficit problems typically show up in the first grade, and are often diagnosed by the second grade. Children struggling with these deficits are thus able to get remedial help early on in their academic careers.

This is not the case with a very different type of handicap identified by experts as a “nonverbal learning disability” (NVLD). Deficits in this category tend to slip under the radar screen until third or fourth grade, evading detection because they don’t mesh with the student’s overall profile.

NVLD students often begin school as high achievers and progress on a gifted track. As early as kindergarten, these students are seen as “little professors.” They are wonderful readers, have a gift for self-expression, and can memorize, categorize and retain information with remarkable proficiency.

These children suffer from difficulties that are not readily perceived and frequently remain undiagnosed. As explained in a recent issue of Instructor, a leading publication in pedagogy, the child with the elusive NVLD has right-hemisphere neurological deficits that manifest themselves in a number of areas:

Gross motor development. Girls and boys with NVLD are late walkers. They are slow learning how to ride a bicycle and play ball. At times they seem a bit off balance, and, like Naomi, they have a tendency to bump into objects and people.

Visual-motor deficits. Due to right-brain neurological weaknesses, students with NVLD have trouble processing visual images such as the shapes of numbers, letters, and geometric forms. [Despite some initial confusion with letters, they are able to take huge strides in reading due to their flair for language, a skill anchored in the brain’s left hemisphere.]

Their fine-motor deficits include difficulties eating with cutlery, tying shoelaces, drawing, cutting, pasting, writing, and copying from the blackboard. Writing tasks are excessively painstaking and frustrating, as these children have problems learning how to form the shapes of numbers and letters.

Students with NVLD are able to focus and pay attention when the teacher gives instruction, but they have trouble processing visual-spatial cues from graphs, maps, and charts.

Communication. Experts in the field of communication believe that 65-70 percent of all information is conveyed nonverbally – with body language, facial expression, pauses and silences. Due to neurological deficits in the right hemisphere, students with NVLD often misread social cues. They seem oblivious to others’ needs and wishes. They do not wait for an opportune moment or pause to speak up or join a conversation. They may stand too close to others or speak too loudly.

Students with NVLD also tend to be overly “concrete” and literal. Children like Naomi do not understand abstract sayings such as “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” These children often miss the deeper meaning of conversations, especially jokes and puns. They don’t “get it.”

Reading Comprehension. As students advance through elementary and high school, scholastic demands intensify, particularly the need to comprehend the deeper meanings and nuances of literature. Rote memorization and retention of facts cannot substitute for deductive reasoning and critical thinking. NVLD students begin to lose their edge in reading and their skills decrease, as they get older.

Social Skills Deficits. Adults place a lot of pressure on their “little professors” to perform. Students with NVLD want to please others, and become anxious when they cannot do what is expected of them. They have no idea why others often find their behavior annoying. Adults may see their interactions as a deliberate ploy to gain attention, without understanding that these children’s right-brain deficits prevent them from comprehending social expectations.

When parents, teachers, and classmates misunderstand the deficits associated with NVLD, it can lead to anxiety and depression in children struggling with challenges they cannot identify.

Some students with NVLD are seen as openly defiant, and are placed in classrooms for children with emotional and behavioral disorders. But NVLD is not the same as an emotional disorder. Behavior management therapies are not the remedial services these students need.

Intervention Strategies. If teachers are aware of the signs of NVLD, they can intervene earlier to help children who are affected. Students like Naomi who are diagnosed with NVLD, are likely to need the help of a special education teacher to strengthen their skills in writing assignments and reading comprehension.

Equally important, such children need help learning how to modulate tone of voice; how to request help from a teacher; how to initiate conversation, express gratitude or an apology; and how to engage in small talk with classmates.

Results are best when these interventions occur in the lower elementary levels when children are least self-conscious and most receptive to remediation and social skills instruction. Early intervention will also prevent the anxiety and feelings of exclusion that mushroom as the child grows.

Teachers can play a key role in the success of students with NVLD in both the academic and the social-emotional realms. By understanding and being accepting of each child, and his or her individual differences, teachers can inspire students with NVLD to believe in themselves.

Students with social disabilities can find the “unwritten curriculum” of social life at school painfully isolating. Yet these children can succeed in building friendships and experience the joy of connecting with peers if the environment is supportive. Teachers can implement some simple techniques to foster positive social experiences for the socially inept or learning disabled child.

A Place in the Circle

“Although they are often mainstreamed and thus physically present in the classroom, children with disabilities or social deficits are usually not socially integrated,” says Dr. Pamela Dixon of the University of Michigan, who is currently conducting a three-year study about the social lives of children with disabilities.

“Social integration is really a cycle,” Dixon explains. “When children don’t have positive social encounters, they often react aggressively and that further alienates other children from them.” But teachers can help break that cycle at school. Richard LaVoie, author of It’s So Much Work to be Your Friend: Helping the Child With Learning Disabilities Find Social Success (Touchstone, 2005), says the trick is to seek out what aren’t always the obvious solutions.

For instance, when a child is rejected by the other kids in class, “the teacher’s first desire may be to compel the class to accept that child right away,” says Lavoie. “But it’s almost impossible to go directly from rejection to acceptance.”

Instead, LaVoie advises, teachers should focus on teaching the child to avoid certain behaviors. For instance, don’t barge in on games, don’t interrupt, and don’t show off. Reducing behaviors that are perceived negatively should take the pressure off. “It’s okay for your student to fly under the radar for a time while you work with him on some exercises that develop social instincts and help him recognize social cues,” Lavoie says.

Kindness, Respect. Non-disabled students need to do their part as well. Making friends starts with a foundation of kindness and empathy, so it’s important to work toward a more accepting classroom by making your rules clear. Lavoie advises teachers to set the tone by taking a firm stand. “In the lower grades you can say, ‘This is my classroom and in my classroom I treat everyone with respect and courtesy. Once you walk into this room, you treat everyone with respect.'”

While this advice resonates in most yeshiva classrooms, some teachers are afraid to pull rank as advised, given society’s emphasis on egalitarianism and “kids’ rights.” But as Lavoie adds, “Remember, you’re the tallest person in the room. You have the responsibility – and the power – to set the guidelines.”

It’s Worth the Effort. There’s no doubt that tracking the social skills development of children with deficits in this area takes enormous patience and can often be frustrating. After all, watching a child struggle with something as natural and necessary as human relationships can be exasperating. But building social bonds is essential to getting children to enjoy coming to school and being receptive to learning.

“If a child feels threatened or unwanted among his peers, he is not going to be able to learn,” says Lavoie. “There are some walls that need to be torn down so people can discover each other. We all have a responsibility to make that happen so that no child is excluded or left behind.”

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded, and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, (Strategies For Optimum Student Success) servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She is a well-known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to 30 years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivas. In addition to her diversified teaching career, she offers teacher training and educational consulting services and evaluations. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

Rifka Schonfeld

Now She’s Speaking… Now She’s Not: Examining The Mystery Of Selective Mutism

Wednesday, February 18th, 2009

(Name has been changed)

Of all the various disorders and syndromes that affect children in our community, I wonder if any is as misunderstood or puzzling as “selective mutism.” Until very recently, professionals and educators just assumed that children with selective mutism were actually being silent “on purpose.” It is only within the last year or two that we have discovered that it’s really not under the child’s control.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let me describe what selective mutism is, by telling you about Chava, a 7-year-old child I am currently working with. Charming and bright, Chava seemed to be a confident and happy child as she was growing up. Her mother describes her as a “chatterbox” at home, and frankly relates that she is the “loudest” of all her six siblings. The problem began when Chava started school. That’s when Chava suddenly stopped talking. In class, she remained silent. During recess, she did not utter a word. Yet, strangely enough, when she came home at the end of the day, she was her old vivacious self all over again.

Selective mutism, therefore, refers to children who have normal verbal skills but do not talk in certain social settings. Most commonly, but not always, this means in school. In a 2002 study, Lendsey, Piacentini, and McCracken estimated that about seven of 1,000 children are experiencing selective mutism. Another study by Steinhausen and Juzi (1996) found that that the disorder generally begins in preschool and is more common in girls than boys.

What’s confusing about selective mutism is the fact that these children are fully capable of speaking and they understand language just as well as other kids do. Yet somehow they fail to speak in certain situations where it is expected of them. It’s as if they’ve suddenly become “frozen” into being unresponsive. Or, as Chava once described it to me, “It’s like the words got stuck in my toes.”

Since these children do speak up when they’re in a more relaxed environment, we have a tendency to think that they are just acting out or putting on a show. As if this was their way of making a statement. I assure you this isn’t true. I know Chava well and I’ve worked with her for quite some time now. She’s not being stubborn or chutzpadik or rude. She honestly is too frightened to speak.

Even the experts originally thought that these children were actually “choosing” to be silent in certain situations; hence they named the disorder “elective” mutism. The truth, however, is that they are forced by their extreme anxiety to remain silent and, despite their will to speak, just cannot come up with a voice. It was as recently as in 1994 that the name was changed to “selective mutism.”

How do you know if your child has this disorder or if she is just shy or withdrawn? The experts have presented us with these guidelines :

1. Does the child consistently fail to speak in specific social situations despite speaking in other situations?

2. Does the disturbance interfere with educational achievement or with social communication?

3. Has the situation lasted for at least one month or longer?

4. Are we sure that the failure to speak is not due to a lack of knowledge or comfort with the spoken language? (For example, is the child possibly silent because she has suddenly been placed in a Yiddish-speaking preschool environment while at home she speaks only English?)

5. Have we ruled out the possibility that the child is not suffering from any other language or communication disorder such as stuttering, which would naturally embarrass her enough to keep her silent?

If you’ve answered “yes” to all of these, then it might be a good idea to discuss the situation with a special educator or a child development expert. Be advised that this condition is often misdiagnosed and confused with other disorders such as autism or Asperger’s syndrome. So make sure you see someone who is familiar with selective mutism and has seen it often enough to recognize it.

Once selective mutism has been diagnosed, what next? Frankly, treatment approaches vary. They depend on the child, her age, her personality, her intelligence, and the specific nature of the disorder. Parents should be patient and tolerant, because progress is usually a slow process. But it can and does happen. Eventually, the child can learn to find her voice.


Getting back to Chava, if I may, I’ll tell you what worked for her. First, I took Chava into my office and allowed her to play to her heart’s content. It was important to build up a sense of trust in order to advance to the next level. Once I felt Chava was really comfortable, I started chatting with her. It was more like a monologue, but I persisted, never stopping to ask her direct questions or to seek some kind of verbal response. I wanted it to come naturally. Apparently, Chava felt comfortable enough after a few weeks to begin speaking on her own. But I never challenged her or demanded cooperation. Chava couldn’t be coaxed. She had to “let go” on her own.

Chava’s sessions lasted most of the summer. In September, it was decided that it would be best if she would begin to attend a new school. All of us felt that she was ready for a fresh start. We were fearful that plunging her back in to her old anxiety-provoking environment would be like taking two steps backward. We had come too far for that.

We all held our collective breaths the day that Chava bravely boarded the school bus to her new Bais Yaakov, but Baruch Hashem she did well. Of course, we alerted her teachers about the situation ahead of time, cautioning them not to demand too much communication from Chava and to handle her gently. After the first day of school, Chava’s teacher called us to say that – while she was definitely silent during the first part of the day (after all, she was entering a new school ) – by the time lunch came around she was hungry and made it quite clear to her Morah that she wanted tuna rather than peanut butter sandwiches. She did this by telling her.

Chava’s success is heartening but not every child responds as well as she did. There are other techniques that have been effectively used to encourage these children. In some cases, encouraging the child to sing or to whisper instead of speaking may be helpful.

Using hand puppets where it appears that the puppet is speaking and not the child, has also been proven to be effective. Any sort of verbal response, no matter how slight, should be warmly praised.

It’s important not to create a scene by applauding any signs of progress. Making a major announcement like, “Look kinderlach, Chava is asking a question for the first time by exclaiming “Yaaayy, Chava,” will only draw attention to the original problem and may prove to be counterproductive.

Contrary to popular expectations, children suffering from selective mutism don’t necessarily grow out of it or improve as they get older. That’s why diagnosing and treating this condition early on is so important. Also, as time goes on, the selective mutism tends to become self-reinforcing. Meaning that after a while, most people come to expect the child not to speak. They get used to it. Eventually, they stop initiating conversations and refrain from verbal contact. This makes the prospect of change even more difficult.

As parents, here’s how you can help. First of all, get help – the sooner the better. Also, never try to force a child with selective mutism to talk. This will result in greater levels of anxiety, which means it will only be harder to treat the condition. On the other hand, you don’t have to stand on the sidelines like helpless bystanders. There are certain things you can do to speed the recovery process.

Number one, establish a safe and secure home environment for your child. Express warmth, support, and encouragement whenever possible. This will help lower the anxiety and allows your child to build confidence and trust.

Also, do some detective work. Search for clues on which settings and situations are the most difficult and which are easier. For example, maybe your daughter feels more at ease when sitting on a certain favorite chair in school or when a specific adult (perhaps a parent) is present in the room. Does she seem more relaxed when there is soft music playing or when she has a beloved doll in her arms? These are clues that, together with therapy, can help your child achieve her goals.

We’ve come a long way from the days when we thought that children who were silent in school were just being obstinate or annoying. We don’t blame them or accuse them of being uncooperative, any more than we would blame a child for having any type of medical or psychological condition. Instead, we deal with it.

The good news is that we are living in a time when extensive research on children’s social and academic behavior constantly offers us new and significant insights into their development. With Siyata D’Shmaya, and the right shliach to guide you, your child can learn to talk no matter where she is and where she goes.

Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld founded, and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. She is a well known and highly regarded educator, having served the community for close to 30 years. As a kriyah and reading specialist, she has successfully set up reading labs in many schools and yeshivas. In addition to her diversified teaching career, she offers teacher training and educational consulting services and evaluations. She has extensive expertise in the field of social skills training and focuses on working with the whole child. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 (KIDS).

Rifka Schonfeld

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/family/parenting-our-children/now-shes-speaking-now-shes-not-examining-the-mystery-of-selective-mutism/2009/02/18/

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