Photo Credit: Jewish Press

It was the third time in one week that Yossi was sent to the principal’s office. Each time he had been cited for creating a disturbance in the lunchroom or some other generally unacceptable social behavior. This time was no different.

The principal did what most principals would do in a similar situation: He notified Yossi’s parents, warning them that if the behavior continued, the school would be forced to take strong disciplinary action. In the meantime, Yossi was given detention and sent back to class.

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This is a typical scenario in many schools. Children misbehave, and disciplinary action is swift and decisive. However, this response assumes that a child knows how to behave in a given situation. Many times, though, there has been no formal instruction in how to act in particular circumstances, and the child is caught in a situation where he does not have the tools he needs to improve his behavior.

We teach our children skills – how to add, how to read, and how to write. But we forget that we must teach them social skills and character development as well for them to be successful in their daily interactions with other children and later in life.

Good middot (character traits) are not something acquired by osmosis. Nor are they something which can be presented one week or one day and then forgotten the rest of the year. Rather, teaching middot is an ongoing process which a day school or yeshiva curriculum must revolve around. It must be the focal point or nucleus of the entire school.

Why do we assume that children should know how to behave in any given situation? Teachers presume that these appropriate behaviors are learned without effort, and that children somehow pick up these skills. But how do we know this? Perhaps students lack the know-how to acquire these skills by themselves. Perhaps schools should teach proper social skills and character development through role-playing. Perhaps Yossi was just never taught how to act in certain situations; thus his unacceptable behavior.

Many day schools and yeshivot have realized this void in the educational curricula of their schools, and have taken definitive action to correct this situation. Books and curricula have been published involving not only the children but also the parents. As with any program, if you can involve the parents as active participants, then the chances of success increase exponentially. Too often the parents are also lacking in these basic social skills, and therefore by teaching the parents through their child, the school is effectively changing the behavior of the parents as well.

I can recall one such lesson that we taught our students. The children, in line with the chesed program in our school, were taught how to behave when visiting the sick or making a shiva (condolence) call. First, they were taught that these mitzvot are incumbent upon everyone and that although it is uncomfortable, Jews have the obligation to visit people who are ill or to express condolence during the very trying times in others’ lives.

The second part of the lesson dealt with the reality of performing the mitzvah. How do we behave in these situations? How long do we stay when visiting the sick? When do we visit? Is it always wise to actually visit a person when they are sick, or perhaps a simple phone call might be more appreciated? Maybe the person who is ill does not want any visitors. Maybe he would feel embarrassed to receive people given the state that he is in. By giving students a clear plan as to how to behave and solid answers about what to expect, they have the necessary tools to cope with the situation, act appropriately, and consequently achieve a level of maturity necessary for social acceptance.

All this was accomplished through a simple lesson and some pre-planning. Rather than assuming the students would know how to conduct themselves, we spelled it out for them. As a result, there were no behavioral issues on the chesed trip we arranged.

The same is true with teaching positive attributes – middot tovot. But it is not just the teaching that is important, rather the inculcating of these attributes into the very psyche of the child so that it becomes second nature. In order for that to happen, the teachers must buy into the program and act as role models for implementing these middot.

Perhaps when Yossi got into trouble it would have been more prudent of the principal to discuss his behavior with him and outline different strategies and options that were available and the possible results of these actions. Perhaps Yossi was simply never taught how to behave and that lesson was all he needed.

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Rabbi Mordechai Weiss has been involved in Jewish education for the past forty-six years, serving as principal of various Hebrew day schools. He has received awards for his innovative programs and was chosen to receive the coveted Outstanding Principal award from the National Association of Private Schools. He now resides in Israel and is available for speaking engagements. Contact him at ravmordechai@aol.com or 914-368-5149.