New York – Recently there has been much discussion about the pervasive problem of Jewish teens that are at risk. These are the kids you see hanging around street corners, getting into to trouble and dropping out of our yeshivah system.
Unfortunately what may have been a unique occurrence just twenty years ago is becoming a common scenario whether you are yeshivish or chassidish.
Today, there isn’t a person who doesn’t know someone who as at risk, be it their own child, a cousin, or a kid that lives on their block.
As a marriage and family therapist that has spent over 10 years responding to at-risk issues through parenting classes, counseling, and running mentoring programs, I have several thoughts about this issue.
In my book “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach” I tell the story of a boy named Moshe who had been kicked out of three schools before his parents brought him to me for therapy. Desperate, exhausted, and on the edge of despair, his parents asked me for a “magic pill” for Moshe’s at -risk behavior. I thought deeply about their dilemma and offered the following response: “The magic pill for at-risk behavior is building a relationship with your child. Independent of what you are going through and how far he has gone astray, you need to go the extra mile to make sure they know you care and you will always be in their life.”
To state the point more clearly, I told these parents about a simple formula I created that states I=QR, where Impact (I) is directly proportional to the Quality of Relationship (QR) you develop with your child. The more relationship, the greater impact you will have in their life.
Unfortunately, the message Moshe’s parents got from our yeshivas, is quite different. I think it reads like this: T+C=HR, where Tuition + Conformity = High Revenue. Unfortunately children who don’t conform, or parents who can’t pay full tuition, will be the first korbonos of a yeshiva system that places money and obedience before the needs of parents and their children.
In general our yeshiva system has become too elitist and too inflexible to meet the needs of a growing percentage of Jewish children.
Let me be perfectly clear: most yeshivas today only want to accept kids who are known as APKs or Auto Pilot Kids. They expect that children will be able to sit in large classrooms (25-30 per class) listening to one Rebbe, chap the gemarah after one lecture, and rely little on the teacher for their personal, intellectual, or emotional needs.
The truth is that a large and growing percentage of our children don’t fit this mold. Many require individual attention, smaller classrooms, lessons and homework sheets suited to their needs, and a Rebbe that cares more about them than their marks. Many of our children need personalized attention, visually-based instruction (like slides or power point presentations), and Rebbes that are able to complement and bond with children who don’t necessarily fit the mold. Our yeshivas mistakenly offer an education that doesn’t reflect the dictum “Chanoch leNoar lifee Darcho” – to educate a child according to their way; rather, they maintain its “lifee Darcheinu” meaning “it’s our way or the highway.” So a significant proportion of Jewish children are rejected and find themselves out of the schools they need and onto the streets.
Unlike 50 years ago when the street was still safe and the fabric of society was strong, our children – especially those at risk – quickly become sucked into a virtual shturem of popular culture that exists on billboards, storefronts, on cell phones, and in our homes via the Internet.
Who is to blame?
I would find it difficult if not disingenuous to blame our children for their problems. It would be akin to blaming a baby for having colic or a accusing a first grader of not being able to read when they have been diagnosed with dyslexia. The bottom line is that since our yeshivas are unable to respond to the individual needs of their students, they have pushed out countless numbers of neshamos – and families – into despair because they don’t fit into their system.
I believe that we have failed our youth and not the other way around. Unfortunately, teenagers often don’t see the link between their actions today and the consequences tomorrow. They have the mindset that they are indestructible and immune to the problems that others experience. Worse, some of these teens who are removed from our yeshiva system will experiment with alcohol or drugs and stop, or continue to use occasionally. Others will develop a dependency and will end up causing significant harm to themselves, their families, and Jewish society.
As their situation spirals downhill, many of these rejected teenagers are diagnosed with clinical depression. If left untreated or ignored, it can be a devastating illness for the teen and their family. If allowed to continue, depression can lead to attempts at suicide. These teens also find themselves without social supports, adequate nurturing from parents, and the ability to function in school settings.
When teens break away from their families and schools they also find more opportunities to become involved in socially unacceptable activities. Peers have tremendous influence among their fellow teens and a youth’s behavior is often dictated by whether their peer group is involved in drugs, inappropriate relationships and other forms of antisocial behavior.
The more of these factors that are present in a teen’s life, the more likely it is that he or she will become involved in problem behavior. And the more likely they will eventually find themselves in dysfunctional relationships and difficult marriages.
The challenge our yeshivas are facing is to provide nourishing environments so that all of our children – whether they are Auto Pilot Kids or not – can be hopeful regarding their futures. Prevention programs must be developed with young children before they become involved in antisocial groups and leave our precious traditions and community for the outside world.
There are steps that our yeshivas can take to remedy the situation. In my work with teens and with help from the experts, I have found that a teen’s life can undergo a turnaround. A famous American general, statesman and popular public speaker, made a C in high school and later went on to achieve his undergraduate and master’s degrees. A frum principle in a public school in the Bronx took his low achieving school from the bottom to the top in district test scores. A teen with a C average and a 14 on her ACT test graduated from college and has a lucrative career.
These examples show that underachieving children can make a significant contribution to our school and communities. If they do not receive help to help themselves, they could be stuck in a corner in life. Let us get them out of that corner and into our yeshivas and on to a successful life of Torah and Mitzvos.
In order to change the situation, I propose a 12 point plan to transform our yeshivas and include parents as active participants in their child’s future:
1. School principals or Rosh Yeshivas need to communicate their love and acceptance for all their students. They can request the highest levels of standards for their institutions, but when facing children who are not achieving their potential, they need to reach out to them with unconditional love and acceptance. Then, they should take each child’s case as their own and seek out more information about why they are falling behind.
2. Teachers need to receive a little sensitivity/awareness about how to relate to teens that don’t conform. Many would also benefit from learning relationships skills on how to offer their difficult students space to be themselves, and a classroom where they can feel comfortable. They need to take extra care with at-risk kids and treat them as they would treat their own children if they were struggling in school or at home. Often, just a few minutes of warm relationship-focused talk with a teacher can instill a sense of hope, dignity and improve self-esteem.
3. Schools need to create a second track where students who find gemarah difficult can study other practical subjects where they can learn important life skills that will lead towards employment and opportunity. Such programs include technical skills, graphic arts, business and computer skills. When students find satisfaction in learning they will be more interested in maintaining their connection to their schools, families, and communities.
4. Tutoring programs – Academic weaknesses should be identified before they turn into problems and more personalized tutoring experienced must be organized. Many who receive effective tutoring early on can show significant improvement in a relatively short amount of time.
5. Monitor and learn of any at risk issues early on such as depression, ADHD, or family issues and get help, if needed, for the teens at risk.
6. Instill confidence along with loving discipline. Give deserved praise only, without showering teens with praise. Make teens take responsibility for own actions and discipline wisely but not so harshly that children feel rejected and abandoned by the system.
7. Each yeshivah needs to appoint a Rebbe who is trained as a pseudo professional by senior Mechanchim and psychologists to know how to identify and intervene with at-risk issues.
8. When the situation seems unsolvable, school administrators need to request that teens and their parents work with trusted and capable psychologists or marriage and family therapists to help them work through their issues, improve communication, and find ways to improve their relationship, and increase attachment, love and bonding.
9. Parents of children who are at risk must be invited by schools to attend parenting classes by qualified Rabbeeim and psychologists who are able to spot negative patterns of interaction and intervene when necessary.
10. Monitor video and computer time. Make a joint decision about time for homework and other activities. If the teens at risk participate in the decision, a better feeling about choices should result.
11. Know the teen’s friends. If the underachiever hangs out with others who think getting good grades is not “cool,” talk with the teen about success, pointing out that being different is a challenge worth undertaking.
12. Love, listen, and motivate – Parents need to spend quality time with their underachieving teens at risk. Getting the teen to talk with parents and listening attentively, can open many doors. Learn what motivates the teen, and show that your love is constant. Give hugs.
I firmly believe that through adopting these key steps and engaging principals, Rosh Yeshivas, community leaders, and parents in a meaningful discussion, we can change the deteriorating situation and possibly save a generation of teens who can become productive members of our community. We need to communicate to our children that they are never “beyond reach.” Changing our yeshiva system is a good place to start.
Rabbi Daniel Schonbuch, MA, is a marriage and family therapist and maintains a private practice in Brooklyn. He is the author of “At Risk – Never Beyond Reach”. To receive a free copy or to make an appointment call 646 428 4723, email: [email protected] or visit www.JewishMarriageSupport.com