SHEMESH Introduces Social Skills and Academic Readiness Services to Preschools


Aviva Weisbord, executive director of SHEMESH, will never forget the story of a young child in a Jewish preschool, who was biting other children in the class.

The teacher had tried everything and didn’t know what to do. The school, meanwhile, was at wit’s end, concerned it could no longer accommodate the youngster. The director approached the parents, suggesting they find a better fit.

The response was swift. If their child left, the parents explained, they would no longer feel comfortable as members of the synagogue.

“It became clear we needed to do something,” explained Weisbord. “We do not want to lose children to Jewish education, and we do not want families to leave congregations because they feel they aren’t wanted.”

That something – a germ of an idea – would soon become SHEMESH’s newest initiative. This winter this Associated program, which provides educational support for Jewish children with learning differences, began working with two Jewish preschools – The Goldsmith Early Childhood Center at Chizuk Amuno Congregation and the E.B. Hirsch Early Childhood Center at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation –offering behavior, social skills and academic readiness support to teachers and preschoolers.

Michelle Gold, director of Goldsmith is grateful for the assistance.

“In the past we have used SHEMESH for professional development workshops for our preschool teachers. We now have the opportunity to have individualized classroom support. They worked with staff to set up an environment that supports different learning style,” she says.

“Preschools often don’t have social workers or psychologists on their staff,” Gold adds. “Most just have a director. SHEMESH is able to provide us with the resources and the ideas to support even the more challenging children. If we can support our children when they are young, they are more likely to be successful moving forward.”

For Gold, this is the first step in what she hopes to be a long-lasting partnership. As the school year ends, she plans to work with her teachers to think about setting up their environment for success and creating a thoughtful, intentional space for our children.

“We would love to increase our services in the preschools,” adds Weisbord. “We want these organizations to think of us to help them when dealing with various behavioral and learning issues that can affect their future.”

This year, as SHEMESH celebrates its 10th anniversary, its expansion into preschools is one of the many initiatives the organization has implemented. In the past decade, they have provided professional development to over 150 teachers year and offered reading intervention, speech, language and other services to 600 students per year at 10 Baltimore Jewish day schools.

When executive functioning became prevalent, SHEMESH’s Sarah Ottensoser became an expert on this disorder which makes it difficult for individuals to organize and prioritize their time and materials. They’ve brought in nationally renowned speakers who shed a light on trends. And, they’ve partnered with outside organizations, like CHADD, providing a monthly support group for parents of children with attention issues or poor executive functioning.

Yet, most important, they’ve shifted the narrative of how the Jewish community thinks about learning differences.

“Jewish day schools are taking children they never would have taken because they know we can help them. Students no longer feel the stigma of being different.

In fact, I remember when we first began operating learning centers in the day schools. Students would leave the school, go around the building and slip into a back door if they needed services. Today, these students are calling their friends to go into the learning center and see what they do.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Sanders, principal, Bais Yaakov Lower Elementary, has seen the impact SHEMESH has made on the students during the past 10 years. During that time, they provided professional development for the teachers and offered reading, behavioral and speech and language services to the students.

“When children come to our school with learning differences, we have the support of SHEMESH, “says Rabbi Sanders. “Not only do we see academic, social and emotional benefits, but our students gain self-confidence in their abilities. This confidence impacts their commitment to Judaism.”

For Weisbord, it’s The Associated that she is forever grateful for recognizing the importance of addressing learning differences in the Jewish community.

“It’s a tribute to The Associated that 10 years ago they said, ‘we have to take care of these kids.’ They are so committed to these children; I am thankful every day.”

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